Editor’s Note: Over the last few 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..
As a fourth-generation Japanese American, I grew up with a vague knowledge regarding my grandparents’ experiences in the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II.
Despite my curiosity as the family’s youngest member, I avoided raising the topic of incarceration camps. I thought there must be a reason why my older cousins never asked my grandparents about their experiences, and out of respect for my grandparents’ privacy, I remained silent as well. But during my senior year of high school, I finally mustered the courage to ask my grandparents to share their stories with me as a part of one of my final projects.
In search of a better understanding of my identity, I thought learning more about my family’s history would help me grasp a firmer idea of what composes my identity.
Listening to my grandparents’ stories was an eye-opening experience for me. However, their young age at the time limited what they could remember about their stories.
As revealing and impactful as my grandparents stories were, Katari was an even more eye-opening experience because I could actively engage with some aspects of camp life that they shared with me.
I have seen small-scale replicas of the incarceration camps at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. But no reconstruction can compare to physically being at Manzanar, and seeing how vast the actual camp was. Imagining what the space would look like if the buildings were still intact and the actual number of people occupying the camp makes you realize just how dire life in the camps must have been.
Attending Katari also taught me so much more about life within the camps. It never occurred to me that these people already incarcerated in what some considered “prison” camps were still being thrown in prison within the camps. It makes you realize that there were struggles within the hardships they already faced. The mistreatment of being placed in incarceration camps was just the tip of the iceberg of the adversity they encountered.
After returning from Katari, I talked with my Asian American Studies Professor, Jennifer Yee, about my experience, how I can apply what I learned in my own life, and what we had been learning in class about the Hawaiian activists and their stand to preserve the sacred land of Mauna Kea. Their activism demonstrates the noble fight to preserve their land and history despite the government threatening them.
I drew a parallel from the Mauna Kea activism to the battle to preserve Manzanar as a historic site to reclaim its history and importance for the sake of future generations of Japanese Americans. Before Manzanar was preserved as a National Historic Site, an incarcerated reverend went back to Manzanar to honor those who passed away in the camps. Upon returning there, he was not allowed to enter the site. Essentially, former incarcerees could not return to what some considered their “home.” The reverend left us with a quote that made a significant impression on me. It went along the lines of, “they used guns to keep us inside the camps, and now they face them out to keep us out.”
A native of Santa Clara, California, 20-year-old Erik Chu is in his second year at California State University, Fullerton, where he is studying Business Administration with a concentration in Management with a minor in Japanese. He currently serves as the Vice President of the CSUF Nikkei Student Union and also serves on the 2023 Manzanar At Dusk Planning Committee. He writes from Fullerton, California.
LEAD PHOTO: Katari students are shown here during a presentation in the Block 14 demonstration barracks at the Manzanar National Historic Site about how the infomous “loyalty questionnaire,” November 12, 2022. Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
The 2022-23 Katari program was funded, in part, by the George and Sakaye Aratani CARE Award from the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
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!
The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.
Please post your comment on this story below