Jerome survivors gather around the Jerome memorial obelisk. (Photo: Kimiko Marr)
Ninety-four people from 16 states visit Arkansas in a trip that created a multitude of moving memories for them all.
By Nancy Ukai, JACL Berkeley Chapter Co-President
Last autumn, Kimiko Marr, a JACL Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter director, decided to organize a pilgrimage to the Rohwer and Jerome internment camps in southeast Arkansas.
Thinking that she would take a group of about 30 in the spring of 2018, she launched the “Unofficial Rohwer-Jerome Pilgrimage” Facebook page to publicize it. Sign-ups trickled in. It was Marr’s first time organizing a group trip, but with assistance from the chapter, she began the detailed work of creating an itinerary.
On April 14-16, 94 people from 16 U.S. states, including a Yonsei from London and a family of 13 with four Nisei siblings, made the trek to the camps, a two-hour bus ride from Little Rock, Ark. It was such a success that Marr is “90 percent sure” she’ll lead another trip next year.
“Regarding the pilgrimage, I am very pleased with how everything turned out,” said Marr. “Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and many of the Sansei told me that they didn’t realize how much it would affect them emotionally. Everything I wanted to happen at the pilgrimage happened. Even the flying in of 70 pieces of manju from Fresno’s Kogetsu-do. I had lots of pilgrims constantly asking me if I needed any help, so it really felt like a team effort. It was such a good time.”
Also making the trip were JACL Executive Director David Inoue; four National Park Service officials; Carole Hayashino, director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii; Brian Liesinger, director of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium; Mia Russell, executive director of the Friends of Minidoka; and a NHK TV crew, based in New York, that attended the trip to film the research of attendee Regina H. Boone.
Twenty-one members of JACL chapters ranging from California’s Silicon Valley to St. Louis, Mo., to Washington, D.C. also attended the trip, as did 20 or so survivors of Rohwer and Jerome, some in their 90s.
The survivors returned to the sites of their unjust imprisonment during World War II, when they were exiled by their own country.
Jerry Ishii, who was born at Jerome, collected a sample of earth in a baggie at both sites. He planned to take the soil back to Fresno, Calif.
“I was a toddler, so I don’t remember Jerome,” Ishii said. But it was important to “be here and get my feet on the ground.”
Carol Kaneko of Santa Cruz, Calif., who was born at Rohwer, took in her experience there as she gazed at the tree line where barracks once stood.
At the Rohwer cemetery, Rinko Shimasaki, 90, took a small diary out of her purse. Surrounded by memorials to Nisei soldiers who died fighting overseas, she read to those around her an entry written by a young man about to go to war.
“When I go to Europe, it’s to fight for girls like you,” she read. Then, she locked the diary and returned it to her purse.
Such personal, unplanned moments bonded the group.
Eileen Magruder said that she initially went on the trip to help her mother travel, but it then turned into an educational and spiritual experience, one she will never forget.
“This is what I wanted people to get out of it,” Marr said, “especially the Sansei.”
The trip to Rohwer and Jerome was a rare opportunity to visit two camps located in the U.S. South.
“It led me to reflect on the complicated history of racism and segregation in the region and how incarcerated Japanese Americans, who were neither black nor white, fit into that story,” reflected Janis Hirohama of the South Bay JACL chapter.
A highlight of the group’s last day during their trip was a visit to the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee, Ark., which marked its fifth anniversary on April 16.
Actor George Takei, who was sent with his family to Rohwer when he was 4 years old, spoke to the pilgrims and a crowd of McGehee citizens about the injustice of the mass removal.
“This museum here in the town of McGehee, Ark., is teaching a lesson that all Americans should know about,” Takei said in the town square.
Hirohama gained a new perspective from her visit to the museum.
“[Touring the museum] gave additional insight into how the local community has come to terms with this history in their midst and, to be honest, challenged some preconceptions I had,” Hirohama said.
Boone, a photographer, has family ties to the South and to Rohwer, which she is currently researching. Her paternal grandfather, immigrant Tsuruju Miyazaki, was arrested in Suffolk, Va., on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was taken away and eventually incarcerated at Rohwer. Miyazaki was unable to legally marry the African-American woman he loved, and he died in 1946, never to see his family again. Boone is retracing her ancestor’s footsteps, accompanied by the NHK crew.
Among the pilgrimage speakers were Lily Havey, author of “Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp”; community historian Pat Fitzpatrick; National Park Service official Hanako Wakatsuki; and Tom Izu and Susan Hayase, who explored the historical context of the redress movement. In addition, Liesinger gave updates about the current progress of the JACSC and an update on the “50 Objects/Stories” project about the Japanese American incarceration experience was given.
In memory of the Rohwer-Jerome journey, each attendee received a handmade “pilgrimage book” covered in a Japanese textile. The small accordion books were made by 30 volunteers at the J-Sei community center in Emeryville, Calif., with the aid of Jill Shiraki.
The purpose of the books is for its bearers to receive a commemorative stamp on its pages, like a passport, each time they visit a Japanese American confinement site. Stamps are starting to be made by other camps for a trail of remembrance.
Modeled after the National Park Service passport and temple stamp books in Japan, the two Arkansas stamps, which will be available at the McGehee Museum, were made from artworks by Nisei painter Henry Sugimoto with the blessing of his daughter, Madeleine Sugimoto. The project was organized by Berkeley JACL co-president Nancy Ukai and funded by the Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter.
Given the rich possibilities for further education and family stories, Marr has recently launched the project “Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages” to promote visits to confinement sites. The project’s website (https://jampilgrimage.wordpress.com/) provides a calendar as well as videos of family conversations filmed by Marr and project partners Marissa Fujimoto and Greg Sommers-Herivel.