Photo by Jerome Michael
Taiko drums open the ceremony. Dressed in cobalt blue and swinging in a rhythmic dance, the drummers crack the silence with a rolling thunder. The murmur of the audience quiets. Behind them the white-capped mountains of the Eastern Sierras tumble across the sky, framing this sweltering stretch of dusty sand in Owens Valley.
The crowd has planted themselves as if at a sporting event with huge umbrellas and coolers, fold-out chairs and picnic blankets all angled toward a flat bed truck that acts as a stage. Many are well prepared and make this trip to Manzanar, the site of a World War II Japanese internment camp, each year.
Bruce Kaji takes the stage. He is the president and chairman of the Japanese American National Museum. Dressed in a bright purple Hawaiian shirt that hangs loosely on his small but stocky frame, he takes the microphone. “The program describes me as colorful. I thought I should live up to the name, so I wore this shirt,” he chuckles.
He is in good spirits as he takes the crowd on a journey back into the forties, when he was a teenager at Manzanar. “We had a jazz band that we called the ‘Jive Bombers,’ he says smiling. “Jive because we played jive-style music and bombers, well, because of the war.”
The theme for this year’s event is “Continuing the Legacy” and, like Bruce, many of the elders dot their speeches with positive memories and experiences from the camps. Their recollections are invaluable to the pilgrimage and the younger generations, who have come to learn about their history.
The effects of the internment have been far reaching, rippling out into the community in the decades following the war. During the 1960s, amid the spirit of the civil rights movement, active members of the Japanese American community kick started the pilgrimage in the hopes of bringing some clarity to the swirling confusion and grief surrounding this part of their history. The pilgrimage was constructed as a way of remembering and honoring the past, connecting future generations to their families and encouraging education to prevent such injustices from happening again.
Dr. Victor Shibata, a founding member of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, sits towards the back of the crowd, wearing a light flannel shirt and sipping water from his camel backpack. His long gray hair is capped with a hat reading YB, Yellow Brotherhood, another community group that he started for youth. For many years, he was instrumental in organizing the pilgrimage. Nowadays, he is happy to see it take on a life of its own. And that it has. Drawing a crowd of over 1,500, Manzanar comes alive every spring.
One of 10 facilities in seven states, Manzanar became a prison to 11,000 innocent Japanese Americans after the fateful passage of Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Hailed as one of the largest mass violations of civil liberties in American history, over 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent were held for three years without any charges being brought against them.
The evacuations were swift; internees were forced to abruptly leave their homes. Jobs, businesses, property, and relationships were left dangling in midstream. Though national security is often touted as the motive behind the internment, it is regarded by many historians to be economically driven. Statistics on how much was actually lost have been nearly impossible to calculate. However, a study of the 1946 census conducted by the War Relocation Authority by social scientists Broom and Riemer estimates approximately $590 million of property loss in Los Angeles alone.
“If you break it down, that’s exactly what it was about: economics,” Dr. Shibata says. “The Imperial Valley was a desert. Everyone else had given up on that land. No one else could work it. Then the Issei [first generation Japanese Americans] came in and worked hard. They pulled up boulders and started planting.”
Turning large barren areas of California into thriving farms, Japanese Americans were hugely successful in agriculture prior to the war. Yet agribusinesses in the West were strategically poised to take over the liquidated businesses and properties that were left when the Japanese were ordered into camps.
Japanese communities met a similar fate. “They destroyed entire communities like Terminal Island.” Dr, Shibata says. Terminal Island was a small fishing village in San Pedro where his family lived before the war. After the evacuation, building companies razed the village and built a shipping yard there.
The effects of the internment ran deeper still, disrupting family structures and emotionally scarring many.
“I think it was a fear that they can just take you away like that,” Dr. Shibata explains. “The camps really changed how people viewed themselves,” he says. “That fear made it so that communities no longer existed. People didn’t come out of their houses anymore.”
