This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.
Although I am proud to be an American, I am ashamed of a number of events in our past, where we acted, not from our best selves, but from fear and prejudice. Manzanar National Historic Site commemorates one of those shameful decisions.
For those unfamiliar with the history, during World War II, the United States Government rounded up about 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent - including many who had been here for generations - and placed them in concentration camps. They lost their property, businesses, connections, and much more. While these camps were not German-style extermination devices, they were nothing less than prisons where men, women, and children were incarcerated for who they were. Without due process. Without a trial. Without even an accusation that they had done anything wrong. Just because they or their ancestors came from Japan at some time in the past. Fully two thirds of those interned were born in the United States and were either second, third, or later generations of Americans.
There were ten camps throughout the United States, two of which were located here in California.
In summer of 2015, the kids and I visited Manzanar National Historic Site, one of the camps in California. It is located in the Owens Valley, in the desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The location is striking, with Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states just to the southwest. The mountains rise 10,000 feet above the valley and provide a dramatic backdrop. But it is hot and windy in the summer, cold and windy in the winter, and let’s not sugarcoat this: this was a prison where children were incarcerated.
Manzanar is a shell of what it once was, of course. At its peak, it held over 10,000 people in wood-and-tar-paper barracks organized in identical square blocks with mess hall, bathrooms, and laundry facilities. Most of the barracks were dismantled and the materials sold off after the war. Only a few are left - mostly reconstructed rather than original. One mess hall remains, and some of the administration building, which houses the museum. You can drive around the site, though, and explore what is left of the gardens that the inmates constructed, and see some of the foundations. There is also a memorial at the site of the graveyard, of which little remains. The families of the dead generally relocated the remains of their loved ones after the war. Who would want to be buried at the prison where one died? A guard tower and the entrance guard stations also remain, built of stone rather than wood. You can see the site pretty well from Highway 395, and we had driven by on the way to various destinations on the east side of the Sierra.
The museum is excellent. I was also thoroughly impressed by the Junior Ranger program here. It is not at all easy, and requires a lot of legwork to find answers within the museum and on the grounds. The amount of information that the kids discovered and learned was better than many history courses.
My eldest daughter (age 12 at the time) was deeply moved by what she learned - and by the video interviews of the survivors. My second daughter was inspired to read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, a memoir of time spent imprisoned in this camp. There is such horror and sadness in being told to leave everything you know with only those few possessions you can carry with little notice, and travel to goodness knows where, to be imprisoned. And it affected my kids. (And me, of course, even though I was more familiar with the story before we visited.)
At the time we made our visit, we could not have know that the nominee of one of the two major parties for the office of the President of the United States would speak favorably of the internment camps and use them as justification for harassment and exclusion - violation of the constitutional rights of - another minority group. Worse yet, polls of those supporting this man indicate a majority believe the internment camps were appropriate. That is the most scary part about this: that one of the shameful episodes in our history is just shrugged at by so many.
Hindsight, of course, has shown several things. First, it turns out that there was really no evidence that Japanese Americans were a threat. It was - like it always is - hysteria, prejudice, and a desire to harm “the enemy” however one can. Japanese Americans - like Muslim Americans today - were part of their communities. They ran businesses, held jobs, sent their children to school, laughed, loved, lived in peace with their neighbors. Today, there are around 3.3 million Muslims living in America. And like the Japanese Americans 75 years ago, the vast majority are no threat whatsoever. Believe it or not, Muslims are the second most educated religious group in the United States - and that includes women. (Jews are the most educated.) Despite the stereotypes, 90% of Muslims believe women should be allowed to work out outside the home. (That’s a heck of a lot higher percentage than Christians - particularly the fundamentalists I grew up around.) Like the Japanese Americans of 75 years ago, they are part of our community, deserve better than the hostility and harassment they often receive.
The story of Manzanar and Japanese American internment is a cautionary tale for us. When we give in to fear and hate of the “other,” those not like us, we find that we are capable of great evil. Evil we claim (falsely) that we are not capable of. But we are. We very much are. Even those of us with more progressive views on race. After all, it was Earl Warren and Franklin Roosevelt who supported internment - not their finest moments, to say the least. But this election has brought out the (mostly) dormant forces of xenophobia and racial hatred as a certain major candidate has run on a platform of hate and exclusion, blaming our problems on those other, darker skinned people with different religious views. And yes, that includes suspicion of Catholics. The “Know Nothings” appear to be alive and well again. It’s raw tribalism - and it is driven by fear now just like it was back then.
And like it was in the 1940s, fear leads to bad decisions, and these decisions cause great suffering to innocent people. Men, women, and children.
One more fact both saddens me and gives me hope. The United States took a really, really long time to acknowledge that internment was wrong. One would have thought there might have been an apology within a few years. Not so. In fact, it took more than forty years - when many survivors were already dead. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law that paid survivors the grand total of $20,000 for each survivor. That’s not much for four years of one’s live, loss of property and businesses, and all that, is it? In 1990, President George Bush would send formal apology letters. (see pictures below)
But, as many survivors have said, the lesson to take from this horrible mistake is that we should purpose that it never happen again. At one time, I might have thought we had learned that lesson. Now, I realize that for a significant portion of the United States population, this lesson has not been learned, and they would be all too eager to repeat it, regardless of the cost to the victims.
As a homeschooling father and as a decent person, I am doing my best to educate my own children about our history, both good and bad. I am also trying to instill in them a sense of empathy, of understanding the experiences of others, and of always placing themselves in the shoes of others before taking action out of fear. In our world today, this is needed as much as ever.
Therefore, I urge my readers: take your kids to Manzanar or another camp and learn about the real life consequences of fear and hate. The future will thank you.
George Takei, who played Sulu on the original Star Trek series, was interned in one of the camps as a child. Here is a portion of an interview he gave about his experience there.
If you can’t make it to Manzanar, the website is a good place to start learning. If you are in the Los Angeles area, the Japanese American Museum also has a permanent exhibit on internment.
This exhibit profoundly moved me. Some family, limited to those possessions they could carry, chose to bring a Koto. As a musician, my violin would have come with me too. No question.
For more about the Koto, see my review of Seven Japanese Tales.
Racism was an issue long before WWII. The internment camps were a symptom of a deeper problem.
Inside and out of the barracks. No privacy, to say the least.
My eldest daughter in the kitchen of the Mess Hall. Food was pretty gross and not at all culturally appropriate most of the time, but at least the inmates didn't starve. Which is faint praise indeed.
The remains of one of the gardens.
Euphemisms. This is from the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles
Back in the day when the GOP could acknowledge wrongs without blowback.