By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
My first time visiting Manzanar was a very different type of experience than that of most people these days. It was over a decade ago, sometime after the first Gulf War, when a friend and I were going up to Yosemite to go rock climbing by way of the 395 highway. I remember sitting in the passenger seat and seeing a small hut (one of the bullet-pocked sentry posts) on the side of the road that sparked my memory of the camps. When we stopped to investigate I was amazed that I had “found” the camps in that desolate stretch of desert highway. No markers lined the road; no real signs marked the site. We were alone there with the dust, the wind, and our own thoughts, contemplating the emptiness and wretchedness of that place and the incarceration that occurred there. Remembering a faint memory of pictures I had seen, I walked through the stone foundations for hours and found the memorial marker and graves of the dead who had died in camps. I offered my thoughts and my respects. Under the biting sun, the open emptiness of that land brought up emotions of bitterness and rage, as I realized what a terrible outrage had been visited upon us those many years ago.
In the years to pass, I visited Manzanar again, this time on the pilgrimage as part of student delegations with the Nikkei Student Union on campus. One of my strongest memories from those trips was when a friend of mine brought a group of us out back behind the memorial and showed us the broken dishes that were there. From what I understand when they closed the camps, they didn’t know what to do with all the dishes that the Nikkei had used, and felt that no one would want to use dishes that a “Jap” had used. So they dug a hole, put all the dishes in a truck, drove the truck into the ditch, and buried the dishes and the truck whole, like a dirty secret of the past. Fifty years later, almost in conjunction with the 50th memorial of the opening of the camps, the winds of Manzanar unearthed the dishes, as if to say that you cannot bury the truth forever. It was as if the ghosts of Manzanar had whisked the dust away to bring forward their whispered story.
Later as a member of the 50-500 Committee I would revisit Manzanar again, in a much more personal way. Formed in 1992, the committee commemorated both the 50 years since the opening of the camps, and the 500 years since the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, and the subsequent colonization of the indigenous people. The committee, under the leadership of Mo Nishida, would run over 200 grueling miles from Los Angeles to Manzanar, in honor of our ancestors incarcerated in the camps. The run served to give us, through the intimacy that we developed with the land, a visceral understanding of the hardships that they faced while in Manzanar. Additionally, along the way, we paid tribute to the Native American peoples of this land and remembered their dispossession and forced relocations as well. Through all of these experiences Manzanar has become a recurring theme in my life, like a touchstone of sorts.
This last pilgrimage was also sort of a marker of sorts. Much as I had come of age around the memory of the camps, Manzanar itself, in a way, came of age with its designation as a national historic monument this year. I was amazed at the sheer number of people who came this year, and at the diversity of race and age of those in attendance. Some of the speakers talked abut the difficulties and politics involved in getting the national historic designation, and spoke of how the touted economic benefits of tourism had trumped the neighboring communities’ racism. The museum exhibit itself (which both leads into and out of a small store) seemed to be relatively nuanced in its portrayal of the camps.
The news of the designation even merited a front page cover in the L.A. Times complete with a picture of Buddhist ministers in front of the memorial. In disagreement with other columnists, I feel that it was a great photo, considering how many Nikkei are Buddhists, and considering how in Japan, about 84% of Japanese observe both Shinto and Buddhist practices. The only people that should really be concerned about this photo are the Christian fundamentalist zealots who, in “gracing” the pages of the Rafu Shimpo, have shown little to no respect for other people’s faiths.
Yet in seeing the legitimization of the camps under the national park service and the Disneyland-like atmosphere of the National Park Service’s setup (“Look ma, prisons!”), I couldn’t help but think that while the national historic designation has provided some sort of national recognition of the travesty of the camps, that its being used to reinforce a national myth that goes something like this: “Yes, the camps were wrong and a gross violation of your civil rights, but we did apologize and give you redress, so isn’t America great?”
In fact, America is not great right now. Its actions in summarily holding many people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent without counsel and proper representation following 9-11 were a travesty of civil rights. Its passage of the PATRIOT Act and its constraining of civil liberties in the U.S. is atrocious, and indicative of a despotism that would have our “founding fathers” turning in their graves. Our actions in waging war against Afghanistan, when those responsible for 9-11 were probably not the Taliban, but a small group of Al-Qaeda extremists, was a thinly disguised grab for control of the resources in that region. Our pre-emptive war in Iraq without any provable cause was nothing less than an invasion and complete disregard for another country’s sovereignty in the service of the oil companies’ interests. We have trampled on our civil rights at home and disregarded human rights abroad. How can we in all honesty be proud of what our country is doing in our name and has been doing going all the way back to camps like Manzanar?
Manzanar has now become a symbol for all Americans as designated by the National Park Service. But that doesn’t mean that we as Nikkei (Japanese Americans) should relinquish our sense of what it means to us. Through our sacrifices and those of our ancestors, we have been entrusted with a charge to uphold a higher sense of what this country should be about. The indignation of our wartime incarceration is a call to our community to recognize the lunacy of war and a challenge to work for a lasting peace based on mutual respect among nations abroad, and cooperation and understanding at home. We, of any community, are most entrusted with this charge. It is our duty and obligation to those who died in the camps and who suffered in the incarceration.
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