For 120,000 Japanese-Americans forced to leave their homes, their businesses and their lives in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, it is evident there are some painful memories which linger to this day.
That said, it was also very clear from comments related during this past weekend’s 39th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage that recollections of resilience, community, shared struggle and work – and even light-hearted human moments – are also an enduing aspect of the legacy of life behind the barbed-wire perimeter of the Manzanar War Relocation Center.
“My first impression upon arriving at Manzanar was how very windy it was there. My family and I made the nine-hour trip from what was our home in Los Angeles and arrived at dusk,” former internee Sets Tomita said. “I was a young boy and to me it seemed a very weird setting. Plus, there were so many people, so many Japanese people. I’d never seen so many Japanese people together in one spot like that before.”
A crowd estimated at 1,200 to 1,600 people traveled from as far away as New York City to take part in Saturday’s annual event of remembrance.
The Manzanar Committee, in association with the National Park Service, has continued to make a commitment each year to bring attention and reverence to the plight of those thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry that were ripped from their lives and sent to a dusty, square-mile camp in the Owens Valley.
Under blue skies on a hot, spring day, the thousand-plus visitors at this year’s Manzanar Pilgrimage participated in a special noon ceremony that included multiple speakers, music, group-singing, laughter and a reverential look back at the Manzanar experience. It was also a day punctuated by multi-culturalism.
Beyond the prominent presence of former Manzanar internees, their families and friends, the pilgrimage also drew a contingent of more than 100 American-Muslims. In an address during the ceremony by Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Hussam Ayloush, it was made clear that the misplaced fears that resulted in the internment of so many Japanese-Americans during those war years can cause concerns in today’s post-9/11 climate for Arab-American citizens.
“We know now what it feels like when people look at you with suspicion, or treat you like you are a second-class citizen,” Ayloush said. “Our presence here today isn’t meant to suggest Arab-Americans are facing the threat and the loss of freedom of those Manzanar internees, but we want to stand with our Japanese-American citizens wishing to ensure this could never happen again. Like them, we want to remember the past and to learn from it.”