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An estimated 1,000 people attend the 49th Manzanar Pilgrimage. (Photo: Charles James)

The 49th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage reminds attendees to ‘stay involved’ in order to ensure that justice is granted for all Americans.

By Charles James, Contributor

The theme for this year’s 49th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage was “Silent No More, Liberty and Justice for All!” in honor of the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

On April 28, a crowd estimated at 1,000 people gathered at the Manzanar National Historic Site, where more than 10,000 people of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens, were unjustly incarcerated during World War II under the pretext of being a “security risk.”

Keith Kawamoto represented the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. (Photo: Charles James)

The CLA of 1988 offered an official apology from the U.S. government along with reparations, as well as recognition of the “grave injustice” done to those incarcerated in the American concentration camps during the war. It represented the success of activism in the Japanese American community that began in the late-1960s, which emphasized no longer being silent about the injustices inflicted upon them during WWII.

There was no lack of appreciation or enthusiasm as the crowd was welcomed with a drum performance by UCLA Kyodo Taiko under a clear, sunny blue sky complemented with a light breeze.

Emcee Pat Sakamoto, a former internee at Manzanar, kicked off the day’s program. Sakamoto said that her mother never talked about her life in camp. Her mother was pregnant with her when she and her husband arrived in Manzanar. And while her mother said “Yes” to the infamous Loyalty Oath required of all camp internees 17 years of age and older, her father said “No,” which resulted in him being sent to the Tule Lake Camp. “I never met my father,” she noted sadly.

Guest speaker Karen Umemoto, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, remembered fondly that, when she was a child, all her friends in Southern California would take trips to Disneyland, while “we (her family) would come to the desert, to here, to Manzanar.”

Her father, Frank Umemoto, was in high school when he was sent to Manzanar. “His experience was pretty positive,” she said. He later wrote a book titled, “Manzanar to Mt. Whitney: Life and Times of a Lost Hiker,” in which he wrote about his experiences at the camp.

Sadly, Umemoto went on to say, her grandparents were sent to Tule Lake Camp. Her grandfather died of cancer there that was attributed to drinking “bootleg rice wine.”

This year’s student speaker was Lauren Matsumoto, a fourth-generation Japanese American, who represented the University of California, San Diego Nikkei Student Union. Matsumoto is involved in the Manzanar at Dusk Program, which lets college students and others share their thoughts, feelings and insights about their community, along with their shared history. Matsumoto said that “learning history is the first step in never letting it happen again.”

A sad part of Matsumoto’s family history is that her grandparents, who were interned at Tule Lake and Gila River, were “deeply scarred” by the experience, Matsumoto said, and as a result, it greatly affected her father and, ultimately, herself as well.

The next speaker was Yusra Khafagi, leadership development coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who expressed her appreciation of the Pilgrimage message that all citizens should speak out against injustices and learn the lessons represented by Manzanar of what happens a group of Americans are singled out for their race, ancestry or beliefs.

This year’s keynote speaker was Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Burroughs said that in 1986, two years before the U.S. government signed the CLA, she was detained and sent to prison in South Africa without a trial and interrogated every day as the government attempted to prove that she had committed treason. Burroughs said she was singled out because she actively protested apartheid, which sought to retain the political and economic power of a white minority over nonwhites, who were in the majority of the country’s citizens.

That personal experience of government-sanctioned racism gave Burroughs a unique understanding into the Japanese American internment experience and Japanese Americans’ efforts to have the U.S. government officially acknowledge the “grave injustice” perpetrated on the internees of the concentration camps. They wanted an apology and reparations.

Burroughs said her personal experience in South Africa led her to a lifetime of activism and dedication in her life to promote social justice and human rights for all.

Noting that this year’s pilgrimage theme was “Silent No More, Liberty and Justice for All,” Burroughs noted that the forced removal was motivated by “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership” and not the false excuse of “security concerns” that was used to justify the establishment of the camps.

Burroughs said that, in addition to the formal apology given by the U.S. government,” the CLA also provided funds for monetary restitution to “eligible” Japanese who had been incarcerated in the camps. It was the “redress” movement and the CLA that finally “lifted the veil of silence” about wartime incarceration.

She went on to say that “it was that silence gave way to righteous indignation, which turned into a ‘fighting spirit’ among the Japanese American community at the time. … Passage of the CLA was an enormous victory for civil rights and the Japanese American community.

“It drew a line in the sand,” she continued, “that forced the American government to apologize for a wrong and put it on notice that it could no longer ‘ignore its past.’”

Burroughs noted that “the entire country — with the exception of the Quakers — was silent 75 years ago when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.” It was that order, she went on to say, that resulted in the mass evacuation of West Coast Japanese and led to the creation of the 10 War Relocation Centers.

“The importance of remembering and learning from that experience cannot be stressed enough,” said Burroughs. She then quoted Bishop Desmond Tutu that “if we allow bygones to be bygones, there will be no bygones because history will be repeated.”

Burroughs ended her comments with the observation that “the Japanese American experience is about democracy, about taking a stand for what is right.”

Many speakers at the pilgrimage expressed concern that the WWII era is fading from the nation’s collective memory. One of them, Bruce Embrey, representing the Manzanar Committee, told the crowd that the pilgrimages are held “to honor those who survived life behind barbed wire” and that they were vital to the success for redress.

“Starting in 1969 as a people’s movement,” Embrey said, “the pilgrimages became a way to confront the shock, humiliation and shame that kept many internees silent about the experience.”

Embrey continued, “It was the efforts of Japanese American and African-American politicians, and Japanese American veterans from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion that ensured the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, which sadly came too late for many.” He noted that 40,000 former internees had already died by 1988.

He also warned the gathering that all the efforts that went into the CLA “will not be worth it if we do not stand up when other minorities are having their civil and constitutional rights threatened.”

The Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award this year was awarded to longtime community activist Wilbur Sato, who was recognized as someone who tirelessly went to work on behalf of the Japanese American community, committed to defending democracy and civil rights.

Sato, who turned 89 on April 26, was raised on Terminal Island, a former fishing village, which is now a part of the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles. He was in the seventh grade when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. The Sato family was forced to leave the island and would be incarcerated at Manzanar.

He gave the crowd a list of what life was like for a “poor Japanese.”

“We had no doctor or modern medical care,” Sato said. “Anyone born in Japan could not become a U.S. citizen. If you were a U.S. citizen and married someone born in Japan, you would lose your citizenship. Restaurants refused to serve Japanese, and hotels would most likely refuse to rent us rooms, which meant bringing your own food with you on long trips … and sleeping in the car.

“Blatant racism was accepted throughout society, Sato continued, “and racist, derogatory terms and stereotypes were used routinely by the media, newspapers and Hollywood.

“The camps were just the latest manifestation of that racism,” Sato concluded. He noted that after the war, prejudice and racism remained a part of the American experience for Japanese Americans.

He became a lawyer after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1951 and joined the Japanese American Citizens League to fight against the injustices against Japanese Americans. He also became a longtime member of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress) and became active on the Manzanar Committee and its yearly pilgrimages.

In accepting the award, Sato urged those in the audience to “stay involved with the issues important to them and not be easily discouraged because when it comes to such fights, ‘democracy is winning.’ ”

Flags representing the 10 WRA Centers are displayed. (Photo: Charles James)