Human Rights Reporting

Spring 2004 Student Work

© 2004 by Chandra Conway

Interned But Not Forgotten: New museum chronicles Japanese-American life at Manzanar

By Chandra Conway

Sue Kunitomi Embrey stood at the site of her imprisonment, yet felt elated. The sky above the northern California desert was a canvas of clear blue, the sunshine warmed her and the whipping winds that were a constant source of misery to the 11,000 Japanese Americans interned at the Manzanar Relocation Center from 1942-1945 were silent. "I'm on cloud nine," she said.

Now 80 years old, Embrey heads the Manzanar Committee, and her visit to Manzanar in late April marked both the committee's and Embry's 35th pilgrimage to the prison site. The annual remembrance usually draws several hundred people for a day of internee testimonials, traditional Japanese drumming, poetry readings and an interfaith service. But this year, close to 3,000 made the trek to pay their respects and share their stories as well as celebrate the grand opening of the Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center and Park Headquarters. The center includes restored camp structures, interactive exhibits, a bookstore and a theater that screens a documentary of internees' stories in their own words. Embrey says her joy comes from the knowledge that the unforgiving plot of desert where so many were forced to live is now not just a memorial site but a source of learning, a permanent home to thousands of tales of imprisonment and a united message: Never again.

Nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were forcefully relocated from their homes in California, Oregon, Washington and southern Arizona to 10 War Authority Relocation camps across the country under an order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt a little more than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Manzanar sits near the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, at about a four-hour car ride north of Los Angeles. When drivers reach the small town of Independence, they've gone six miles too far.

The first internees were brought to Manzanar in March 1942. Embrey was 17 years old when she entered the camp's barbed-wire city limits. During her time there, she worked making camouflage nets for the Army and as a reporter for Manzanar's newspaper, The Manzanar Free Press. She was eventually promoted to managing editor. Embrey also volunteered as a teacher; Manzanar had a large population of children and it was the only camp to have an orphanage, called "Children's Village," which 101 kids called "home."

Embrey lived at Manzanar for a year and a half before she, along with her older brothers, joined the U.S. Army. Volunteering for service was a way for internees to relocate out of camps. "Two of my brothers were married," she says in a phone conversation from her Los Angeles home. "One had a 6-week-old son when we went to camp." Embrey's mother, who headed their family of eight-all of whom shared a 20-by-25 foot living area at the camp-stayed at Manzanar until it officially closed in November 1945.

The first time Embrey returned to Manzanar was on the coldest day in December 1969. She did so to honor those who passed away while interned, and says she got the strength to make the trip from her mother. "My mother was a very staunch Buddhist and she would always say, 'Those poor people that are buried over there at Manzanar in the hot sun-they must be so dry. Be sure to take some water [as offerings],' She always thought it was important to go back and remember the people who had passed away."

At one time, there were 80 graves in Manzanar's cemetery. When the camp was closed, most families relocated their relatives' remains, but six bodies remain. "We cleaned up the area around the cemetery and tried to plant a pine tree, and everybody was just about frozen. I thought it would be an adventure, but it turned out to be more traumatic than I expected."

Embrey says the visit was so hard, in part, because activists and students who accompanied the small group of former internees asked to hear their stories of detainment. "People just didn't want to talk about what happened. I think a lot of it is because we didn't even know what hit us. We were American citizens and we felt that we were loyal Americans, and here the government was putting us in a place without any charges and no trial and housed for more than two or three years."

Following her trip back to Manzanar, Embrey found herself gripped by the young peoples' desire to know about their history and formed a volunteer group, later to become the Manzanar Committee, which set its sights on preserving the camp. "We began to have meetings and then people began to ask about another pilgrimage," she says. "We really didn't intend to continue, but it began to have a life of its own."

In 1972, Manzanar was designated a state historical landmark. Twenty years later, Congress named Manzanar as a National Historic Site and then in 1997, when the land was transferred from the City of Los Angeles to the National Parks Service, Congress allocated $5 million for the camp's original auditorium to be restored as part of a new exhibit. The auditorium, built by internees in 1944, served as a social center for Manzanar-it was the place for dances, concerts, movies, school pageants and volleyball games. Two days after its opening, close to 1,200 family and friends gathered in the auditorium for the first of three Manzanar High School graduation ceremonies held there. Two months later, the first memorial service was held for a Nisei soldier, U.S.-born child of Japanese immigrants, killed in action.

