Monday, June 19, 2017

"I Cannot Even Smile Here"

"I spent my boyhood behind the barbed wire fences 
of American internment camps...
We were American citizens. 
We were incarcerated by our American government 
in American internment camps 
here in the United States. 
The term 'Japanese internment camp' is both grammatically and factually incorrect...
And it seems to me important for a country, 
for a nation to certainly know about its glorious achievements 
but also to know where its ideals failed, in order to keep that from happening again." George Takei

Yesterday our family visited Manzanar, the internment camp which incarcerated over 10,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans during WWII. Neither Matt nor I remember learning about the internment camps as children, despite the fact that over 120,000 people nationwide were sent to them during the war, and we thought it was a good age for our girls to see and experience this part of our nation's history. Plus we had never visited Manzanar ourselves. We explained to them that we need to study all the parts of our history, so that we can act with bravery and equity and learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Manzanar --and the imprisonment of Americans and immigrants of Japanese ancestry --was one of those mistakes. 

In preparation, I got both of the girls some internment related books: The Bracelet and Baseball Saved Us for Ruby (which she was already familiar with thanks to her first grade teacher), Paper Wishes and Sylvia and Aki for Monrovia. 
(A quick primer on internment camps:) 
"Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, led the United States into World War II and radically changed the lives of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. The attack intensified racial prejudices and led to fear of potential sabotage and espionage by Japanese Americans among some in the government, military, news media, and public. In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort. Without due process, the government gave everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast only days to decide what to do with their houses, farms, businesses, and other possessions. Most families sold their belongings at a significant loss. Some rented their properties to neighbors. Others left possessions with friends or religious groups. Some abandoned their property. They did not know where they were going or for how long. Each family was assigned an identification number and loaded into cars, buses, trucks, and trains, taking only what they could carry. Japanese Americans were transported under military guard to 17 temporary assembly centers located at racetracks, fairgrounds, and similar facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Then they were moved to one of 10 hastily built relocation centers." (National Park Service)

Manzanar was one of those ten camps. Described (and those descriptors debated) over the years as Japanese internment camps, war relocation centers, American concentration camps, they were surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and armed by military police. Despite the fact that their "relocation" was described as a way to protect them, one prisoner asked, “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?” 

We got out of the car with the sun beating down on us. The wind and heat were unrelenting, and even for the few minutes that we were outside the girls were complaining about both. Manzanar is in the harsh desert climate, so in the winter the temperatures are below freezing and in summer the temperatures go above 100, with wind constantly blowing sand and dust all year long. I couldn't imagine being housed in the flimsy wooden barracks in such extreme temperatures, especially with small children.
One of the remaining guard towers, eight of which surrounded the perimeter of the camp.
The entrance to Manzanar, which was guarded by military police as well as an internal police force.
The camp was surrounded by barbed wire.
The structures are long gone, but this land once held tons of buildings, including (ironically) a factory to produce camouflage nets for the war effort, a post office, a newspaper, a town hall, a hospital, churches, Buddhist temples, mess halls, and barracks for ten thousand people.

Ruby working on answering questions to become a Junior Ranger (since Manzanar is run by the National Park Service.)
"Make sure that something like this never happens again to anybody." ~Kay Sakai Nakao
Looking at the model for Manzanar when all of the structures were intact and it was an operating facility.

There is something so powerful about the photographic image; it leaves no room for pretending that we have always been just and loving and inclusive of the other.
All ages were imprisoned, and with little notice were only able to bring two bags of belongings, and only that which they could carry:
Monrovia drawing a picture of what toy she would have brought to Manzanar. Those imprisoned set up a toy lending library so that children could have toys.
Profound quotes that resound just as loudly today, as we consider as a nation who to wall out and who to ban.
Imagine this valley filled with 504 of these barracks:
Building 14, Block 1: By September 1942 more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. There was little or no privacy in the barracks—and not much outside. The 200 to 400 people living in each block, consisting of 14 barracks each divided into four rooms, shared men’s and women’s toilets and showers, a laundry room, and a mess hall. 
Any combination of eight individuals was allotted a 20-by-25-foot room. An oil stove, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw were the only furnishings provided.
Multiple families would have been house in this room, their spaces divided by a hanging blanket.
A basketball court outside of one of the barracks:
As we left, Monrovia said to me, "Mom. This place is terrible. I cannot even smile here." She was very upset that the buildings had not been left as they were for people to see and experience and learn from. Her best friend at school is Japanese American, and she kept thinking about how if we had lived during World War II, that Natalie and her family would have been sent to an internment camp, just because of her ethnicity.
At the edge of the camp's property lies a memorial and cemetery. Almost 150 people died during their time at Manzanar, and some cremated remains are buried here.
The monument’s Japanese Kanji characters read, “Soul Consoling Tower.” 
America works really well for some of us, and once we work our way into that portion of the population for which it works well, we tend to want to exclude some other population whom we are afraid will hurt us or take away our jobs or in some way diminish our quality of life. We have done this for hundreds of years, and our collective memory of prejudice and injustice is often very short.

There were acts of resistance to the internment at Manzanar: some locals resisted by asking to come be teachers at the camp school. Others refused to sign the military's loyalty pledge and were sent to another camp at Tule Lake. Some went on strike after military police shot and killed a couple of men protesting at the camp.

To me the acts of resistance that were most striking as an artist were the proactive and ongoing choices among those prisoners to cultivate beauty and celebrate their Japanese culture despite the fact that they were imprisoned solely because of their ethnicity: creating peaceful Japanese gardens and ponds in a harsh desert climate, holding cultural events, incorporating their own recipes into the food served at mess halls, making art and music that spoke to their heritage within the reality of their internment camp experience. Resistance through making. Resistance through resilience. Resistance through growing new plants. Resistance through beauty.

Today we can honor this part of our past by speaking and acting against fear that makes entire populations into the other. We can resist movement by our government to demonize and blame certain groups. We can love, learn from and speak up for those who are seen as being such a threat that we must build a wall to keep them out or write executive orders to ban them. We can resist by visiting places like Manzanar to remember who we were then, and who we should be now.


  1. I enjoyed the pictures, commentary and history. Thank you. The picture of the model of the camp really shows how big an operation it was. Like you, I was always impressed by how the prisoners were able to create beauty, be fruitful and find peacefulness in the middle of such harsh and deprived conditions. I always thought of it as making the best of a terrible situation--hadn't thought of it as resistance, but it is a type, isn't it? Sylvia C


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