Shizuko Fujioka, second from left, in front of the sign outside the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, with sons Thomas Fujioka (far left) and Robert Fujioka, and NPS Ranger Rose Masters. Photo: Fujioka family
Shizuko Fujioka, (née Sakihara) makes her first — and possibly last — visit to the concentration camp that was her home during World War II.
By Charles James, Contributor
Shizuko Fujioka is a lovely, soft-spoken and increasingly frail, delicate Japanese American woman in her late 80s. In June, she leaned on the arms of her sons, Robert and Thomas, as she gingerly exited from the back seat of their rental car in the parking lot of the Manzanar National Historic Site, which is a three-hour drive from Los Angeles. This is her first — and perhaps her last — return to the Manzanar National Historic Site where she was incarcerated more than 70 years ago from 1943-45 while just a teenager along with her parents and forced to live behind barbed-wire fences for three years.
This was the first-ever visit as well for her sons, Robert and Thomas, to the Japanese American concentration camp formerly and euphemistically called the Manzanar War Relocation Center, when their mother was still known by her maiden name, Shizuko Sakihara. This trip would be a learning experience for both of the sons, who admitted they know very little about their mother’s experiences at the camp.
Waiting inside the auditorium for the Fujioka family was National Park Service Ranger Rose Masters, who had been called ahead of time to expect them. Masters was looking forward to meeting the Fujiokas and giving them the VIP tour of the museum’s exhibits and camp barracks’ exhibits.
Shizuko and her sons viewed the various exhibits inside the visitor’s center, which included seeing her parents’ and her own name listed on the floor-to-ceiling wall of scrolls on which is listed every family and family member ever incarcerated in the camp during the war. Some 11,000 names are listed.
Ranger Masters provided Shizuko with copies of the Sakihara family’s registry from old camp records. The family viewed the exhibit with the model of the camp and identified the barracks where the Sakihara family was housed.
At another exhibit featuring the 1944 Manzanar High School Yearbook, there is a photo of Shizuko as a young girl standing almost exactly in the center of the 11th grade class photo. Masters would later send copies of the yearbook photo to the family.
The trip inside the museum was followed by a tour outside of the barracks, which features exhibits of how the incarcerees lived while in Manzanar, including one of the rebuilt barracks of a communal mess hall. “Shiz,” as she is known by her family and friends, could be seen talking softly of her experiences at the camp as a young girl with Ranger Masters, telling her that she has many fond memories of her time at Manzanar.
Shizuko Sakihara was only a young 15-year-old girl from West Los Angeles when she and her parents (her mother, Hisako, and father, Ikumori Sakihara) were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in the Owens Valley in early 1943 after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
In one of the most flagrant violations of citizens’ civil rights under the U.S. Constitution, some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast of the United States, most all of them American citizens, were ordered imprisoned in camps located in remote areas of the country, with more than 11,000 of them sent to Manzanar.
Some aspects of Shizuko’s story in describing camp life in Manzanar might remind a few readers of the best-known book on the Japanese American concentration camp experience, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s “Farewell to Manzanar,” published in 1973.
The shared experiences included communal baths and restrooms with no privacy, communal mess halls, barbed-wire fences, watchtowers with armed guards and spotlights, majestic mountains rising above a desolate landscape and, of course, the extreme weather — very hot in the summer, icy cold in the winter — and the never-ending dust.
“Farewell to Manzanar” was based on the remembered experiences of a 7-year-old. Houston told of the devastating effects the incarceration had on her family members, which resulted in resentment, withdrawal and a sense of isolation that undermined their relationships.
Unlike Houston’s tale of a dysfunctional family, broken and isolated by the forced move, and the cultural upheaval that camp routines had on their traditional Japanese family life, Shizuko said that her family did well in the camp.
Both of her parents worked, as did most adults in the camps. Her father was one of the camp barbers, and her mother worked in the main camp cafeteria. If a book were to be written based on Shizuko Sakihara’s life while at the camp, it could well be titled “Return to Manzanar” and it would be a story of a family and a young girl’s acceptance, optimism and sense of adventure.
“As a young girl,” says Shizuko, “I just did whatever I was told to do whether that was moving to another place (Manzanar) or waiting in line for everything while living in the camp. You just accepted and adjusted to it.”
She went on to say, “I was not frightened by the move to the camp. I found it very interesting to live around so many Japanese Americans of all ages after having lived around mainly white Americans in West Los Angeles.” She noted that, “It was interesting to go from being a ‘minority’ in West Los Angeles to a ‘majority’ at the camp.”
In the book “Farewell to Manzanar,” while Houston wrote about the freedom she had to explore the camp without parental interference mostly from the indifference of parents that allowed her to do whatever she wanted, Shizuko talks about how much she loved her parents and the care-free life she enjoyed while exploring the camp on her bicycle and visiting with her friends, all with the support and knowledge of her parents.
The difference between the two points of view on their experiences at Manzanar demonstrate how vastly different some families dealt with the experience, which ranged from resentment and depression to acceptance or optimism that things would work out in the end.
When pressed to describe what she and her friends at the camp were like, Shizuko says that they were just like any other American kid during the 1940s; they were interested in the same types of music, singers, dances, films and movie stars as the rest of the country. Shizuko says that she never considered herself anything other than an American for all of her life and that she is very proud of her country.
“I loved attending the camp’s school, and I had a group of a half-dozen girlfriends with whom I would play table games and sit around and talk about our day,” Shizuko recalled. “We would visit each other and go to movies that were held at the camp. I would borrow a neighbor’s bicycle to ride around the camp. I spent a lot of time reading and doing homework.”
During their stay in Manzanar, Shizuko’s family would often be allowed to travel on “furloughs” inland away from the West Coast. They would travel to Utah or Idaho, where her parents would be paid to work on independently owned farms and stay at the owner’s home or in separate housing for two to three months during harvest season.
There is a photograph of Shizuko taken by the famed photographer Ansel Adams on one of his several trips to Manzanar in 1943 and 1944. The photo titled “School Children, Manzanar Relocation Center, California,” shows three young schoolgirls in the foreground, with others following behind them across a barren roadway leading to a block of barracks in the background. Shizuko is prominently featured in the photo.
After graduating in the last Manzanar High School Senior Class of 1945 and leaving the camp, Shizuko and her family returned to West Los Angeles. She said the family was treated well on their return, and there was little hostility from the white community.
On returning to West Los Angeles and working as a film developer for Susan’s Photo Studio in Beverly Hills, Shizuko attended Los Angeles City College, where she met her future husband, Yoshiro “Babe” Fujioka, while eating lunch in the cafeteria. She was 26. He was 25. Apparently, “Babe” needed the encouragement of his best friend, Bob Ogawa, to introduce himself. The couple was married and went on to have four children.
According to her four children, Margaret, Robert, Janice and Tom, their mother is described as “loving, optimistic and always encouraging to others.” Shizuko’s children added that she has also always been very patriotic and proud of being an American and that she is also a very forgiving person.
Shizuko Fujioka now lives in Texas with her youngest daughter, Janice Frey. She is looking forward to attending the 70th Manzanar High School Reunion in Las Vegas this month.
At the end of her tour of Manzanar in June, Shizuko stood beside her sons, Robert and Thomas, with Ranger Masters at the entrance to the camp, and she had a big smile on her face. She was looking forward to visiting her friends and fellow incarcerees in Las Vegas at the 71st Manzanar Reunion, which was set for early August.