And Now A Word About Manzanar

Coincidental to Jason Burns’ November 9 post in which he referenced Manzanar in response to the disconcerting news of LAPD plans to target map Muslim enclaves in the city, two days later (returning from Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes) my wife Susan and I paid a somber and sobering first visit to the infamous place (on Highway 395 a few miles south of the ironically named town of Independence), referred to all politely as an “internment camp” or a “war relocation center,” or “reception center,” but with eight guard towers erected around the barbed-wired perimeter staffed with military police manning machine guns trained on the 11,000 men, women and children kept here against their will (more than 90% of whom were from the Los Angeles area), I’m in the mood to call it what it was: a prison. One that should forever be remembered as a testament to the freedom-destroying power of fear and an abominable insult to the United States Constitution and the civil liberties it guarantees us as citizens of this country. Pardon my righteous indignation.


An American flag installed upon the fence surrounding the cemetery at the Manzanar War Relocation Center with the memorial obelisk at its center. The characters translate to “Monument to Console the Souls of the Dead,” and on the back the characters translate to “August 1943” and “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese.” Of the 150 people who died at Manzanar, most were cremated and 15 were buried here. Nine of those graves were relocated after the war, leaving the remains of six still on the premises (click image to doublify).

Out here where I took the above picture it was easy to keep it together. But as I approached the monument and saw an origami necklace draped from one of the the posts with ribbons upon which were handwritten the words “peace” and “forgive” it got a bit tougher. Then along the tiered base of the obelisk were coins and trinkets that had been placed by visitors. Pennis, nickels, dimes, quarters. A fish hook pushed through a cigarette, a beaded necklace, a ring, a lighter, pebbles, a pine tree twig, a bit of abalone shell… nothing overly dramatic but all of it personal and touching and contrite.

From there I moved past each of the remaining rock-ringed gravesites, each festooned with more coins and artifacts, and the last one being one of the smallest. On its headstone were Japanese characters and beneath them it read in English “Baby Jerry Ogata” and that was it. Waterworks time as I wondered if Baby Jerry Ogata might not be dead if he’d not been imprisoned here. In place of an answer all I could manage was a weak “I am so ashamed and so sorry,” and as I spoke a strange thing happened. From out of nowhere a stiff cold wind like a small freight train destroyed the stillness and slammed into me, kicking up sand into my face as it barreled passed me and Baby Jerry Ogata’s grave. As quick as it arrived it dissipated, leaving me with the odd sensation of being simultaneously cleansed and dirtied. Forgiven and punished.

9 Replies to “And Now A Word About Manzanar”

  1. Will thanks for the great article. Every time I drive by there I get a chill. It’s that war mentality and paranoia that got us.

    This place took on a very personal meaning a couple of years ago. New neighbors moved in and got to talking with my friends mother. She was of Japanese descent and was just a tyke when they were interred. They were uprooted from their homes in LA, but instead of the Owens Valley they were hauled out to Gila River Arizona which was much worse than the Owens Valley in terms of sheer heat.

    She tells of asking her Dad why she had to leave her things. She tells us of remembering barbed wire and armed guards and asking what they did wrong. Nothing is the sad truth but to hear it in someones words is far more moving than walking the remnants of the camps.

    His Dad is of chinese origin and relates that LA during the war he was a “good asian” because he was not Japanese.

    The better time to post this would be on December 7 as a reminder that not all off Japanese heritage were the “bad guys” that we too were “bad guys” to our own citizens in the name of the war effort. Dark time in our history but one that we shouldn’t forget to keep our progress grounded in reality.

  2. Will-
    Such a moving moment, thanks for sharing it. And yes, an important reminder of what happens when hysteria, rather than common sense, dictates society.

  3. For those people that can’t make it all the way to the Manzanar site (and even those that have), I highly, highly recommend a visit to the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, a large portion of which is dedicated to the Japanese incarceration. They even have an original cabin from one of the camps that’s been rebuilt inside the museum, and the last time I was there I managed to listen in on a tour given by a guide who had been interned with his family as a high school student. Fascinating, terrible stuff.

