Manzanar: What You Get, Only If You’re There

By: Eri Kameyama, PSW District Staff

I woke up at 5AM this past Saturday to get ready for the long drive to Manzanar, the incarceration camp that held thousands of Japanese Americans from the Los Angeles area.

I was partaking in the Annual Pilgrimage program organized by the Manzanar Committee and the National Park Services, being a participant along with the rest of the Bridging Communities Program. Bridging Communities, now in its fifth year, has always made a trip to Manzanar; bringing the Japanese American and American Muslim high schoolers to this historical site. This year, there were 9 Bridging Communities students, 3 program leaders, and 5 family and friends who went together as a group. We caravanned in 3 cars and made the four hour journey from Little Tokyo…

When I first learned about the Japanese American camps, I was a junior in high-school, and I recall seeing this photo of children behind the barbed wires. In the background were the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Since then, I’ve learned so much more about the history and heard personal stories of Manzanar. I’ve probably seen a few dozen photos of the camp and always noted the beautiful mountain range that sat at the backdrop of this prison camp.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that I knew exactly when we were near Manzanar because I recognized these mountains from miles away.

I was the most moved when I saw the monument in the cemetery because it was no longer just a story or a just a picture in a textbook. It became a lived experience being at Manzanar in near 100-degree heat. As I sat through the program in the beating sun, I thought, “for me, it is just one day, for the incarcerees, it was as long as three years.”

Wilbur Sato, a former incarceree, gave us a tour of what was left of Manzanar. He showed us a site where a garden used to grow and where a small pond used to be. A garden! In the middle of the desert! To me, this was the sign of resilience of the Japanese Americans. To thrive and the make the best of what is given. The Japanese mentality of shikataganai turning into the will power to survive, ganbarou.

Wilbur Sato leading us on a tour of Manzanar

Wilbur Sato leading us on a tour of Manzanar

Although it was not easy driving almost 8 hours round-trip to be a part of this pilgrimage, I do not regret the experience. Many things can be learned through textbooks and oral-histories but physically being at a site where history occurred is an emotional experience that can only be understood by being there. I truly hope that the Bridging Communities participants gained something valuable from this mini road trip. I sure did.