On April 29 this year, my daughter Elsa and I participated in the 48th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage along with an estimated 2,000 people from all over the country. It was an emotional and inspirational journey for both of us. We had heard about the Japanese American incarceration and the Manzanar camp before. We had also recently watched the film of the powerful Broadway musical “Allegiance” by George Takei. But nothing moved us more than this visit to the actual site to learn first-hand the humiliation and suffering endured by Japanese Americans during World War II.
We boarded our bus early in the morning. The Manzanar camp is located approximately 230 miles north of Los Angeles in an inhospitable valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was the first of the ten concentration camps built after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, about two months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly afterwards, approximately 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry (70,000 of them were US–born American citizens) from the West Coast were evicted from their homes and incarcerated in various camps across the country. Their lives changed forever. They were told to report to the US Army Civil Control Administration within days or weeks after receiving the evacuation order. They had to give up their livelihood immediately and could only carry essential personal effects for each member of the family.
Approximately 10,000 people were imprisoned in Manzanar. When the families first arrived, they saw a desolate landscape surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. The hastily constructed tar paper-walled barracks where the internees were housed did not shelter them from the extreme weather—the temperatures reached 100° F in the summer and below freezing in the winter. The strong winds of the high desert blanketed the camp with dust and sand and made life even more unbearable.
What shocked the internees the most was the total lack of privacy while living in the barracks. During our visit to Manzanar, we walked around a reconstructed barrack of the living quarters and saw cots with straw-filled mattresses and a few dressers in between them. There was no other furniture in the room. The laundry was hanging along one side of the room while suitcases the internees brought with them were stacked at the corner of the room. We were told that each barrack was divided into four rooms. Any combination of eight individuals was allocated to each room. The rooms were separated by cloth partitions with no walls or doors. The internees also shared communal latrines with no partitions and showers with no stalls.
The hurt and despair suffered by the internees can be summarized by the following words inscribed on one of the mattresses in the barrack:
“When my mother got into the room, she sat down on one of the mattresses and she said, ‘My, what a place,’ and she never talked about that for many, many years afterwards.”
These words were from Sue Kunitomi Embrey who was sent to Manzanar when she was 19. After the war, she co-founded the Manzanar Committee and the Manzanar Pilgrimage and was the driving force behind the designation of Manzanar as a National Historic Site in 1992.
When the war ended in 1945, Manzanar, along with nine other concentration camps, were closed. Each internee was given $25 and a one-way train or bus ticket to leave the camp. They were left to their own devices to rebuild their lives after more than three years of unjust incarceration. The apology from the US government and monetary reparations for the former internees who were alive came in 1988, 46 years after Executive Order 9066 was first signed.
The Relevance Today
The political climate we face today has an eerie similarity to what happened to the Japanese Americans 75 years ago. At that time, Japanese Americans’ loyalty was questioned because of their ethnicity, even though there was not a single case where either a Japanese American or Japanese immigrant was found guilty of espionage. Because anti-Asian sentiments were running high on the West Coast at the time, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was used by the government as the ruse to imprison 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry without due process as required by the Constitution. “They all look the same…. A Jap’s a Jap,” said Lt. General John L. DeWitt, the Army general who recommended the internment of Japanese Americans.
Yet, for all the gross abuses of power by the US government against its own citizens, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders. Other than the Quakers, there was no outrage expressed by any other civic group in the country.
Fast forward to 2017: will the same thing happen again to Muslim Americans and other immigrant groups?
The fear-mongering anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric of then-candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign; Trump’s executive order instituting a travel and refugee ban from six Muslim-majority countries; and intensified deportation raids and policies—all make me wonder whether the dark stain on this nation’s history from 75 years ago could once again become a possibility today.
Many Muslims and immigrants are now living in fear since President Trump took office in January. The Muslim travel ban created chaos at the nation’s airports and caused stress and uncertainty in many people’s lives. In related measures against immigrants, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now picks up more individuals with minimal or no criminal records, splitting families apart with deportations of one or both parents or even of young people who were brought to the US as children and know no other home.
As citizens of this country, we need to ask ourselves, can we simply stand on the sidelines and watch the government assault the civil liberties and dignity of some of our fellow Americans? Or should we work hard to ensure that what happened to 120,000 Japanese Americans 75 years ago never happens again?
To me, the answer is obvious. That is why on April 29, 2017, I joined more than 2,000 people, many of whom were survivors of the concentration camps, at Manzanar to remember, to reflect, and to vow to work together to fight against injustice and protect the rights of all people regardless of their national origin, color, or creed. Speaker after speaker reminded people to never forget the pain inflicted on the Japanese Americans and to never allow the same thing happen again to anyone, anywhere.
I came back from the Manzanar Pilgrimage feeling reinvigorated. Now more than ever we must stand together against racism and bigotry and embrace compassion instead of fear. We shall never allow another Manzanar!