Pat Sakamoto and Linda Uyehara carry the Manzanar banner at the 50th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage onf April 27. Sakamoto, who was born in Manzanar, said she carried the banner in honor of her mother, Koo Sakamoto.
By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
More than 2,500 people turned out April 27 to the 50th anniversary of the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage, where the running theme among speakers was the parallels between what happened in 1942 and what is occurring today.
Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey, whose mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, co-founded the Manzanar Committee, described these as dangerous times.
Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey
“The current administration and the president of the United States have manufactured a non-existent national emergency,” said Embrey. “They speak of an invasion, a so-called invasion by people who come from other cultures, and this hysteria that emanates from the White House is being whipped by white supremacist groups and being codified into xenophobic policies by our own government. Honestly, there is no difference between the actions of our government today and the actions of our government in 1942.”
Embrey felt the pilgrimages were necessary more than ever since he noted that Manzanar was not only a place to heal but also a site where justice-minded people gathered to support each other. Some of the past issues that were brought up at past Manzanar Pilgrimages include the support of indigenous tribal members who occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, the call to end the Vietnam War and most importantly, the demand for redress for those who had been imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.
“This is important for us to think about because in 1942, no one stood for our community,” said Embrey. “No one outside the Nikkei community demonstrated or protested the forced removal. There were no editorials; there were no protests; there were no vigils. There was no one on the floor of Congress to say this is wrong.
“Today must be different. Today, we must stand together against hate and not stand silent when white nationalists take to the streets of our cities. We cannot stand silent when armed vigilantes patrol our southern borders. We must remember that the Manzanar Committee declared 50 years ago that Manzanar should not just be a symbol of what is wrong with our nation but that Manzanar should be become a monument to our core values of democracy and civil rights.”
Jim Matsuoka (center() receives the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award from Manzanar Committee members Jenny Chomori and Bruce Embrey.
Most recently, the Manzanar Committee worked with the local indigenous tribal members when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed to build a solar power farm across from the Manzanar site.
Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation, said her tribe works hard to preserve the valley, which they consider a sacred place, and was thankful that the Manzanar Committee had supported their fight against the DWP.
“I didn’t realize how many other people cared when we were facing a big solar project right across the valley here,” said Bancroft. “When the Manzanar Committee stepped in, they started listening because we were all banding together. It was really nice to meet and to get to know other people who cared as much about this valley as we did.”
MUSLIM AMERICAN SUPPORT
At this year’s pilgrimage, the presence of the Muslim American community was highly visible.
Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), shared how he gifted his children with three books when they were young to teach them about American history. Among them was a book on the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with anti-Muslim propaganda on the rise, Awad said this about his daughter: “Feeling that what had happened to Japanese Americans may happen to her and her brothers, she packed her suitcase, and she was ready to be picked up by the federal government.”
Awad said he and other CAIR members were committed to fighting the mass incarceration of a marginalized group so that people like his daughter do not have to live in fear and also to honor the memory of those who had been imprisoned in camps such as Manzanar.
“This white supremacy is creeping back into our politics today, and we, as Americans, have to stand united against any suggestion of a Muslim registry or a Muslim ban or Muslim discrimination or against racial profiling against African Americans or not giving or allowing Native Americans access to their lands and natural resources or any separation of children from their parents,” said Awad.
“An attack on one community is an attack on all of us. This should be our commitment. If we believe in this, if we love those people who spent years in here (Manzanar), we should act as one community against injustice.”
Pilgrims watch as Rev. Al Tsuyuki of Konko Church of Los Angeles bows to the monument at the Manzanar cemetery at the start of an interfaith service.
Roula Allouch of CAIR’s national chapter felt that visiting Manzanar should be a rite of passage for all Americans. Allouch recalled a panel she shared with a former Nisei incarceree during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The one thing that stayed with me the most was his reflection and recollection of the number that he and his family had been reduced to,” she said. “He was a six-year-old child when he was assigned that number, and as a man in his 80s, he could share it easily. I was struck by that, and I continue to remember that moment as a reminder to myself and to each of us that we each have to do everything we can to ensure that no one in our country is ever reduced to a number again.”
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of CAIR, thanked the Nikkei community, recalling that the first phone call he received after the 9/11 terrorist attack was from a Japanese American friend,“unfortunately telling me to ‘prepare yourself and your community,’” he said. “I didn’t imagine what would happen, and since then, we’ve been honored building bridges together.”
But Ayloush was disturbed by a different type of mass imprisonment today. “Seventy-five years after that shameful moment in our history, we still have to deal with camps in our country, where migrant children are separated from their parents and placed into camps,” he said. “When we say ‘never again,’ let’s make sure it never happens again.”
Karen Korematsu, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, shared how she first learned about her father’s Supreme Court case — which challenged the constitutionality of the wartime incarceration — in high school after her friend had read about someone named Korematsu in Roger Daniel’s book “Concentration Camps USA.” Up until that time, she did not know what her father had done during the war.