  4. There is a powerful short documentary film made called “Pilgrimage”

    PILGRIMAGE DVD NOW AVAILABLE!!!!***

    *You can order PILGRIMAGE DVDs for $20 and T-shirts for $10 online at:
    http://www.myspace.com/tadillac.

    WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Asian Film Festival of Dallas
    WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Sacramento Film & Music Festival
    WINNER – BEST STUDENT FILM: Honolulu International Film Festival
    WINNER – NEW DIRECTORS/NEW VISIONS AWARD: Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

    The award-winning documentary film PILGRIMAGE is now available on DVD!

    PILGRIMAGE DVD special features include:
    – Never-before-seen archival footage of the 1969 Pilgrimage to Manzanar
    – 36th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage
    – Breaking the Fast: Gathering for Ramadan in Little Tokyo
    – Additional Interviews
    – Discussion and resource guide

    ABOUT THE FILM:

    “A powerfully moving piece on the dehumanization and dislocations of war, and the community and hope that can be found in resistance.”
    — Jeff Chang, Author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation

    “Tad Nakamura’s inspiring new film opens up the Japanese American experience of World War II to a new generation of multicultural activists.”
    — Yuri Kochiyama, Asian American Activist

    PILGRIMAGE tells the inspiring story of how a small group of Japanese Americans in the late 1960s uncovered their lost history and created the Manzanar Pilgrimage, transforming the once-abandoned WWII American concentration camp into a vibrant symbol of retrospection and solidarity for people of all ages, races and nationalities in our post 9/11 world.

    Total running time: 20 min.

  5. There is a powerful short documentary film made called “Pilgrimage”

    PILGRIMAGE DVD NOW AVAILABLE!!!!***

    *You can order PILGRIMAGE DVDs for $20 and T-shirts for $10 online at:
    http://www.myspace.com/tadillac.

    WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Asian Film Festival of Dallas
    WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Sacramento Film & Music Festival
    WINNER – BEST STUDENT FILM: Honolulu International Film Festival
    WINNER – NEW DIRECTORS/NEW VISIONS AWARD: Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

    The award-winning documentary film PILGRIMAGE is now available on DVD!

    PILGRIMAGE DVD special features include:
    – Never-before-seen archival footage of the 1969 Pilgrimage to Manzanar
    – 36th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage
    – Breaking the Fast: Gathering for Ramadan in Little Tokyo
    – Additional Interviews
    – Discussion and resource guide

    ABOUT THE FILM:

    “A powerfully moving piece on the dehumanization and dislocations of war, and the community and hope that can be found in resistance.”
    — Jeff Chang, Author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation

    “Tad Nakamura’s inspiring new film opens up the Japanese American experience of World War II to a new generation of multicultural activists.”
    — Yuri Kochiyama, Asian American Activist

    PILGRIMAGE tells the inspiring story of how a small group of Japanese Americans in the late 1960s uncovered their lost history and created the Manzanar Pilgrimage, transforming the once-abandoned WWII American concentration camp into a vibrant symbol of retrospection and solidarity for people of all ages, races and nationalities in our post 9/11 world.

    Total running time: 20 min.

    And, the annual Pilgrimage to Manzanar takes place in April:

    http://www.manzanarcommittee.org/

  6. will, thanks for sharing your story and those photos.

    my father was born at tule lake, his whole family was interned there before going across country to work at seabrook farms in new jersey. my mother’s family was sent to topaz and it was from there that my grandfather was drafted into the 442nd. consequently, my mother was one of the first baby boomers, born the year after his return from europe.

    i’ve been to JANM numerous times, every visit i marvel at how similar my family’s experiences are to those on display. i enjoy taking friends there who know very little about this part of american history. one day i will get to manzanar, or maybe one of the sites of the relocation centers that held my family, but the visit will probably be solo.

  7. MC, thank YOU for sharing your family’s background. Should you ever get to Manzanar it may be by yourself, but if the wind that whipped me at Baby Jerry Ogata’s grave is any indication, you won’t be alone.

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