Photo by Ryan Kozu

The annual Minidoka Pilgrimage preserves and remembers incarceration for future generations.

By Stephen Kitajo, Contributor

The expansive desert of south central Idaho is a place few choose to travel to, especially to visit the remains of an American concentration camp, but every year, a group of people make the journey to honor the memories of thousands of Japanese Americans who were removed from their homes on the West Coast and confined to the area during World War II.

Visitors were able to tour original barracks during the pilgrimage. Photo: Ryan Kozu

Visitors were able to tour original barracks during the pilgrimage. Photo: Ryan Kozu

From June 25-28, nearly 200 people traveled to the Minidoka National Historic Site, tucked among the sagebrush and dust near the city of Twin Falls, Idaho, to participate in the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage. Participants came from various locations, backgrounds and ages — yet all made the pilgrimage for the same reason: to ensure that the memories and stories of Minidoka, and the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans as a whole, are remembered and shared to preserve them for future generations.

The all-volunteer Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee, based out of Seattle, Wash., organizes the pilgrimage each year. Its members are driven by one simple fact: “Every year, there are fewer and fewer people able to share their stories. We need to hear their stories while we still can, and we need to make sure we continue to share them. The pilgrimage is the best way to bring people together to do that,” said the MPPC.

Participants pose for a group photo at the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage this year. Photo: Ryan Kozu

Participants pose for a group photo at the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage this year. Photo: Ryan Kozu

One of the ways the MPPC helps make this possible is by offering youth and senior scholarships to help bring generations together on the pilgrimage.

Several different educational sessions were offered on the first full day of the pilgrimage to educate participants on facets of the Japanese American incarceration. These sessions are designed to shine a light on little known pieces of history to help educate and promote discussion about incarceration.

Fumika Iwasaki, a college exchange student from Japan, participated in the pilgrimage this year on a youth scholarship awarded by the MPCC.

“For me, it is the first step to understand the history of Japanese Americans,” Iwasaki said. “Before participating, I thought I could understand the history and situations, and it is not difficult to tell the history and facts to Japanese people after the pilgrimage. However, my expectation was thoughtless.”

Now, after participating in the pilgrimage, Iwasaki admits: “I cannot answer the reason, but now, I strongly feel I have to tell the story in Japan. Nidoto nai yoni (Let it not happen again).”

The second day hosted a guided tour of the Minidoka National Historic Site by members of the National Park Service. Today, the camp is only a fraction of what it once was, with several buildings restored and rebuilt over the past few years.

(From left) Jimmy Tobe, John Tobe and Jack Tobe stand before the Honor Roll sign by the main gate. Photo: Don Shimono

(From left) Jimmy Tobe, John Tobe and Jack Tobe stand before the Honor Roll sign by the main gate. Photo: Don Shimono

Visitors can walk through an original barrack, mess hall, fire station and warehouse on the site, as well as view a reconstructed guard tower and the Honor Roll honoring those from Minidoka who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Many memories resurfaced at this year’s pilgrimage as former incarcarees made their way around the site. These memories were later shared during breakout sessions in a safe environment behind closed doors.

On its final day, a closing ceremony was held at the site, where speaker Jim Azumano discussed the importance of remembering Minidoka in our everyday lives.

“Where do we go from here?” Azumano asked. “We go back to our lives. Do we go back into ‘denial’? Next week, will this new portrait of Minidoka fade back into the darkness of my gradual forgetfulness? Should I talk to my kids? Is it OK to share my stories with anyone? In order for Minidoka to blossom and succeed, we need you again. More than anyone else, you have a story to tell.”

In the last few moments of the four-day event, participants hung nametags, replicas of the tags worn by incarcerees, with messages written on them by the pilgrims.

Austin Soriano, MPPC member and Gordon Hirabayashi’s great-nephew, felt that he initially didn’t know the history of the Japanese side of his family.

“Finding out that my family played an important role in the Japanese American incarceration left me with so many questions,” said Soriano. “However, my grandpa passed away before I could hear about his experience.”

When hanging the nametags, Soriano said that “this is always the most emotional part of the pilgrimage for me. I always reflect on my family during this message, especially my grandpa since I never got to know him as well as I would have liked. I was only 10 years old when he passed away. Every year, I write to him, in hopes that he is proud of me for learning about our legacy and representing the family during this special time. I actually started tearing up just thinking about him. That’s what Minidoka and the incarceration does to you. For me, it connects me to my roots.”