Note to readers:
I’m not sure I know anyone whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, but if any such person is reading this, you should know my family was not incarcerated at Manzanar, and I write only from the perspective of someone whose family was incarcerated at other camps.
On Saturday, April 29, my parents and I arrived at Manzanar for the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. My sister wanted to accompany us, but was unable to get time off from work. In the interests of preserving memories, I’ve tried to jot down some of my experiences and reflections here.
First, the logistics. Manzanar is about an eight-hour drive from my parents’ home in the Bay Area (less if you’re willing to drive over the speed limit and don’t get stuck in traffic). On Friday, we drove six hours to reach our hotel, in Mojave.* It was dusty and windy, but not as hot as we anticipated. When I wasn’t daydreaming, I was thinking about a recent conversation with Nikkei poet Brandon Shimoda** about concentration camps and the aftermath(s) of incarceration. I also wondered how different my experience of Manzanar would be/would have been if I hadn’t already been reading Nikkei writers and following Nikkei organizations on social media for some months prior to our trip.
Saturday morning, we drove two hours from Mojave to Manzanar (again, less if you’re willing to drive over the speed limit). The mountain desert landscape was (un)familiar, quite similar to what I’d see during our annual summer trips to Lee Vining and Mono Lake. Although I reread Farewell to Manzanar*** quite recently, for some reason I didn’t fully grasp Manzanar’s exact location until our visit. I was a little surprised to realize we spent so many summer weeks not far from a major landmark in Japanese American history. Even more surprisingly, during the drive my parents informed me this would technically be my second visit to Manzanar, since we once made a brief stop there when I was very young. According to my dad, the main entrance was located at Manzanar’s historic entrance, where a guardhouse still stands, and the visitors’ center had yet to come into existence. My mom recalled seeing the white memorial pillar, but not much else. Reconstruction and preservation work is ongoing at the site and I wonder how much will have changed by my next, as-yet-unplanned visit.
After parking in the front lot (there’s also parking near the cemetery and an unpaved loop for people taking the auto tour), we briefly toured the visitors’ center. My dad went to find the archaeologist currently leading one of the garden restorations, and my mom and I browsed the gift shop. Normally, archaeology interests me, but I believe the archaeologist on site that day was a white woman and I wasn’t in the mood to navigate a potentially othering conversation. It’s odd and not very pleasant to think of a white perspective dominating the restoration and reconstruction of physical elements of Japanese American history. To be fair, I don’t know if the white people on-site report to JA/Nikkei, but since Manzanar is a national historic site I assume at least some white people are involved in making the big decisions. Also, though I think this is true of US parks/historic sites in general, every ranger I saw was white. Even if the images and text of the exhibits are created and/or approved by JA/Nikkei – I mostly skimmed over the placards but I didn’t notice anything problematic, so I suspect JA/Nikkei were heavily involved behind the scenes – seeing only white faces in uniform is a reminder of who the gatekeepers really are, even or especially when it comes to (white-dominated) US government-sanctioned narratives of history. Note the ironic parallel of white people in uniform ‘guarding’ or gatekeeping sites like Manzanar in the present, and white people in uniform literally guarding incarcerated Japanese Americans at every concentration camp during the war. Some things never change? Or rather, haven’t changed yet even though they should…
Thanks to the long, slow-moving line, I had plenty of time to people-watch.**** Most of the people in the shop were either young Asian Americans or older Asian and white folks. There were also a fair number of young, non-Asian POC. Later, when I mentioned the demographics of the gift shop customers to my mom, especially my surprise at not seeing more JA/Nikkei folks, she suggested most probably didn’t feel a need or desire to purchase gifts at Manzanar. Her comment nudged me back to something I’d been pondering when we first decided to go to Manzanar – in what capacity were we making this trip?
I first learned about the Manzanar Pilgrimage when I started following the Manzanar Committee on Twitter. I’d been thinking it would be interesting to visit at least one of the camps, but I hadn’t given much thought to which one. At some point, I realized Manzanar might be my best bet because of its relative proximity to my parents’ place (when you don’t drive, these things matter). I floated the idea by my family and everybody agreed we should do it.
As the date of our departure approached, I began wondering what it meant for my family, specifically, to visit Manzanar. We were never incarcerated there and, as far as I knew, none of our relatives or friends had been incarcerated there, either. Did that make us tourists? I’m inclined to say yes and no, though I’m still thinking through it. On one hand, much of the experience felt similar to previous family road trips, where, for better or worse, our general goal was to visit places we thought might be interesting. On the other hand, Manzanar memorializes a life-changing era for thousands of JA/Nikkei (including us), a connection which sets it apart from our other family trips.
