Memories, activism and kicking up dust at Manzanar

A howling wind kicked up dust at Manzanar National Historic Site, where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II.

A racially and ethnically diverse crowd streamed out of buses and cars and meandered a mile down dusty roads to the gleaming white obelisk that marks the camp’s cemetery. It’s the heart of the annual Pilgrimage to Manzanar, which this year commemorated the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the rounding up of Japanese Americans.

Now in its 48th year, the pilgrimage, which started as a relatively informal event, this year attracted 2,000 people from all over the country.

The UCLA Kyodo Taiko drummers play April 29, 2017, during the opening of the annual pilgrimage to Manzanar (Photo: Susan Valot)

Among the pilgrims to Manzanar was Bo Sakaguchi, who was sent with his family from North Hollywood to this remote Owens Valley location in 1942, when he was 16.

Now in his 90s, Sakaguchi remembered arriving at the camp by bus as a teenager.

“It’s dusty and dirty. And we see barracks. I remember my parents discussing, ‘Well, I’m sure the government is benevolent. They won’t do anything to harm us.’ And so we went to camp,” Sakaguchi said. “Nobody objected. They didn’t object in those days. And you don’t dare. It’s wartime.”

Sakaguchi said they weren’t prepared for the winds that whipped up the dust across the Owens Valley. He said he’d be coated with dust while walking from his barracks to school at the camp. He also recalled how dust would blow in through the barrack walls and floors.

After the war, he left the camp and became a dentist in the San Fernando Valley.

He said he returns to Manzanar because it was his home for several years and he has a personal connection to it.

“Having lost a father and a brother who died here in camp,” and, Sakaguchi said, held family funerals here. “So it has a lot of memories.”

John Matsunaga came all the way from Minnesota for the pilgrimage. His parents’ families had been held in camps in Arkansas and Arizona. His mom’s stepdad was incarcerated at Manzanar.

For Matsunaga, the most inspiring part of the pilgrimage was the “Manzanar at Dusk” program at a nearby high school, where he was placed in a small group that included a former Manzanar internee, a couple of Muslim Americans, a woman whose relatives died in the Jewish Holocaust and a German who’d stopped to see what the pilgrimage was about. Matsunaga told the group that for him, the event at is not so much a pilgrimage, but a rally.

“It’s about taking that experience and using that as a way to then push me even more to become more active in resisting and challenging the kinds of discrimination and oppression that other groups are now facing.” Matsunaga, who wore a black T-shirt that showed a black-and-white photo of Manzanar, with the words, “Remember Manzanar, Defend Muslim Americans,” said it’s important to go beyond merely remembering Manzanar.

“I think there’s something productive to be done out of commemorating this past and that is fighting the oppression of other groups,” Matsunaga said.

Today, buses of Muslim Americans join the others at the pilgrimage.

“In America in general, there’s this historical amnesia that we have. So events like this are important to combat that,” said Nadia Shaiq, a Muslim-American who came to the event from LA with her husband and two children.

Shaiq pointed out the Japanese community has stood up for Muslim Americans amid the anti-immigrant rhetoric in today’s political climate, so she said it was important to be here for them.

“Really we’re here to listen and to learn and to be in solidarity,” Shaiq said. “And I think that humbleness is important when you’re building relationships between communities.”

Former California Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, who attended the pilgrimage with a group that came on a bus from California’s Central Valley, said the effects of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans rippled through generations.

Mariko Yamada and Marielle Tsukamoto stand outside of a replica of the women’s latrine at Manzanar. Yamada was born after her family was released from Manzanar. Tsukamoto was a child when she was sent with her family to another camp in Arkansas. (Photo: Susan Valot)

“This is where my political identity began,” Yamada said. She wasn’t born until well after her family was released from Manzanar, however her family’s experience drove her to a life as an activist and lawmaker.  

Yamada said her family didn’t talk about the incarceration because it was ashamed. Later in life, Yamada’s mother finally began to speak to young people about her experience and its impact.

Yamada remembers her mom being afraid to go to the bathroom because of her experience at Manzanar’s public latrines, where she had to share one of 10 toilets in an open room, with no privacy. Each trip to a bathroom would stir those memories.

“She was reminded of the indignities that she suffered here in Manzanar, having to walk the equivalent of a football field in the howling winds to do something that we take as second nature,” Yamada said, as she stood in Manzanar’s replica of a women’s latrine, telling others about her mother’s experience.

By letting people confront the past, she said Manzanar is now a place of healing.

“What was once the site of such horrible violations of civil rights can now be a beacon of hope for those who seek to understand what happened here,” Yamada said, “that we can make things better for our country.”