The events of the internment were difficult to reconcile. “The elders would say ‘Shikata ganai,’ you can’t do anything about it. They just wanted to forget it and get on with their lives. It was a hard blow to their pride,” he says, “that they didn’t fight, that they were taken away and couldn’t do anything about it.”
An unusual division occurred during internment. Where the Issei had lost all they had worked for and consequently were left in a state of uncertainty, their children, the Nisei, or second generation, had found a pleasant niche in the camps. As Bruce Kaji describes it, he felt connected. No longer a minority in school and subject to put downs and discrimination, at Manzanar he had more opportunities to get involved and make friends.
However, attempting to normalize life after the internment was difficult. “The camps broke down the traditions,” Dr. Shibata says. “It dismantled the family especially the place of the father.”
They felt helpless in protecting their families and many youth became resentful, he says.
“Young people didn’t have the guidance at home. They started looking to their fathers and saying why didn’t you stand up.”
Depressant drugs like barbiturates and heroin became a problem as well as issues of identity. Dr. Shibata remembers many friends that he lost to drugs and suicide during his youth.
To begin with they organized a pilgrimage to the abandoned site of a Japanese internment camp. Inspired by the Cesar Chavez march from Delano to Sacramento and the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. Shibata remembers the motivation to do something similar for the Japanese community. They organized a group of 150 and in December of 1969, made the journey up to Manzanar.
“In December it was cold,” Dr. Shibata says. “We weren’t thinking about that, but it was actually good that we did it in the bad weather. You really see what they went through.” The pilgrimage was a huge success, steadily growing in size with each year. This year marks the thirty-ninth consecutive year.
In 1995, Dr. Shibata and his community were able to take the concept of the pilgrimage to the next level. He began scouting out the 250-mile route from Los Angeles to Manzanar and in the spring, with a convoy of supplies in tow, a group of about 16 embarked on a true pilgrimage, running relay the entire stretch to Manzanar. The run took about 6 days with each person running a couple miles a day.
At night they camped near the route. The most important part of the pilgrimage was at night; friends would gather around the campfire and talk, opening up about life, identity, and sharing experiences. It was a profound life-changing, if not cathartic, experience for the group.
“It’s a difficult task, the struggle of the run, and we do it together so there’s that sense of unity.” Dr. Shibata says. “It became a very spiritual time. There was no meat eating. We gathered in circles in the morning and at night. We asked permission from the Paiute and Shoshone to travel through their land and once we reached the camp, we would walk to each corner and offer blessings and prays.”
This tradition is still going strong. Following the speakers today, the crowd has quietly congregated a few paces away by a striking white obelisk, inscribed with the words “soul consoling tower” in Japanese. 慰靈塔 Voices are nearly lost in the breeze moving through the valley as brief prayer and blessing ceremonies are given in the Buddhist, Shinto, Christian and Muslim traditions.
As the years have progressed, and especially after the events of September 11, the Manzanar pilgrimage has grown to include a broad scope of cultural and interfaith groups. Rev. Dr. Paul Nagano says loudly above the crowd, “A new war has brought war hysteria, racial profiling and discrimination once again. We stand by our Muslim brothers in their time of suffering.”
Hussam Alyoush, Executive Director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR), was one of many representing the Arab American community at the ceremony. He reached out to the Japanese community, saying, “We want to stand with our Japanese American citizens wishing to ensure this could never happen again. Like them, we want to remember the past and to learn from it.”
The Manzanar Committee has focused heavily on the lessons to be learned from the internment. Kerry Cababa, Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee, said, “When people come to the Pilgrimage, they are hit with the reality that this really happened and if we don’t remain vigilant, it will happen again.”
Though the possibility may seem unlikely to some, Dr. Shibata argues that the current implication are there. The fear and hysteria attached to the idea of terrorism and the manipulation of the public in the name of national security are a current reality. Dr. Shibata says, “There’s the probability of martial law. The FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] camps are already in place for something like this to happen again.”
** If you were wondering how our photojournalist got that incredible semi-aerial shot, here’s the answer to all your questions: PVC and screws.