It’s free. It’s open to the public. It’s an enlightening, edifying and entertaining weekend chock-full of special inter-generational activities. It is the 43rd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, converging at Manzanar National Historic Site April 27-29 to commemorate “a unique chapter of American history,” said Bruce Embrey, Manzanar Committee co-chair.
“There is a lot of talk about the Constitution these days,” Embrey said. “This is an opportunity to see the importance of it, the importance of civil rights. (To see) what our country did wrong and what it did right. It is an example of the resiliency of American Democracy and Manzanar is a brilliant example of that.”
It is also the 70th anniversary of the camp’s opening in 1942 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which authorized the mass roundup of West Coast Japanese-Americans during World War II. And it is the 20th anniversary of legislation signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1992, to establish Manzanar as a national historical site. Sue Kunitomi Embrey had lobbied at state and federal levels, turning the site of “one cemetery marker in the desert” into a national historic site.
More than 1,000 people of diverse backgrounds are expected to flock to the 43rd commemoration of “the unjust incarceration of over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry in 10 American concentration camps (and) Manzanar was the first of these camps,” the Manzanar Committee said in a press release.
Manzanar Chief of Interpretation Alisa Lynch welcomes everyone because, she explained, the nature of each pilgrimage is defined by “the energy of the people and how they interact with the site and with each other. People bring so much emotion; it’s good for everyone. It’s not about being Japanese. First of all, these people were Japanese-Americans,” said Lynch, with an emphasise on “Americans.”
These Americans experienced the most precious of life’s moments while incarcerated at Manzanar: starting first grade, graduating from high school, that first love, marriage, greeting their first born, burying their dead.
There is a human connection to be made at Manzanar Historic Site, no matter one’s background. The same is true for the internees, Lynch said. “People had common experiences but not the same experiences.”
Manzanar’s usual rich fare of extensive exhibits, an award-winning short film, self-guided walking and auto tours and Junior Ranger children’s activities are available all three days, beginning Friday.
There will be a public reception from 4-8 p.m. Friday at the Eastern California Museum, at 155 N. Grant St. in Independence. Shiro and Mary Nomura’s Manzanar collection and “Personal Responsibility: Camp Photos of Toyo Miyatake” will be exhibited.
On Saturday, there will be book-signings by “Children of Manzanar” editor Heather Lindquist from 9-11 a.m. and 2:30-5 p.m. The “Selected Artists from the Henry Fukuhara Annual Alabama Hills and Manzanar Workshop” art show and sale are happening all day Saturday, through May 20.
The Pilgrimage ceremony officially starts at noon Saturday at the Manzanar Cemetery in the northwest corner of the historic site with a performance by UCLA Kyodo Taiko. Next is keynote speaker Dr. Mitchell T. Maki, lead author of “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” a case study about the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.
Next on the agenda, Rose Ochi, career civil rights activist, key figure in the establishment of Manzanar and long-time pro bono counsel for the historic site, will receive the 2012 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award. Perhaps prophetically, Takayo “Rose” Matsui Ochi’s birth name, Takayo, means “child with high ideals.”
Ochi has explained that, at her insistence, her father taught her kendo stick fighting when she was a girl. “What I really learned was less about martial arts than about being willing to get hit, and the courage to face your own fears,“ she states on www.rootsweb.ancestry.com . This outlook has served Ochi well, from early days of defending herself and her ethnicity in schoolyard fights to being a life-long warrior for human rights.
The pilgrimage will end with the traditional inter-faith service – Buddhist, Christian, Konko and Muslim – and an Ondo dance, led by UCLA Nikkei Student Unions Odori dancers. After the ceremony, the park rangers will offer walking tours of Manzanar.
However, hundreds of people usually head for Manzanar at Dusk, a more intimate venue which allows participants to interact with former incarcerees, to share personal stories and to “discuss the relevance of the concentration camp experience to present-day events and issues,” states the Manzanar Committee. The event will be held from 5-8 p.m. Saturday at Lone Pine High School Auditorium at 538 S. Main St./Hwy. 395 in Lone Pine – across from MacDonald’s.
With many of the incarcerees in their 80s, a diverse group of young people are taking the lead for this leg of the pilgrimage – the event is co-sponsored by Lone Pine’s school district and high school and by the Nikkei Student Unions at UCLA, UCSD and Cal Poly Pomona. (Nikkei generally refers to people of Japanese descent.)
“When we return (to Los Angels), tired and dusty, we have a sense of unity, a greater respect for those incarcerated, and a drive to ensure that his moment in history will never be repeated,” said event organizer Sydney Shiroyama of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union.
Explaining the importance of continued youth involvement, UCLA Nikkei Student Union member Kyle Ichikawa said that young people are often expected to somehow learn and grow passively, however the converse is true.
“(We) should be the ones giving the chance to not only grow through taking on a leadership role but also to shape how these stories are told to future generations,” he said. “We are the ones who will bring leadership and change to the communities of tomorrow” – the ones who can help to make sure Manzanar never happens again.
Locals share that common-but-different experience. “We have such a national treasure here” and this event brings “living history to the students (creating a) first-hand relevancy and reality of the magnitude” of the internment, a relatively brief period of time in America’s history but one that had such a powerful impact, explained Larry Todd, Lone Pine Unified School District superintendent.
Owens Valley residents were also impacted by the establishment of Manzanar, said Embrey. “Their opinions and lives were not factored in” when the government chose Manzanar’s location.
Events for the 43rd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage wrap up Sunday with additional book-signings by Heather Lindquist at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Pilgrimage participants are advised to prepare for high winds and temperature extremes: bring water, hats, sunscreen, comfortable shoes and food – there is no food service at Manzanar,
Preserving Manzanar requires following the few simple rules given in the sites brochure: stay on designated walkways and roads, keep pets on leash, no hunting or camping and, above all, leave everything undisturbed.
Located at 5001 Hwy. 395 (six miles south of Independence and nine miles north of Lone Pine), Manzanar is open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
For more Historic Site information, call (760) 878-2194 or visit www.nps.gov/manz  or www.facebook.com/ManzanarNationalHistoric  Site.
For more Pilgrimage information, contact the Manzanar Committee at (323) 662-5102, http://blog.manzanarcommittee.org  or www.ManzanarCommittee.org .