Decades following World War II, 200 guests attend the 71st Manzanar Reunion in Las Vegas.
By Charles James, Contributor
It is almost hard to imagine the strong bond held by the more than 100 incarcerees from the Manzanar War Relocation Camp and other relocation camps during World War II that brings them together some 71 years later. They smile. They laugh. And they share fond memories of their youth in the camps. Many have remained close friends, often even neighbors, through all the intervening year since the camps’ closings.
Two hundred guests attended the 71st Manzanar Reunion, held at the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas from Aug. 10-12, which was 25 more guests than last year. Manzanar had 78 former internees attend the reunion with an additional 22 guests joining them from other relocations camps such as Gila and Poston internment camps in Arizona, Amache Internment Camp in Colorado, Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming, Jerome and Rohwer camps in Arkansas, Tule Lake Internment Camp in California, Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, and Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. The other 100 guests were family members, friends and National Park Service staff from the Manzanar Historic Site, who many view as friends and “family.”
One would expect the number of survivors of the camps to be rapidly dwindling — and there is some truth to that — as many, even those born in the camps are over now over 70 years old. Many of those attending at the Manzanar Reunion are well into their 80s and 90s. There were even two guests that were 100 and 102! But despite their advancing age, there was an energetic mingling of former internees going from table to table to visit and share their common memories, and to catch up on what has happened in the last year.
When the attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii took place on December 7, 1941, by the Imperial Japanese Navy, there was fear, shock, anger, and hysteria in the United States. The Japanese American War Relocation Centers were quickly established, and it did not matter whether you were an American citizen or not. All that mattered was that you “looked like the enemy.” You were “different,” and you were “of Japanese descent.”
World War II — as wars often do — brought out both the best and the worst in people: A common cause and sacrifice to fight against a common enemy in the defense of freedom and a democratic way of life, but also bringing fear, unfounded bigotry and an unprecedented usurpation of human and civil rights against loyal Japanese American citizens who should have been afforded the benefit of any doubt as were many Italian and German American citizens who were not placed in concentration camps despite their ancestry.
The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the largest and best-known of the 10 concentration camps, with 10,000 incarcerees kept behind barbed-wire fences. The camps were established throughout the country to house those accused of nothing more than having Japanese ancestry and by extension, falsely accused of having a loyalty to Japan that none of them felt. To be an “American” — being “a good, loyal citizen” — and to be living in America was a source of great pride despite the ill-treatment by their government and fellow citizens.
Many of those attending the reunion were children in the camp and while many older internees have conflicting emotions, the younger ones often have fond memories of their time there.
Shizuko Fujioka (née Sakihara), a graduate of the Manzanar High School class of 1945, returned to the annual reunion accompanied by her son, Robert Fujioka, and her daughter, Margaret Fujioka, who was elected to the Alameda County Superior Court in June and will take office as a new Superior Court Judge in January of 2017.
There were two Robert Fujiokas at the reunion, both with a connection to Manzanar. A younger Robert Fujioka was the son of Shizuko Fujioka (née Sakihara) and Yoshiro “Babe” Fujioka. Babe Fujioka was incarcerated at Heart Mountain Relocation Center and was the son of Shiro Fujioka, a former newspaper editor of the Japanese language newspaper Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles which has served the Japanese-American community of Southern California for over 113 years.
The older Robert Fujioka at the reunion was only 16 years old when he was sent to Manzanar in 1942 with his family. He would only stay in the camp for a year before leaving for Chicago to attend high school, traveling with a group of 10 or 15 other older internees who were going there to attend to college or to look for work. Robert was the youngest of the group and the only one going to high school in Chicago because he did not like the high school in the camp. He said “I was literally on his own from the time he left Manzanar as his family was being still kept at Manzanar.”
He started high school in Chicago, working after hours to support himself. When the group’s sponsor, Mr. Temple, died of a heart attack after their arrival in Chicago, Robert said, I was told that I had to leave the city because I had no sponsor.” He moved to Minneapolis to finish high school, graduating in 1943 while working at night at a foundry shoveling charcoal and later at a granary to support himself. After high school he started college after being told the Navy and Air Force would not let him enlist. A quarter and a half into college, with the war still going on in Europe, he was drafted into the Army, serving two years in the infantry and avoided being deployed to Europe because the war ended.
Fujioka returned to West Los Angeles, living in a boarding house, and attending the University of Southern California on the G.I. Bill majoring in industrial design.
While living in West Los Angeles, Robert Fujioka said he knew of the Yoshiro “Babe” and Shizuko Fujioka family (the “other Robert Fujioka at the reunion) because they lived across the street from the boarding house where he stayed. He met with the “other Fujioka family” while at the reunion.
Robert’s wife, Mary (née Honda), was sent to Manzanar at the beginning of the war when she was 11-1/2 years old, but unlike his brief stay there, she was in the camp from 1942 until August of 1945. They met when her family moved to West Los Angeles when Manzanar closed and according to Robert she walked by his boarding house one day and he called out to her, “What’s your name?” and that, as he said with a grin, “was the being of a beautiful relationship that has lasted through 60 years of marriage.” They have one son whose name is Mark.
One-hundred-year-old, former Manzanar internee Sechico Hiroyama traveled from Oregon to attend the reunion once again this year. She was sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center near Lone Pine, Calif., from Terminal Island when she was 27 years old. She has a lively and sparkling personality. Many of the reunion guests enjoyed just sitting down with her to talk about her life.
There are plenty of opportunities to socialize during the Manzanar Mixer held on Monday night and then again at the banquet held on Tuesday night. The ranger staff at Manzanar Historic Site, this year led by Alisa (Lynch) Broch, Chief of Interpretation, gave an update on improvements and future plans for the national park site and had the guests laughing at historical photographs which featured some of old sports team photos from the camp.
A tribute to Sam Ono, a member of the Manzanar Reunion Committee since 1996, was given by Rosie (Maruki) Kakuuchi in honor of his artwork and his work on exhibits at the Manzanar Historic Site. The scale model of Manzanar, which is one of the most popular exhibits, was done under his leadership. In 2007, he produced and narrated a DVD called Small Town USA about life in Manzanar. Sam is a quiet, unpretentious man, with a great sense of humor, and he is well-loved and appreciated by the Manzanar Reunion Committee.
Reunions such as the 71th Manzanar gathering are increasingly important as time, age, and failing health are greatly reducing the number of survivors from the relocation camps. It’s hoped that, while many of that generation have passed on, those remaining will see their memories of their time in camps continue to be kept alive by family and friends. Helping them are the historians and rangers of the Manzanar Historic Site who are determined that the story of Manzanar and its internees be kept alive for future generations of American citizens so that no one is ever again forced to live behind the barbed wire of concentration camps and be deprived of their constitutional rights.