I kept, and keep, returning to the nature of this connection. I wouldn’t want any JA/Nikkei, either my own relatives, incarcerated (we think) at Topaz and Gila River,***** or those people who were incarcerated at Manzanar, to think I and other JA/Nikkei in my position who visit Manzanar are using it as a kind of stand-in for the other camps or attempting to lay some claim to the site which erases the experiences of those who were actually there. I suppose I shouldn’t speak for other JA/Nikkei, but to the rest of you who, like me, visited Manzanar but had no family there, I hope you’re all conscious and respectful of the distinction.
We eventually got to the front of the gift shop line, with just enough time to make our way to the event space. The meandering, unpaved trail reminded me of hiking through the desert brush near Mono Lake. (By the way, we found out later it’s about a mile from the visitors’ center to the event space, so if you plan to visit Manzanar and you have difficulty walking, I recommend driving the auto tour loop and parking along the road or in the back lot, if there’s space. The trail is not walker- or wheelchair-accessible.) By the time we arrived, a standing crowd was forming in a wide semicircle near the stage. There was seating under a canopy, as well as some unsheltered seating in front of the stage, and some people brought their own chairs. I assume some of the people seated had made prior arrangements, but I also saw some people in the unsheltered seating who looked like drop-in visitors, so I’m guessing there was a bit of first-come, first-served. (I highly recommend calling ahead about seating if you plan to attend the events but are unable to stand for long periods. I didn’t see any signage on site, or any notices on the Manzanar Committee website about disability accommodations, but I would hope accommodations would be made for anyone who needs them.)
Commemorative t-shirts were being sold at a couple of tables to the right of the “entrance” to the event space and my parents purchased a few for the family. I don’t recall if they paid via cash or card, but I believe each shirt was selling for ten or fifteen dollars. I also saw water coolers scattered around, and the website mentioned water would be provided, but I didn’t actually see anyone open a cooler. It kind of reminded me of those moments in Japanese socializing when someone offers something because that is the expected gesture, even though everyone also knows not to accept it. This event didn’t feel Nihonjin enough for such thinking, but it was what popped into my head.
Someone asked me later if I thought the pilgrimage felt well-organized. To me, it felt Japanese-American-organized, the same way Obon does, and in a different way from Nihonjin-organized or white-USian-organized. I suppose only JA/Nikkei whose event experiences are similar to mine will understand this statement, but I haven’t thought of a better way to phrase it.
People started talking on stage, but the first event I really paid attention to was UCLA Kyodo Taiko’s performance. By ‘paid attention to,’ I should specify, my attention caught, snagged, and throbbed uncomfortably at the sight of a white guy playing front and center. To be fair, he might have been an extremely white-looking, mixed-race JA/Nikkei, but since I know college taiko groups often allow anyone to join, I suspect he was just a plain old white guy. It was like coming across a microaggression in an otherwise enjoyable book – seeing the white guy kind of spoiled the performance for me. The only thing I ended up liking about that part of the pilgrimage was listening to my mom’s occasional commentary. She’s been part of a taiko class for about a year now, I think (maybe two?), and was able to assess the skills and experience of several players. Apparently, the performing groups were divided into a beginner set and an intermediate/advanced set, based on how and what they played. We also played a guessing game about which of them might be Japanese, and she recognized an uta called ‘Matsuri’ as one her own group played last year.
Kyodo Taiko left the stage, and some more people talked. At one point, a speaker asked if any Native people (I believe from the local Paiute people?) were present, but no one identified themselves. I hope they came later, or, if they chose not to attend, I hope it wasn’t because they had been made to feel unwelcome in previous years. I was glad to hear the official program acknowledge how Manzanar occupies Native land; I very rarely hear JA/Nikkei discussing settler colonialism in our spaces, so it’s good to know some people are aware.
The other two events I remember clearly are the camp flag procession and Ken Koshio’s performance. I didn’t realize each camp had its own flag until I saw the procession, but it immediately became an, ‘oh, あたりまえ’ moment. I spy a story in there, but first I need to finish my survey of camp literature to make sure no other JA/Nikkei has written it first (and if they have, I hope they are a former/current watcher of Japanese historical dramas).
Ken Koshio’s performance consisted of an original piece about EO 9066 and a rendition of ‘Sukiyaki.’ He also had a fellow performer, a former professional taiko player whose name I can’t recall. For ‘Sukiyaki,’ he invited the audience to sing along. My mom and I did – Sakamoto Kyu is a household name in our family****** – but I didn’t see very many others joining in. I’m no singer, but I tried to be as enthusiastic as possible in my efforts because I didn’t want Koshio-san to feel unappreciated. I mean, I doubt he would, since he’s a professional and all, but I didn’t want him to think everyone in the audience drew a blank since he picked a very well-known song.
