barbed wire

National historic site opens, and not a moment too soon

The Manzanar War Relocation Center opened as a national historic site in April of this year. What excellent timing!

Manzanar sign

In February, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the Secretary of War to designate military areas and remove from them anyone who might threaten the war effort. Everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast was subsequently moved to one of ten relocation centers; one of these is Manzanar, located between Lone Pine and Independence, California, on US highway 395. By November, the relocation was complete.

I didn't plan on visiting Manzanar, but I noticed the sign along the highway on my way home. It's a good thing I knew something about it, because I might not otherwise have stopped in. From the road, pretty much all one can see is an empty field and a large, non-descript building: the "interpretive center." But I'm really glad I stopped, for it is a powerful experience and the timing is perfect (Bush and Ashcroft: I'm thinking of you).

notice to people of Japanese ancestry

tag for Hikoji TakeuchiWhen notices went up, people of Japanese ancestry — US citizens or not — had only days to figure out what to do with their businesses, homes, and possessions. They could take with them only what they could carry. Each person and their hand baggage was given a shipping tag. Replicas of many of these tags are used at the site to put a human face to the relocation.

garden pond Completely uprooted, the people of the camp — today we might call them "detainees" — endeavored to recreate a "normal" life: they planted gardens, held classes to teach the children, fielded a football team (since it couldn't leave the camp, it was always the "home" team), published a newspaper, made furniture out of fruit crates, and so on.

US citizens among the detainees were put to work at tasks to support the war effort, like making camouflage netting. Non-citizens were prohibited from participating for fear of sabotage (though how a camouflage net could be sabotaged is beyond my imagination).

Ironically, like Nawa Munemori, a number of the detainees had children serving in the US military.
Tag for Nawa Munemori

Others, like Dr Yoshiye Togasaki, later joined the effort to help European refugees.
Tag for Yoshiye Togasaki

After the war, the Manzanar detainees were sent on their way with $25 and a one-way ticket to the destination of their choice, as long as it wasn't in California, Washington, or Oregon.

The fact that there is almost nothing left of Manzanar (it was dismantled and sold for scrap materials) actually adds to the haunting feeling of the place. It left me with a sense of profound sadness and anger. Sadness because of the senseless injustice that was done, and anger that the lesson that should have been learned from this tragic and shameful episode in our history is having to be learned all over again in the context of the "War on Terror."

origami crane on cemetery fence
The fence around the site cemetery is decorated with origami cranes, a symbol of happiness, auspiciousness, and longevity
sentry post
Internal police sentry post, crafted with pride by an interned master stone mason