Remembrance and Ritual: The Manzanar Pilgrimage Experience

Buddhist and Christian ministers say prayers and chants during the interfaith service at the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

They came from miles around. From San Diego, from the San Gabriel Valley, from Sacramento, even Seattle. They came here like they have every last weekend of April, to convene in this special, even sacred, spot in the desert.

They were for the 45th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, to pay homage to the 10,000 Japanese Americans who were uprooted from their everyday lives in Southern California and elsewhere, to live here in the seemingly remote expanse of the Owens Valley, against their will, from 1942 to 1945.

The pilgrims were surviving former internees themselves, who were here as babies, children, teens and young adults, and are now senior citizens. They were family members of former internees, they were fellow Japanese Americans, they were college students, human rights activists, history buffs, Eastern Sierra locals, and even punk icon Henry Rollins.

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The Pilgrimage kicked off with a Friday evening reception at the nearby Eastern California Museum, but the main event was a two-hour Saturday noontime program on April 26 which took place right on the grounds of the Manzanar National Historic Site, adjacent to the camp's cemetery, regarded as the most sacred part of the site.

Several hundred visitors convened under a large tent which faced a small stage. The pilgrims were afforded with a picturesque view of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which had just received a dusting of snow the night before, and of the iconic soul consoling tower obelisk that rises in the center of the cemetery area. For an area known for either its blistering heat or shivering cold, the weather was extremely favorable on this day: a sunny, though very windy, upper 70s.

The Manzanar Pilgrimage formally began in 1969 when a group of 150, mostly third-generation Japanese American college students, and joined by a handful of former Manzanar internees, came here on buses, in the month of December, no less, to better connect themselves with their own history. Subsequent Pilgrimages were scheduled in late April -- when the weather is much nicer, and at the start of the Eastern Sierra fishing season, when many others visit the area.

The Pilgrimage program ritualistically happens as it has for the past several years: Speeches from members of the Manzanar Committee, the Pilgrimage's organizers, comments from notable guests, student organizations, and a keynote speaker (this time around, University of Hawaii professor Dr. Eileen Tamura, who spoke about Joseph Kurihara, a Japanese American who valiantly fought for the U.S. Army during World War I, only to find himself sent away to Manzanar for the duration of the next war). There were awards given to notable community members, and a taiko drum performance from a UCLA student ensemble.

During the program, one of the hosts asked the crowd how many were here at the Pilgrimage for the first time. Over a third of the crowd raised their hands, myself included. A number of my Japanese American friends had gone to previous Pilgrimages, I had always wanted to see what it was all about. Though I'm not of Japanese heritage myself, I did think it was important to be here, as a fan of aficionado of history, as an admirer of the Owens Valley, as a person of Asian heritage, as someone who grew up in the immigrant experience, as a Californian, as an American.

The 45th Manzanar Pilgrimage was significant for several reasons -- 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the National Historic Site's interpretive center. But on the minds of many at the Pilgrimage was the current issue of LADWP's proposed Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project (covered in Transpacific Routes in January). Manzanar Committee co-chair Bruce Embrey, whose late mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, was one of the founders of the Pilgrimage, spoke passionately during the formal program's closing remarks about the threat of the 1,200-acre industrial energy facility, its impact on the aesthetic, ecological and cultural value of the area, and the current call to action to fight against it.

Hank Umemoto, a former Manzanar internee, walks toward the stage as banners are held up in the background representing the ten World War II internment camps and the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

Afterward, there was a "roll call" and parade of representatives who carried large banners representing the 10 internment camps and the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, the troop of Japanese Americans who fought under the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Former Manzanar internee Hank Umemoto recited a poem on American inclusion, diversity, and harmony.

The crowd moved from the large canopy area to the cemetery where a solemn interfraith ceremony, conducted by Buddhist and Christian ministers, gathered for prayers, offerings, chants and supplications.

The program ended on an upbeat note, with traditional ondo dancing, as the folk songs "Tanko Bushi" and "Ichi Tasu Ichi" played on the speakers while a number of attendees of all ages danced in a circle on the dusty desert floor.

The Arai family fish pond in Manzanar's Block 33, filled with water for the first time since 1945.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

Some guests went back home, while others stayed on the grounds for guided tours of the national historic site, conducted by docents and national park rangers. The highlight of my tour was seeing an excavated and restored garden fish pond, built by the Arai family, in Block 33 filled with water for the first time since 1945.

Other Pilgrimage visitors hung around to reflect and evoke family ties. Mariko Ryono, a nonprofit consultant from Torrance, made her first-ever visit to Manzanar during this year's Pilgrimage to share family stories with her husband and children. Her grandfather's family, who originally lived in the Japanese American community that once existed in Terminal Island in the Los Angeles Harbor, was interned here. She explained that her grandfather, Chikao Robert Ryono, was not incarcerated the camps due to attending dental school in Pennsylvania during the war, but his parents and siblings were all sent to Manzanar.

"I just want my sons to be here. There's no substitute to actually being here. Standing in this actual place gave a lot of significance," Ryono said. "The land has its own energy that communicates the history, I really appreciate that."

Bernadette Lovato, the incoming superintendent of the national historic site who officially starts her new post in June, was here at the Pilgrimage to not just get acclimated to her new job, but to immerse herself in the experience.

"I'm extremely humbled to be part of the stewardship of the site. It has an important story to tell, a piece of history that certainly needs to be told," she said. "The purpose of the National Historic Site is to ensure that we won't go down that path again."