After the taiko and musical performances, my mom and I reviewed the program and decided we were どうでもいい about the speakers (I know, I know, I missed Warren Furutani), so we took a quick look at the pillar, found my dad, and started walking back to the visitors’ center. (Before I actually got to Manzanar, I assumed the pillar would comprise a significant part of my write-up because, you know, it’s in all the photos on the website, but we couldn’t even get close to it because of the stuff arranged in front, so I don’t really have anything to say. Next time, I guess!) This walk ended up being one of my favorite parts of our Manzanar visit, though not for the reasons I might have told myself before I arrived.
There’s not much left of Manzanar. In archaeological terms, maybe, yes, but to the casual eye, no, not really. I’m very visual, so all the mountains, trees, sky, and brush I saw, instead of flat sand, barracks, and guard towers, made me feel very far from the people who were incarcerated there. Looking at the green – really, unexpectedly green – growth in the open space behind the signs reading, ‘such-and-such’s quarters,’ the disappearance is clear, but not so much the emotion. It was easier (weird way of putting it, right?) to find the feeling when we looked at the overgrown parks and gardens. The rocks in the garden, especially – I have photos, but WordPress allots only so much space to media files – but as to the why, there could be a lot of reasons. My parents’ and relatives’ yards, in California and Sagamihara and Miyazaki, my art history background, my dad’s stories about my grandfather…and おはか参り, the non sequitur, maybe, but it makes sense in my head. The rocks say, there were people here, and they cared, and they put us here. Kind of like ほこら, ね? I need practice at the bilingual writing flow, but hopefully fellow bilingual JA/Nikkei readers sort of understand what I’m trying to say.
I saw the toilets. I thought, even before arriving, to take a photo, but when I actually saw them, it felt wrong. Plus, there was an article on the website about the toilets…it’s weird and kind of uncomfortable to think of them used as a tourist selling point.
We made a more thorough circuit of the visitors’ center (though I still couldn’t find anything about Farewell to Manzanar). I started flipping through the records of incarcerated names – incarcerees, or something, but I also think of stolen, stifled, silenced language, so names, too – and a ranger, a white woman, approached to ask if I was looking for a particular person. My dad gave her the details and she went to search the electronic records to see if she had anything we didn’t already know. I sat on a nearby folding chair (yes, I checked first to make sure nobody who looked more in need of a chair was in the vicinity) and looked at the camp flag display across the way. My mom sat next to me. I don’t remember what we talked about. Eventually, I saw Ken Koshio in the crowd, stopping now and then to photograph exhibits. He came to the flags and stepped around my chair for a better angle. I thought, Japanese or English?, picked Japanese, and asked if he wanted me to move, though of course, having picked the language, I sort of knew the answer already. It was half-selfish, I wanted to see what sort of 日本人/日系人 he chose to be or had become or currently was, and his response was, as mostly expected, 日本人. But he also didn’t seem surprised, to hear it from me, a very un-日本人 dressed person, but of course, he must meet all kinds of us in his line of work. (Speaking of which, has anyone else looked at his website? The collaborations with Native musicians are interesting…I feel iffy about the way he’s attired in some of the photos, even if his collaborators ‘approved’ it.) Anyway, it was very cool to talk to someone like him, if only for a second.
There’s a lot I’m forgetting, or already forgot, but I think I jotted down the things I told myself to remember. I learned, after the fact, that Naomi Hirahara was there, somewhere. NAOMI HIRAHARA. And I missed her! My only major regret for this first trip, as far as I know. I have Bachi and Cranes in my pile, and hope to get to one or both sometime this summer.
For any fellow JA/Nikkei reading this, feel free to @ me on Twitter if you have questions, or if you were there, too! I look forward to chatting with you.
P.S. If this post feels truncated in places, or disjointed, it’s because there’s a lot more in my head which, for one reason or other, I didn’t include in the text. Rather than writing myself out, I tried to cover the first iteration of what I consider ‘salient points’ of my experience, with the expectation there will be additional iterations inspired (or not) by the first.
*The towns of Lone Pine and Independence are both closer to Manzanar, but my dad wasn’t able to find a room to accommodate all of us by the time he made the reservation.
**I don’t usually promote writers outside of my book-related posts, but Brandon is someone I admire a lot, so check out his poetry if you have a chance.
***I didn’t see any reference to Farewell to Manzanar in the visitor center exhibits. To my fellow JA/Nikkei who have visited Manzanar, did you notice any reference to the book? Considering how well-known it is, I expected to see at least a placard acknowledging its existence. Maybe I just missed that particular exhibit?
****They have a pretty decent selection of JA/Nikkei works on their shelves, for any fellow JA/Nikkei readers planning a visit.
*****On Twitter (and maybe on this blog), I previously stated my relatives were incarcerated at Poston. During this trip, I learned they were apparently at Topaz and Gila River, so I apologize to any JA/Nikkei confused by the discrepancy.
******Full disclosure: Sukiyaki is also an Obon staple – it was our kachi-kachi dance every year, so I can both sing and dance to it. Luckily, most people who read this probably won’t witness either one.