May 30, 2023 — Los Angeles, CA
For some, it was a pilgrimage. For others, a revelation.
A group of Japanese Americans and leaders of American Jewish Committee traveled together in mid-May to visit Manzanar, the former World War II incarceration camp for Japanese Americans located four hours north of Los Angeles.
Once a desolate way station that 10,000 Japanese Americans were forced to call home, it is now a national historic site whose troubled legacy continues to reveal itself for new generations.
Bringing the Jewish and Japanese communities together like this may seem an odd coupling. Yet, both have a shared history of the horrors of government-sponsored persecution and the unraveling of societal rights because of race or religion, said AJC Los Angeles Director Richard Hirschhaut.
“The histories of both the Jewish and Japanese American communities are so parallel and intersect in ways that are poignant and powerful, and so very relevant to the shared struggle against hate and bigotry in our world today,” Hirschhaut said.
For some, this journey was personal. Alan Miyatake’s father Archie and his family had been sent to what was then called the Manzanar War Relocation Center.
Alan’s grandfather Toyo, who had owned a photography studio in Los Angeles, smuggled in a camera lens and fashioned a homemade camera which was confiscated several times. But Toyo was eventually made the official camp photographer and even traveled to other camps to take pictures there.
Alan – whose parents met at Manzanar – now runs the photography studio opened by his grandfather. It celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“It’s very emotional, it means a lot to be here,” Miyatake said. “I come up here four or five times a year and I keep discovering. It’s part of my family history.”
The trip was sponsored by AJC, the global advocacy organization for the Jewish people, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, in association with the Japanese American National Museum and Go For Broke National Education Center.
Most of the Jewish participants had not been to Manzanar before. Hearing the stories of life there and visiting the camp—flanked on one side by the still-snowcapped Sierra Mountains and high desert on the other—was a powerful experience.
“It is impossible not to be deeply moved and profoundly touched by the experience of being on this sacred ground and thinking about how innocent fellow American citizens were treated by our government during a period of war,” Hirschhaut said following solemn prayers from a Buddhist bishop who was on the trip.
Conditions at Manzanar were often primitive, even squalid. The food was barely edible. Privacy was all-but-nonexistent in hastily constructed barracks where the extremes of summer and winter were acutely felt.
Most of the camp was dismantled after the war. Much of what remained was reclaimed by nature. While some who were there refrained from talking about their experiences to their families, others made sure Manzanar was not forgotten.
Among them was Warren Furutani, a former California State Assemblymember, with a long record as an activist that continues today. He was among those who made the first organized pilgrimage to Manzanar in 1969 and led the push to have it designated as a national historic site.
“The more they denied our inquiries,” said Furutani of those confined at Manzanar, “the more it prompted us to ask more questions.”
The American part of being Japanese American may have been overlooked by the government. But it was not forgotten by those in the camps. In fact, thousands of men—about 750 from Manzanar -- enlisted in the Army and became part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most-decorated unit of its size in American military history. And the one that sustained the most casualties.
“Most Americans don’t know that story and most Asian Americans don’t know that story,” said Mitch Maki, President and CEO of the Go for Broke National Education Center, which tells the story of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II.
In the end, it is an American story, one that those who went on this trip realized more must know about. It was not lost on Hirschhaut that similar efforts are being made in the Jewish community to ensure as many Holocaust survivors bear witness to what they endured before they die.
“The parallels of how those who were incarcerated here, despite the conditions, maintained their dignity and humanity, is a very powerful lesson, said Hirschhaut, “and causes us to think about Jews who were incarcerated, imprisoned in concentration camps, ultimately death camps, during the Nazi era. The echoes of our shared histories resonate powerfully and inform our mutual commitment to combating hate in all its forms in our world today.”
For Jane Matsumoto of the JACCC, this shared experience was amplified by the power of allyship: "My father was one of the earliest arrivals to Manzanar; my family has visited on many occasions, and it has always been an emotional experience. However, this was the first time I have visited with friends from outside of the JA community. It was an empowering experience to know we have allies and support, and how important it is for all of us to stay vigilant for those who may need our voices."
Indeed, a pilgrimage and a revelation.