Editor’s Note: Over the course of the next couple of months, college students who participated in our annual Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive program will share their thoughts here on our web site about their experiences in the two-day, intensive, immersive, place-based learning experience about the unjust incarceration of Japanese/Japanese Americans during World War II, a partnership with the National Park Service staff at the Manzanar National Historic Site..
I was a last-minute tag-along with UCLA Nikkei Student Union’s (NSU) Cultural Awareness and Community Service (CACS) representations to this year’s Katari program at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Last year, I was planning on being involved in the virtual Katari program, but the timing didn’t work out, so I, unfortunately, had to turn down the opportunity.
I was bummed out last year because I knew I was missing out on a great learning experience, so when Ally Yamashita, a long-time friend, and a current CACS representative, reached out and asked if I wanted to go this year, I was ecstatic.
In the year between last, I took some Asian American Studies classes, talked and wrote about my grandparent’s incarceration experiences, and reflected on the lasting effects of incarceration on my family. Attending Katari seemed like the perfect opportunity to listen to more stories to dig deeper and understand more about Japanese American incarceration.
As I wasn’t involved in the planning, I had no idea what to expect going into Katari. I didn’t even know it would be that cold in Lone Pine (which led to me wearing all of the clothes I brought every day), and more so, I had no idea what I’d end up taking away from the experience.
I went in open-minded, and I can truthfully say that the weekend I spent at Manzanar exceeded any and all expectations. My life will forever be different because of my experience listening, learning, and reflecting during Katari.
When I sent the names of my relatives who were incarcerated during World War II to Manzanar Ranger Sarah Bone, I did not expect to receive the 89 documents I did. Sarah was able to locate everything from immigration records to incarceration camp yearbooks with photos of my grandparents and their siblings. Having access to these documents opened up a whole new world to my family and also my peers.
Sarah noticed in one of the immigration documents that one of my family immigration documents matched Erik Chu’s, a student from another college’s NSU who I had just met. This meant that our great-grandparents were on the same ship from Japan to Northern California in 1926. I was shocked that two absolute strangers were able to trace back a connection from almost a century ago. At that moment, Katari became much more than me trying to understand Japanese American incarceration experiences. Katari is about how the Japanese American existence is inherently intertwined and ongoing.
Another piece of the past that the documents unlocked were the incarceration records of my grandparents and my friend Ally’s grandfathers.
Ally and I have a running joke that we’re “womb mates” because our moms were friends in high school, so we have been friends our entire lives. The documents on the incarceration records revealed to us that we go back much further than this. We saw that my grandfather and one of Ally’s grandfathers were incarcerated at the Poston Incarceration Camp in Arizona, and my grandmother and her other grandfather were both incarcerated at the Jerome Incarceration Camp and then transferred to the Rohwer Incarceration Camp. The shared experiences of Ally and my grandparents during World War II, and our shared experiences today, trying to piece together our family’s past, made me feel even closer to Ally and the rest of the Japanese American community.
We’re all a part of the same journey of trying to honor our families who endured extreme hardships. We’re trying to honor the family that helped us to be where we are today. I am proud to be on this journey of navigating storytelling with my Japanese American peers, and by no means am I alone on this journey.
Aside from what the documents brought to light, the immersive programs and activities during Katari gave me a deep understanding and a fuller picture of what life was like during Japanese American incarceration. Hearing many of the stories, both oral histories from those who lived in the camps, and the stories of their descendants, broke my heart.
These stories made me so immeasurably proud to come from a community of such strong individuals, but incredibly upset that Japanese Americans had to be this strong in order to survive.
There were so many tough decisions at hand, like questions 27 and 28 on the loyalty questionnaire, and the question of whether or not to speak out and face repercussions from the government and community leaders.
There were so many instances where the Japanese American incarcerees had absolutely no say and just had to push through because there was no other option. They resisted in their existence. They resisted by maintaining their community.
After Katari, I feel incredibly empowered to keep my family’s and the Japanese American community’s stories alive. I never want their experiences and acts of resistance to be forgotten. Survivors did not fight for nothing, they resisted injustice as best as they could so future generations would have a chance at a better life. The Japanese American community, of the past and of today, does not want history to repeat itself.
I’m a proud member of the Japanese American community, and I’m just as proud to be the granddaughter of formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans who are, what I believe, to be the picture of resistance and resilience. The previous generations of my community laid the groundwork to fight against social inequalities and injustices. It is my, and my community’s, job to continue this work for the Japanese American community and all other marginalized and discriminated communities. This can never happen again, and we cannot forget the past.
Thank you to the Manzanar Committee, the National Park Service staff at Manzanar National Historic Site, and my new friends from Katari for this amazing opportunity to learn, remember, and honor. I am beyond thankful for this community. My grandparents would be so proud. For this, I am forever grateful. Thank you.
A native of Los Angeles, California, 20-year old Kaela Lavin is in her third year at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is studying Communications, Community Engagement and Social Change, and Asian American Studies. She is a member of the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: 2022-23 Katari students are shown here in the Block 14 demonstration barracks at the Manzanar National Historic Site on November 12, 2022, during a presentation on living conditions in the World War II American concentration camps. Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
Katari Program Needs Your Support
Katari, which means, to “tell stories” in Japanese, is a self-sustaining educational project that is working to bridge the generation gap that has made it much more difficult for young Japanese Americans to teach others about the unjust incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in American concentration camps, and other confinement sites, during World War II. Teaching others about this subject is absolutely critical given the current political climate.
We need your support to raise the funds necessary to defray the costs of lodging, meals, and transportation from the Los Angeles area to the Manzanar National Historic Site in California’s Eastern Sierra/Payahüünadü (Owens Valley). You can donate to our Katari program by sending a check to the Manzanar Committee, 1566 Curran Street, Los Angeles, California, 90026-2036. Please be sure to write “Katari” in the memo line on your check. Thank you!
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