Margaret Fujioka, mayor of Piedmont, Calif., thanked the reunion committee on behalf of her mother, Shizuko, saying her mother looks forward to the reunions all year. Photos: Charles James

The Class of 1945 gathers in Las Vegas for a remarkable reunion of people sharing a common experience and history.

By Charles James, Special Contributor

For two days on Sept. 14 and 15 in Las Vegas, Nev., 175 invited guests attended the 70th Manzanar High School Reunion, which was held at the California Hotel and Casino for the Class of 1945. Sharing in the celebrations were eight graduates of the Class of ’55, five classmates from the Class of ’43 and nine classmates from the Class of ’44. It was a joyous, remarkable reunion of people sharing a common experience and history.

Alisa Lynch Broch, Mark Hachtmann and Sarah Bone presented materials assembled by the Manzanar National Historic Site Ranger staff.

Alisa Lynch Broch, Mark Hachtmann and Sarah Bone presented materials assembled by the Manzanar National Historic Site Ranger staff.

History is largely about people — about the roles and common experiences shared of past events or situations. A shared history of an experience is often remembered in joyous celebration, while at other times it is far more complicated. It may also bring up conflicting emotions — memories of sadness, anger, resentment, confusion or even shame. “Complicated” would likely best describe the emotions and experiences of the approximately 120,000 Japanese American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent during World War II who were sent to concentration camps and denied their basic human and constitutional rights.

According to Grace (Oda) Anderson, vice chairperson for the 2015 Manzanar Reunion Committee, at least 61 of those attending the reunion were held at the Manzanar Relocation Center. “Many of us were children or other family members [were there],” said Anderson.

In addition to the 22 graduates of Manzanar High School, there were 22 others who attended school at Manzanar and at least three of those attending were born at Manzanar. A number of guests were from other camps. The age range of those attending the reunion ranged from 22 to 99 years old. Most of those attending came from California, but there were also people from Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington.

Manzanar Superintendent Bernadette Johnson (center) visits with Shizuko Fujioka (née Sakihara)  and her son, Robert, and daughter, Margaret.

Manzanar Superintendent Bernadette Johnson (center) visits with Shizuko Fujioka (née Sakihara) and her son, Robert, and daughter, Margaret.

Anderson proudly pointed out that “[my] parents met at Manzanar. Mom passed away in 2007, so we have been coming with our dad since 2008. Dorothy (Oda) and I joined the Reunion Committee in 2011. Dad had his three daughters, one son-in-law and two grandchildren there. His granddaughter, Julie, was the MC (for the reunion). His grandson, Scott, and Scott’s girlfriend, Molly, were the photographers.  Three of our cousins, whose parents were in Manzanar, were also there. The Oda family was well represented!”

Shizuko Fujioka (née Sakihara), a graduate of the Manzanar High School Class of ’45, attended the reunion with her son, Robert, and her daughter, Margaret. Margaret Fujioka, the mayor and first Japanese American member of the Piedmont City Council, spoke briefly at the reunion and expressed her gratitude to those attending and for those on the Manzanar Committee that put it all together. Margaret Fujioka noted that her mother has attended the reunions for years and really looks forward to them. Sadly, Shizuko’s husband, who often accompanied her, Yoshiro “Babe” Fujioka, passed away two years ago, but “Shiz” continues to come, accompanied by other family members.

The oldest person attending the reunion was Sechico Hiroyama, soon to be 100 years old. She was sent to Manzanar from Terminal Island when she was 27 years old. Sitting beside her was 87-year-old Harumi Sylvia Yamashita, who as a young girl was also sent to Manzanar from Terminal Island near San Pedro, Calif., which was home to about 3,500 first- and second-generation Japanese Americans prior to World War II. The FBI incarcerated all of the adult Issei males on Terminal Island on Feb. 9, 1942, and after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, the rest of the inhabitants were given just 48 hours to evacuate their homes. After the forced evacuation, most would be sent to internment at Manzanar and other internment camps, never to return to the island as the government razed the homes, ensuring that no one could return after the war.

The importance of the Manzanar Reunions can be seen in the sharply diminishing numbers of those attending who were incarcerated during the war. The first reunion was held in Los Angeles on June 18, 1964, when the Class of ’44 held a 20th reunion. There were 64 classmates in attendance. In 1974, the Class of ’43 joined the class of ’44, and it was decided that a reunion would be held every five years. On Sept. 1 and 2, 1984, the first Manzanar All-Camp Reunion was held in Los Angeles. In 1998, due to the ages of its attendees, the committee was asked to plan a reunion on a yearly basis, which it has done for the past 16 years. Most of the reunions have been held in Las Vegas since 1994.

This year’s Manzanar Reunion also included many first-time attendees, said Anderson. Socializing was encouraged during the mixer with some ice breaker games, followed by Bingo. An update on the Manzanar site was presented by Manzanar Superintendent Bernadette Johnson. In addition, an informative visual tour of the Manzanar National Historic Site was presented in a slide show by Alisa Lynch Broch, chief of interpretation. Lastly, tribute was paid to the Jive Bombers and past Manzanar Reunion Committee members. Tote bags with commemorative picture frames, back scratchers, “good luck” kaeru and other goodies were given to all attendees.

Concern was expressed about whether or not the reunion will be held next year. In response, the Pacific Citizen was told by Grace Anderson that “there will probably be a reunion next year.”

Let’s all hope so!