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Preserving the Complete History: Remembering Japanese Internment Camps

A couple of months ago I did a day trip to visit the historical site of one of the 10 internment camps which were formed due to Executive Order 9066 issued on February 19, 1942. Manzanar Relocation Camp is located between the Sierra Nevadas and the Owens Valley. Manzanar held over 11,070 Japanese Americans from 1942–1945. EO 9066 forced 120,000 American citizens to leave everything and become in all accounts prisoners; two-thirds of those were native-born American citizens. This executive order largely focused on people living on the West Coast of the United States to eliminate the possible threat of a secondary attack. They were relocated far inland and the majority of the camps were outside of the West Coast. While this was done in the 1940s, our current climate is looming to make it seem like there are forces in this world that are attempting to perform different forms of subjugation and confinement.

Manzanar, in the middle of nowhere California (and I mean nowhere—it takes over three hours to drive the more than 230 miles from Los Angeles and it is not directly accessible from Central California), is divided by the great Sierra Nevadas. This is one of the things that struck me when I arrived at Manzanar—the stark beauty and ruggedness of the mountains, the immense flat lines of the valley, and the complete isolation. Due to being so close to the Nevadas and the desert valley conditions, the weather can be extreme. Many of the detainees documented the harshness of the weather conditions, from the high winds to the stark cold at night, and the barely adequate buildings to shelter them from it.

This history can be accessed at the preserved historical site at Manzanar. The National Monument of Manzanar is very impressive. Before it was given the National Historic Site, it was considered the most preserved of camps, as many of the other sites had since been reclaimed for other purposes or developed. Many former detainees started as early as 1945 to ensure that the site would be preserved—a way of ensuring that history and, more importantly, social memory would remember the atrocity, the result of when fear and racism lead political decisions.

It had a clear landscape of internment history and of the lives of those that were impacted. There are a few buildings that have been preserved or remodeled, but a lot of the actual physical site was demolished—a hope, maybe, to wipe away this stain on the history of America. But it is even more haunting to see just the concrete blocks which were used to raise up the 36 Blocks or living “barns.”

The camp is over 6,200 acres, which held everything from the living quarters of both the detainees and staff, to hospitals, religious structures, and multiple factories which ironically supplied much needed supplies for the war effort, like camouflage nets and rubber. During the internment, 146 people died at Manzanar, and currently a monument has been erected to mark this and well as to stand as a stark reminder of the loss of freedom and life but a hope for a better future.

There have also been debates over the language used in discussing Manzanar and the Japanese Internment Period. Many have agreed that in the very definition, Manzanar and its fellow camps could be called ‘concentration camps.’ Even Jewish Committees and groups have agreed that the definition, “a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are” (American Jewish Committee) can be adequately used to describe the 10 US Camps. That it does not take away from the atrocities and horrors seen in the internment and death camps of the Shoah, but helps to further illustrate what xenophobia, racism, hatred, and apathy can accomplish.

Manzanar had long been the focus of efforts to maintain its importance when the hard efforts of Japanese Americans saw it accorded the designation of a California Historical Landmark in 1972. Continued efforts saw federal designation as a historical landmark in 1985. President George H.W. Bush signed into law on March 3, 1992 a bill to designate Manzanar as a National Historic Site, “To provide for the protection and interpretation of the historical, cultural, and natural resources associated with the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II.” (Library of Congress) This act was met with opposition, as some didn’t think it was worthy of government money for preservation, and others were offended by the use of the word “concentration camp” and even the restoration of buildings, due to not wanting to see the physical presence and reminder of what took place on that land. But despite the pushback, Manzanar has continued to be preserved to be a beacon of history—a lighthouse warning of what could easily happen again.

In 1969, 150 people started the Manzanar Pilgrimage, where people would undertake the 230 miles to Manzanar and pay tribute to help keep the tragic history alive. After the 9/11 attacks, Japanese Americans reached out to Muslim Americans to participate in the Pilgrimage to help increase awareness of civil rights protections and to help downplay the seeds of fear and hatred.

I have been to many national parks and I had always been struck by the number of international visitors, so I was expecting the same regarding this site. I was presently surprised when I wandered the exhibits at the visitor’s center and I saw all ages, all ethnic groups, and mostly of American descent. It was somewhat heartwarming to know that other fellow Americans have deemed this site, this pilgrimage, this preservation of our whole history, important. It has become more and more important to remember our whole history, the good and the bad, the wrong moves and the right steps towards progression.

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