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Manzanar: Honoring the past and future

May 1, 2012

Each year thousands of Japanese Americans make the pilgrimage to Manzanar in an effort to keep the history of the former interment camp alive and to celebrate the future generations who have learned from the mistakes of the past. Above, Manzanar pilgrims leave mementos at one of the most powerful symbols of the site, the Manzanar Monument. Photo by Jon Klusmire

Two unique anniversaries were observed during the 43rd Manzanar Pilgrimage, and the conflicting nature and impact of those two events sent bittersweet sentiments through the crowd of more than 1,100 who had gathered for the annual event.
Seventy years ago, in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the mass evacuation and imprisonment of more than 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans in an unprecedented violation of the civil rights of thousands of American citizens.
Twenty years ago, in 1992, under President George H. Bush, the Manzanar National Historic Site came into being by placing 814 acres of the former War Relocation Center under the care and protection of the National Park Service.
In between, a long and bitter political battle came to a conclusion, when President Ronald Reagan signed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. Commonly called “redress,” the act extended an official, national apology to the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II. That it took more than 40 years for the nation to acknowledge the fundamental injustice of the internment camps made the “victory,” bittersweet, at best. Forty years is a long time to recognize a wrong, and for the thousands of internees who had passed away during that 40-year wait, the apology obviously came too late.
The life of Rose Ochi has spanned the entire internment camp saga, from internee to activist to political operative who helped secure redress and the National Historic designation for Manzanar. Her efforts were recognized by the Manzanar Committee this year when she was awarded the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.
At age three, Takayo Matsui and her family were interned at the Rohwer camp, in Arkansas. She became “Rose” when she and the rest of the students were given Anglicized names. “The nice ladies of Arkansas decided to give me an American name,” she said. The message was pretty simple: “You are not a real American,” she noted, and it left her knowing what it meant to have her heritage and background “marginalized.”
After camp, Ochi excelled at school, but had to fight family tradition that stressed girls should become good wives and mothers. She won that fight, and got a college degree, a Masters degree, and then a law degree. In 1974, she went to work for the City of Los Angeles and became the head of the city’s Criminal Justice Planning Office. A few years earlier, she met Embry, and became the pro bono attorney for the Manzanar Committee, a position she would hold for decades.
Ochi was working in LA Mayor Tom Bradley’s office when the effort began to create the Manzanar National Historic Site. The battles over the site quickly became epic. The first victory came in the Owens Valley. Meeting in the Pines Café with local leaders, Ochi spotted then Inyo County Supervisor Keith Bright, who had initially opposed any historic designation. She pulled him aside and discussed how the story would be presented, and the economic benefit to the county of thousands of tourists stopping at a National Historic Site. Bright was convinced, and became one of the leaders of the effort to obtain the designation.
Next came a bigger, meaner foe: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The LADWP owned the Manzanar site before the war, and had become an adamant and intimidating opponent to selling the land or otherwise making any accommodations to the designation effort. After nasty in-fighting in the LA City Hall, City Council, and behind the scenes, Ochi caught LADWP officials changing the conclusions of a report that initially stated the site would not impact LADWP’s water rights. When that trick was revealed to then-Mayor Bradley, he dismissed LADWP’s concerns, and that put congressional approval on a fast track.
Ochi was working in Washington, D.C., when the legislative battle for redress was underway, and she worked behind the scenes with congressmen and senators to help get the bill passed and signed by President Ronald Reagan.
After recounting that tumultuous history, Ochi told the crowd that “I don’t need any awards; seeing this crowd come here is reward enough.”
Ochi addressed the many college students in attendance and the large number of people who were attending their first pilgrimage. “You are our future advocates,” she said.
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embry asked the crowd to reflect on the pace of change over the past 70 years. “People came here to help build their own prison,” he noted in reference to more than 1,000 internees who volunteered to help build Manzanar more than 70 years ago.
And then, after all the years of neglect and official, government indifference, a small group of people began coming to Manzanar, starting in 1969, to reclaim their families’ history, their communities’ legacy and their personal link to Manzanar. That was the start of what is now the Manzanar Pilgirimage, a movement that forced the state and federal governments to confront the history of the Internment camps, and face the reality of what happened in them. The Pilgrimage became “the catalyst for a national struggle” for both redress, and to recognize and preserve the history of the other camps.
And 20 years after it achieved that national recognition, Manzanar has become more than bittersweet memories, fading family photos and a few paragraphs in some history books. “Starting from one, lone cemetery monument in the sagebrush, this place has become a national historic site,” Embry said. “It’s bricks and mortar and it is not going away.”

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