By Dick Snyder
It was the 48th annual observance of the Manzanar Pilgrimage and the 25th anniversary of Manzanar — a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans — being designated a National Historic Site. It also was the observance of the 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, calling for the internment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent. And it was the 100th day of the Donald Trump presidency.
Roosevelt signed Order 9066 about five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Manzanar, the first of 10 internment camps, held 10,000 internees on a 6,200-acre site.
On April 29, an estimated 2,000 people gathered for the annual pilgrimage to the site. This year’s theme was “Never Again, to Anyone, Anywhere!”
Most of the participants came from the Los Angeles area, about a 4½ – hour drive. Manzanar is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, along US 395 between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence.
The participants included survivors of the camp and some born at Manzanar. It also included significant numbers of college-age students of Japanese descent from several California universities. Some called it a time to reunite with family spirits.
Parallels between the attitudes 75 years ago and today are “stunning,” said Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee.
Asmaa Ahmed of the Council of American-Islamic Relations agreed. “There is a parallel between the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese and presidential action banning immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries,” she said. “It is the same formula — fear.”
Civil rights activist Alan Nishio, who was born at Manzanar, was given the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.
While Japanese-American citizens were being incarcerated during World War II, he said, “those who knew better chose to remain quiet. Except for the Quakers.
“This is a time when things matter,” he said.
His words sounded similar to a teaching by the late Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning: “The church’s greatest sin is complacency.”
Keynoter at the event was Warren Furutani, a former member of the California Assembly and co-founder of the Manzanar Committee. His grandparents and his father were forced to leave their home for the camp with 48 hours’ notice during World War II.
He recalled the living conditions in the camp. Reconstructed barracks at Manzanar provide a glimpse of that — thin wooden walls to protect as they could from the cold winds and the heat.
“Feel what it must have been like,” he said. Family privacy within the barracks “depended on the sheets” hung to divide the living spaces.
The euphemistic titles for the camps don’t do justice for them, he said. “They were not relocation camps, and they were not internment camps. They were concentration camps.”
A replica of a guard tower has been constructed at the site.
Furutani noted the wording on the brass plaque that was placed at the entrance to Manzanar by the State of California in 1973. The plaque is now located near the site’s visitor center.
It cites the executive order that authorized the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens into “relocation centers.”
It then says, “Manzanar, the first of 10 such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers … May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again.”
The April 29 ceremony took place on the east side of the camp boundary, near the cemetery. Approximately 135 people died at Manzanar during the war. The remains of most of them were sent to their hometowns when Manzanar closed.
The ceremony each year includes an interfaith service that some years involves Episcopal clergy. This year, the leaders were of Shinto, Buddhist and Christian denominations.
A large obelisk is located on the cemetery grounds. Each family in the camp is reported to have contributed 15 cents to purchase cement for the memorial, constructed by the camp’s residents in 1943.
The characters on it translate to “soul consoling tower” or, more generally, to “memorial to the dead.”
The entire site is now maintained by the National Park Service. Last year, 105,000 people visited the site — a record that looks like it will be surpassed this year, said Bernadette Johnson, superintendent of the site.
Patricia Biggs, a park ranger, called Manzanar “an intense place to work.”
In an article for the Manzanar Committee, she wrote that “every day, at least one visitor (usually more) tells me that he/she is worried that the same racist, knee-jerk reaction discriminating against a minority group is happening again.”
More information about Manzanar National Historic Site can be found at www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm.
More information about the Manzanar Committee can be found at www.ManzanarCommittee.org.
The Rev. Dick Snyder is senior correspondent for Episcopal Journal. He is a prison chaplain in Carson City, Nev.