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..
Growing up in a tiny city in the East Bay (Northern California) there was no prominent Japanese American community that I could take part in to learn about my background. Due to being a second generation Japanese American, my parents were not born until after World War II, and they never had a meaningful relationship with my grandparents to tell their story about when they were living in Japan. When the thought of Katari was brought up, I didn’t think I would have anything meaningful to share because I am one of the very few Manzanar At Dusk Committee members that has no connection to the incarceration camps due to my family all coming from Japan. Nevertheless, my Katari experience was exciting and life-changing.
Before even getting to Manzanar, the weather itself was already showing just how gruesome it was to be incarcerated there. With such hot summers and cold winters, I couldn’t fathom the daily struggles of making it to the end of the day. My first steps onto the historical site felt almost unreal. I still could not believe that I was in one of the camps that held more than 10,000 incarcerees during World War II. All the information, the stories, and the emotions that were poured into those two days were very difficult to swallow, and I was barely managing to keep my head above water.
One of the key takeaways from those two days were the aspects of remembrance and identity.
Remembrance can have a significant impact on how the community discusses Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. By keeping the memory of this dark chapter in American History alive, it can serve as a reminder of the dangers of racism and discrimination, and can help to educate future generations about the harm caused by internment. Not only that, but it serves as a way to keep those affected alive—no one ever truly dies, as we still have memories of those who have passed. By telling these stories, by having these connections, by actively promoting these programs, and remembering the past, with the likes of Sue Kunitomi Embrey and Jim Matsuoka’s path to activism, and Dennis Tojo Bambauer and Harvey Shirai’s stories about identity, these are what keeps them alive for years to come.
Not only can we tell stories of remembrance, we can also share stories of identity. Identity is an important aspect of understanding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The internment was a violation of the civil rights of Japanese Americans, and it was based on racist stereotypes and discrimination. The internment was a direct attack on the identity of Japanese Americans, as they were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and treated as a suspect group solely based on their ethnic background.
However, it is important to note that the internment did not crush the identity of the Japanese Americans, instead, it gave rise to the resilience and determination of the community to assert and preserve their identity, culture, and heritage. Many Japanese Americans continued to maintain their language and culture in the camps, and they worked to preserve their identity in
the face of adversity. These acts of resistance became acts of righteous anger, such as the various gardens around the camp, and the uplifting graffiti that only fellow Japanese people could read.
After reflecting upon the Katari program, what I have experienced, and all of the information that I have learned and pieced together, I still felt no connection. But there was one question that dawned on me since our first committee meeting.
What story do I, a second generation Japanese American with no emotional connection to my history, have to tell when my peers have been directly affected by the tragedies set on the Japanese American people of World War II? How could I fathom ever telling a story meaningful enough, when telling stories is the definition of the program?
It’s a story of growth. It’s a story of remembrance and identity. At first, I questioned why I was allowed to be part of this program in the first place, because I have no connection to these people. But my story isn’t the same as theirs. What’s important or impactful about my story when it doesn’t involve anything about being incarcerated at all? My identity does not align with what you would expect from a typical post-war, next of kin, or descendent, but that does not make it a negative point.
This is my story, my Katari. My story IS about being different, being unique, and having a different story to tell. I may not be an in-betweener like Dennis Bambauer or my friend and peer Drew Yamamura, but I know my story can relate with others who are just like me. Even in my own hometown, I only met one single full Japanese person, and the two others were 4th+ generation kids who had almost no connection to their Japanese heritage whatsoever. I never felt alone. I just knew the communities I could find were too far away to realistically participate in.
Finally coming to CSU Long Beach (CSULB), it was an opportunity for me to finally get involved in the community, learn about other people’s stories, and their connection to their ancestors. Joining the CSULB Nikkei Student Union, becoming a cabinet member, and having the privilege to learn from others and participate in this program has really helped shape and solidify my identity as a Japanese American. The weekend I experienced was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would never be possible without the hard work of the entire Manzanar Committee, the lovely people at the Manzanar National Historic Site, and the friends and memories we made along the way.
20-year-old Kazu Asakawa, a native of San Ramon, California, is in his third year at California State University, Long Beach, where he is studying Hospitality Management. He currently serves as the Co-Cultural Chair for the CSULB Nikkei Student Union, and he is a member of the 2023 Manzanar At Dusk Planning Committee. He writes from Long Beach, California.
The 2022-23 Katari program was funded, in part, by the George and Sakaye Aratani CARE Award from the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
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 during a presentation about the Manzanar Revolt by Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey (right) in the replica mess hall at the Manzanar National Historic Site. 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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Will there be a Manzanar Pilgramage this year? Sent from the all new AOL app for Android
The Manzanar Committee has not announced details for this year’s Pilgrimage or Manzanar At Dusk programs yet, but we expect to do so within the next week or so, Keep an eye on our web site!