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THROUGH THE FIRE: Pilgrimage Fever

(Published Aug. 24, 2017)

Just as the brightly lit lanterns of Obon season are beginning to come down, so the annual pilgrimage season is coming to a close.

Record attendances at camp pilgrimages to Manzanar, Amache, Minidoka, and Heart Mountain indicate a resurgence of interest in the mass incarceration sites in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of EO 9066 and the advent of cries for immigrant walls and Muslim bans. With the growth in the number of pilgrimages and those who   attend them, the journeys are clearly more popular than ever. What’s more, national coverage of these largely JA-attended events has been hitting the airwaves like never before.

I just returned from the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, where a record 450 people were on hand as NBC’s Tom Brokaw and The Washington Post put the event in the national limelight. There’s definitely a satisfaction in being recognized in The New York Times, but I couldn’t help but wonder why more people than ever, especially Yonsei and Gosei, are seeking to rediscover their JA ties to what was once considered the shame of incarceration.

I decided to ask my friend Hanako Wakatsuki, who recently invited me to join her Facebook group called Pilgrimage Junkies (I’m among those rare people who qualify since I’ve been to pilgrimages at Manzanar, Tule Lake, and Heart Mountain — though others have proudly tallied up many more). I first met Hanako when she was assigned to be my roommate at the 2014 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until the last evening of the weekend that I finally stumbled over her in our tiny dorm room. She had spent most of her daytime hours working as a member of the National Park Service staff, and most of her nights socializing with the many people she knew from this and other similar events.

Hanako is one of a group of young people (at my age, I define “young” as anyone under 50) who has re-ignited an interest in sharing our history with the help of people in the aging Nisei and Sansei generations. (Lest we forget or deny, all us Sansei are now senior citizens.) Here’s a shocking statistic for you: Hanako tells me that out of the 322 participants at this year’s Minidoka Pilgrimage, 48.4% (or nearly half) were under the age of 30! Hanako attributes this rise in youth attendance to the inherent camaraderie experienced at pilgrimages.

She also says she feels lucky to spend time with those of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations as she reconnects to our disappearing JA history. She considers each moment spent at a pilgrimage so valuable that she is willing to participate with little or no sleep. She adds that the post-event impromptu gatherings are where the fun really starts.

Former detainee Shig Yabu talks about his childhood spent living at Heart Mountain while standing inside a barrack being preserved there.

Another person in that group of young pilgrimage addicts is Kimiko Marr, a filmmaker living just south of Santa Cruz who refers to herself as an “older Yonsei.” Raised in Missouri, this Hapa, with the energy and enthusiasm of someone half her “older” age of 43, developed her obsession with pilgrimages last year. Together with another younger filmmaker, Melissa Fujimoto, they raised enough money through crowdfunding to partially underwrite their trips to the desolate and hard-to-reach areas where camps once stood.

This year alone, that meant trekking to five (gasp!) pilgrimages at Manzanar, Topaz, Minidoka, Amache, and Heart Mountain. As a reminder of how difficult it is to get to these out-of-the-way places, she tells how she drove all the way from California to Colorado to attend the Amache Pilgrimage when her car got stuck in the sandy mud on the way, causing her to miss the entire program.

In addition to helping subsidize these oft-expensive trips, the money they raised is primarily being used to develop a website that offers pertinent information they’ve collected for those seeking to attend a pilgrimage — including upcoming dates, when and where to register, and even how to get to one. In the meantime, she is also trying to record interviews with as many of the remaining Nisei who attend them as a way of preserving our own history, instead of letting others do it for us.

Kimiko offers a very convincing argument for the importance of people of all ages to attend a pilgrimage. As she put it, she has experienced a sense of “belonging” she gets nowhere else. It’s a “big family reunion,” or so she excitedly describes these festive JA get-togethers. She says it’s especially true for fellow Hapas who have lost their connection to their grandparents’ history. With both her own grandparents now gone, she says it’s time to learn from those Nisei who are joining the ever-growing number of disappearing camp survivors.

Her website is scheduled to be completed early next year. In the meantime, for those whose pilgrimage appetites are whetted, here are some dates and websites for a few of next year’s pilgrimages:

(1) Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 28, 2018,

(2) Tule Lake Pilgrimage, June 29-July 2, 2018,

(3) Minidoka Pilgrimage, July 5-8, 2018 (tentative date),

(4) Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, July 27-28, 2018,

(5) Amache Pilgrimage, May 19, 2018 (tentative),

As for those camps that have not yet held regular annual events, an invitation-only event at Topaz in 2017 will hopefully open the door to future events, and Poston and Rowher/Jerome organizations are being encouraged to hold pilgrimages in 2018.

An added word of warning: For those interested in attending the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage, one of the oldest and most popular of all camp pilgrimages, it is critical to send in the mail-in registration form on the day it first becomes available on the website. Space on this pilgrimage is extremely limited, and due to its overwhelming popularity, it’s sure to sell out. With just a little effort and a lot of enthusiasm, you, too, can join the elite group of pilgrimage junkies.


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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