50 years ago, when Sue Kunitomi Embrey and Warren Furutani began the Manzanar Committee and attended the first formal Manzanar pilgrimage, I doubt they could anticipate how the 50th gathering would look like in 2019. The modest beginnings of the foundation they laid started with about 150 people visiting the site of Manzanar, one of the 10 Japanese American concentration camps during WWII. It is hard to believe that so many people made the trek this year and the number of visitors was estimated to be about 2,500. And just as surprising as the size, was the diversity of the crowd—so many non-Japanese Americans made it out to honor the lives of those incarcerated over 75 years ago.
A large portion of those in attendance were Muslim Americans who found solidarity with the plight of the Japanese American community as they have encountered similar prejudices and restrictions in recent years. A bond between these two groups is something born from both groups being “othered,” feared and ostracized. Among the attendees and speakers, were representatives from CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) who spoke, stood and prayed together with many Japanese American internees and their descendants.
Jaylani Hussein, the Executive Director of CAIR Minnesota delivered a touching Arabic prayer during the pilgrimage’s interfaith service. Witnessing a peaceful united prayer ceremony with Shinto, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim leaders was an extremely touching and powerful moment.
Seeing so many Latino, Black and Middle Eastern faces in the crowd really meant a lot to me as a Japanese American. It showed how despite our differences, we can join forces and acknowledge these important historical struggles side by side.
The area of Central California where Manzanar is situated is still the same barren, desolate desert land it was when the 10,000 Japanese Americans who were interned there first arrived. The harsh sun and whipping wind is hard to imagine living in—many of us at the pilgrimage struggled to endure the conditions for even just a few hours. Not much really differentiates these camps from a maximum security prison, but for the thousands of Americans who were forcibly sent there, their only crime was that they had Japanese blood. In total, over 110,000 incarcerated people of Japanese heritage lived behind barbed wire between 1942-1945 during WWII.
As a millennial living in diverse and mostly tolerant Los Angeles, it’s unbelievable that something like that happened less than 100 years ago and to US citizens nonetheless. But hearing about it is nothing like visiting an internment camp first hand. To see the land, the structures and guard towers that used to hold guards with machine guns is something you can’t grasp completely by just reading the maybe 1-2 paragraphs most history books in US schools contain.
Personally, growing up as a fourth generation (Yonsei) Japanese American on my mother’s side, I have heard about internment as an interwoven part of my family’s history. But even though these stories are commonplace in our community, most times I have mentioned our family history to friends in passing or as it’s come up in conversation, I am always surprised how little the average non-Japanese American knows about this part of US history. Many friends of mine were shocked to learn my mother, her siblings and my grandparents were all interned, plucked out of California and sent by train to Amache, a camp in Granada, Colorado.
The lack of knowledge by most Americans still to this day is a driving force for most of the children and grandchildren of internees, like myself, to make sure we keep this part of history remembered and that we learn from it. Besides the history lesson, it is imperative we understand how easily it would be for this to happen again and how it already is happening in some form via the border crisis with the detainment of migrant children.
Pilgrimages like these are critical for our communities, especially those of color, to gather and acknowledge the pain, struggle and hard work our families endured and continue to endure. These stories are OUR stories—American stories, not JUST Japanese American ones. We should all be united in our causes and together to bring attention to these racial and religious persecutions and inequities. The more unified and the louder our voice, the more progress we can expect. We can no longer turn a blind eye and only fight our own battles, we need each other’s full empathy and support. We are so much stronger as allies and we can only make change if the whole world stands up in the face of every injustice. “The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” (Dr. Benjamin E. Mays)