Hundreds gather at the National Historic Site for a day of reflection, gratitude and hope for all humans.
By Charles James, Contributor
The weather on Saturday at the 47th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage was cold, overcast and windy, but the enthusiasm that has characterized the event was not cooled or dampened. The need to remind others of the injustice committed against 120,000 people of Japanese descent more than 70 years ago animates those that remember how easily freedom can be snatched under the weight of fear, racism and war hysteria.
A question posed by several speakers at this year’s pilgrimage was: Are we, in today’s political environment, witnessing a resurgence of the very things that led to creating the War Relocation Centers? Have the American people forgotten how easily mass hysteria and unfounded fears can quickly devalue a people’s dignity, take away their constitutional and human rights and threaten or take away their freedom?
“Kodomo No Tame Ni, For the Sake of the Children” was this year’s pilgrimage theme, and it sought to bring attention to the effects the incarceration had on the families and the children sent to Manzanar.
Among the children were 101 American-born children without parents. The children ranged in age from newborns to 18-year-olds. Where they lived, as one speaker said, was “euphemistically called the ‘Children’s Village.’” The orphanage at Manzanar was also the only one to be found in all of the 10 War Relocation Centers throughout the country.
In a March 11, 1997, Los Angeles Times article titled “Childhood Lost: The Orphans of Manzanar,” staff writer Renee Tawa wrote that “even without the hindsight of history, Manzanar’s top official denounced the government’s treatment of the orphans in his final 1946 report on the camp.”
“The morning was spent at the Children’s Village,” Manzanar Director Ralph P. Merritt wrote, describing Thanksgiving Day 1942, “with the 90 orphans [to date] who had been evacuated from Alaska to San Diego and sent to Manzanar because they might be a threat to national security. What a travesty [of] justice!”
That the Manzanar National Historic Site exists today and allows the remembrance of the orphans was recognized by the Manzanar Committee in its presentation of the 2016 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award to former Inyo County Supervisor Bob Gracey, 87, who was elected in late 1992 to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, representing the Fourth District, within which the Manzanar NHS is located.
The supervisor played a key role in getting the hazardous materials removed from the former Manzanar High School Auditorium in which the current museum is located. The building had been used for decades by Inyo County as a maintenance facility.
Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee and the son of the late Sue Kunitomi, who was one of the founders and driving force behind the Pilgrimage and the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site, called Gracey, “an unsung hero” and thanked him for his vision and hard work.
Gracey was also instrumental in the land exchange that would allow the historic site to expand from its original 500 acres to its current 813 acres.
Gracey felt that Manzanar presented a huge potential to be two things, saying that “Inyo County would have a new National Park site to complement Death Valley National Park that would provide great economic boost to Southern Inyo and would help ease the pain created by the act of the federal government, which ‘created’ the need for the park.”
Throughout the event, one speaker after another reminded the approximately 1,000 attending the annual ceremony that the current political atmosphere in the country is disturbingly similar to that found at the beginning of World War II — only now, the object of fear are Middle Eastern Muslim and Syrian refugees desperately trying to escape a devastating civil war and terrorism in their own countries.
The speakers talked about the lessons that should have been learned from what the U.S. government in 1942 euphemistically called “relocation camps,” when in reality they were “concentration camps” created solely to single out those of Japanese descent wrongly suspected of possibly harboring “un-American” sentiments. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Most of the orphans sent to the Children’s Village came from “two orphanages in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco,” said keynote speaker Cathy Irwin, an associate professor of English at the University of La Verne and the author of “Twice Orphaned: Voices From the Children’s Village of Manzanar.”
According to Irwin, the average age of the 10,000 internees at Manzanar was only 17-and-a-half years of age, and the average age of the children at Children’s Village was only 8 years old.
Irwin questioned “how an 8-year-old orphan could be a national security threat.” But prejudice prevailed. Yet, according to a 1949 article in the Pacific Citizen, Col. Karl R. Bendetsen, the Army’s chief evacuation architect in Washington, D.C., said, “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must all go to [an internment] camp.”
Just being incarcerated behind barbed-wire fences and housed in barracks disrupted family life,” said Irwin. Life in the camps took away many of the normal day-to-day types of interactions and activities that families would normally experience and undermined the authority of the parents.
Embrey also spoke to the renewed significance of what happened at Manzanar and expressed concern about “the (political) climate taking a dangerous turn as voices are daily being heard that we would like to speak against.” He emphasized that “we need to speak to this atrocity to those in power.
“Race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership were the driving forces behind the internment,” Embrey continued. “We know there was no military necessity to incarcerate 101 orphans. We know there was no military necessity to place anyone behind barb wire . . . in 1942 many knew this, but few stood up to say this is wrong.”
Embrey cautioned that many of the same arguments used to incarcerate Japanese Americans in 1942 are being voiced by current presidential candidates, mayors and other political leaders, including even a
“We must add our voices against those who would take away the Constitutional rights of others on the basis of their race, language, religion or because they look different,” said Embrey. “That is what happened to us in 1942. We must remember so America does not forget.”
The final speaker, Maytha Alhassen, a Southern California native and University of Southern California Provost Ph.D. Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity, spoke forcefully on behalf of America’s Muslim and Arab communities.
Alhassen said that after 9/11, the Japanese American community in Los Angeles and the Manzanar Committee supported Muslims and Arabs, saying “Never forget” in reference to what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II.
She noted since 9/11, Muslim and Arab communities have been facing “fear-driven questions about their identity and loyalty.” She went on to say that the 9/11 attacks created “xenophobia, racism, prejudice and collective fear . . . toward Muslims and Arabs,” and spoke of 5,000 men who were placed in “preventive detention” and another 170,000 Muslim men that had to complete “special registration.”
Alhassen also cautioned that after 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which she called “an assault on all our freedoms.” She also called out presidential candidate Donald Trump for his “anti-Muslim rhetoric,” saying that he even went so far as to say that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was justified. In another example, Alhassen shared, “There was a mayor in Virginia who cited the relocation camps as having set a precedent that could be used for Syrian refugees.”
Alhassen’s final comment, ending the presentation part of the program, was for everyone “to embrace collective love over fear.”