Embrey says federal funding for the auditorium's restoration far surpassed her preservation hopes. "We didn't have that kind of expectation, we were a small volunteer group that focused mostly on having this one annual event."

The Manzanar pilgrimage has a theme each year and this time around it was "Keep it Going, Pass it On." A fitting call to action, Embrey says, since many internees are no longer able to make the trip themselves. "In the beginning, they didn't come because they didn't want to talk about it. Now, many of them aren't able to travel because of their age. But occasionally we get people who talk about their experiences with the students. In the beginning [students] were very angry with what happened because it was a violation of our civil rights," says Embrey. "They were also not very happy with the fact that we didn't resist [internment]. But as they began to understand the whole politics of it, I think they've become more sensitive to the experiences of the people that were involved. But they are still not too happy with the government."

An evening program called Manzanar After Dark (MAD) now brings the generations together for discussion following the pilgrimage. MAD Director Jenni Kuida's parents and several other family members were interned during the war and she says MAD is a way for young people to take away an in-depth experience from their visit to Manzanar. The program includes "intergenerational chats" in which an internee relates their camp experience to a handful of students and an "open mike" session where students reflect on their thoughts through poetry and spoken word. An anthology of MAD-inspired songs, poetry and spoken word pieces, entitled "Keep It Going Pass It On" was published recently and many contributions reflect the link between the past wrongs of internment and current political concerns. Kuida says since the terrorist attacks in 2001, topics like racial profiling have been at the forefront of MAD conversations. "Japanese Americans lived it, and we feel really strongly that it's our responsibility to stand up against it."

Kuida says encouraging open dialogue about Manzanar is integral not only to learning but healing. "People who went through camp, Issei, really suffered tremendously and it took a huge psychological toll on their kids. People like my parents who were in camp as children didn't talk about it." Kuida has even heard of people who were born at the internment camp but didn't find out the true nature of their birthplace until many years later. "They just thought they were born in a small town called Manzanar."

Fifty thousand visitors pass through Manzanar each year, but until now, many never left their cars. Shortly after the camp closed, all but three of Manzanar's 800 buildings were torn down, so drivers followed a 3.2-mile route that outlined the camp's living areas, accompanied by a free auto tour guide brochure. "It's not something people can immediately understand just by looking at it," says Alisa Lynch, Chief of Interpretation for Manzanar National Historic Site. "It's not like visiting Old Faithful and being able to appreciate what's going on just by seeing it."

With the opening of the interpretive center, Lynch says visitors will be able to see, and in some sense, feel what life was like at Manzanar. The 17,000-square-foot auditorium has been repainted in its original colors and the flooring and lighting fixtures refurbished. Interactive exhibits occupy about half of the auditorium and include graphic panels depicting the history of wartime prejudice. "One billboard says 'Japs Keep Moving, This Is A White Man's Neighborhood," says Lynch. "The other says, "I'm An American."'

One exhibit, "Roots of Racism," tells of the historical exclusion of Asians since their first immigration to the U.S. in the 1800s and a short film, "Remembering Manzanar," features interviews with internees and a schoolteacher. "Different snapshots of experiences at that time," says Lynch.

The U.S. Park Service collaborated with the Manzanar Advisory Commission, a group that included former internees, on the center's design. Gann Matsuda, a longtime activist and member of the commission, says in an e-mail interview that the opening of the interpretive center is a piece of a dream come true. "Without the interpretive center, all you can see are foundations of former buildings, the cemetery, the vegetation. But now, [visitors] will get at least a bit of a feel of what it must have been like to be imprisoned there."

Matsuda says it's important for the general public to realize that the healing process is an ongoing struggle for the Japanese American community. "There is still a great deal of bitterness, pain and mostly suppressed anger among former internees. The younger generations feel this too, but in a different, less personal way. The successful redress movement relieved some of that pain, but it will never be a complete cure. For many, the developments at Manzanar will help ease more of that pain. Because first and foremost, we want everyone to learn about this dark chapter in American history so that it never happens to anyone ever again."