Former internee Arthur Ogami shares some of his Manzanar experiences with college students at the Manzanar At Dusk program in nearby Lone Pine.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

Later in the evening, the activities moved some 10 miles south to the town of Lone Pine, where the Manzanar At Dusk program commenced at the town's high school gym. Started in 1997 as a more intimate way to experience the Pilgrimage, guests broke off into small groups where former internees shared their stories and experiences of life inside the confines of the camp.

"It's important to honor the sacrifices of the iseis (first generation) and niseis (second generation), because we would not have what we have today," said Take Takemoto of Montebello, who sat in one of the Manzanar At Dusk group discussions. Though he is also a Japanese American who grew up during the World War II years, the Japanese immigrant laborers in his native Hawaii were not placed in internment camps due to economic reasons (Japanese immigrants made up a large part of the agricultural labor force). He said that he only learned of World War II internment camps while attending a community event in Little Tokyo in the '80s, and has been attending the Pilgrimages ever since then.

Most of the evening program's attendees were college students, of different ethnicities, religions and cultural backgrounds, here to partake in a learning experience. There were even a few Muslim Americans among the students, a group that's almost as marginalized today as Japanese Americans were during World War II.

Jessica Lai, one of 15 students from UC San Diego's Nikkei Student Union organization who made the trip here, appreciated the historical and human rights aspects of her visit. "The discussion was helpful, it gave me a better idea of how it was like here at Manzanar," she said.

The next day, Dr. Tamura, the keynote speaker from the previous day's program, gave a more detailed talk on Joseph Kurihara at the National Historic Site's interpretive center.

Paul Tomita, 75, a retired rehabilitation counselor from Seattle, who grew up in Minidoka, a similar World War II internment camp located in southern Idaho, also attended the Sunday event.

"I drove down here from Washington with my wife, it's our first time here. We wanted to visit as many of the camps before we can't anymore," he said. "We only have three more camps to go -- the ones in Colorado and Arkansas."

Tomita noted the similarities of the seven internment camps he's visited so far.

"[The camps were] all the same, it's high desert, extremely cold in the winter, extremely hot in the summer. But the most common thing is the dust. The dust!" he recalled.

Tomita struck up a conversation with the more softspoken Arthur Ogami, a 92-year old former Manzanar internee from Walnut, sitting in his wheelchair in the same corner of the interpretive center that he was situated in the day before. Tomita, nearly a generation younger, pulled out one of his internment-era identification cards from his wallet to share with Ogami.

"I'm here to tell my side of how things happened at Manzanar," said Ogami, who is also a docent at the National Historic Site. "I feel I have a different experience from other residents here."

Ogami shared with me some of his stories as a young adult living in Manzanar's Block 16 and Block 34, working as an orderly at the camp's hospital, and how his father built the hospital's garden. After the war ended, his family, who had originally lived in the San Gabriel Valley, moved back to Japan, where he lived in his family's native Fukuoka for seven years, working in a U.S. military hospital during the Korean War and meeting his wife before arriving back in the country of his birth in 1953 to raise a family and work as an electronics repairman. According to Ogami's son Gene, a Claremont resident who drove him here, he has been going to Pilgrimages since the 1970s, and every year since 2000.

Even for a son of a former internee, the Pilgrimage becomes a unique learning experience.

"Growing up, my dad never really talked about life in Manzanar," said the younger Ogami. "But every time we visit here, I find out something new about his experience."

Though this was my first Manzanar Pilgrimage, this was my fourth visit to the National Historic Site. During all previous visits, I was probably one of just a handful of people on the grounds. But this time around, the multitudes of people here for the Pilgrimage turned the Manzanar site into a public space, where knowledge, stories, experiences, and emotions were shared.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at his inauguration in 1933, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Nine years later, he signed Executive Order 9066, which sent Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps. An action borne of Fear Itself.

During its time as an internment camp, Manzanar was a community. A city, even. With 10,000 people, it was the largest human settlement in the history of the Owens Valley, which is in Inyo County, the 2nd largest county in California in terms of size, yet with a population of just 18,000. Total strangers from Little Tokyo, from Boyle Heights, from Terminal Island, from the San Gabriel Valley, and even from Stockton and Bainbridge Island, Washington, were lumped together within the barbed wire fences of Manzanar. Many got along with each other, some didn't. But when all was said and done, everyone had a shared experience, albeit one borne of the freedom they were all denied for three years of their lives.

I was glad to have finally experienced the Manzanar Pilgrimage. Like my experience with the L.A. Aqueduct just a few miles away from here, it was no doubt an eye-opening, life-changing one, meeting the very people who were affected by this tragic, yet important chapter of American history.

Every time I visit the Owens Valley, I love looking at the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains. How beautiful they look in their photogenic, snow-capped splendor. How the sun's position throughout the day casts varying shadows on the same mountains that have stood for millions of years, how the sun sets behind the 14,000-foot peaks an hour before the sun actually sets against the flat horizon, and how that sunset causes the sun's rays to shine radiantly through the mountain passes like divine beams of light. It's a view I never get tired of. The mountains are breathtaking and inspiring in every glance I take.

The 11,070 men, women, boys, and girls who were confined at Manzanar saw the very same mountains, the very same shadows, the very same sunsets, the very same beams of light that I saw, day in and day out.

The only difference is, they didn't choose to come here to enjoy that view.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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