Stories From Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe Sparks News, Weather, Video

Stories From Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp

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Just a few hours south of Reno on US 395, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. These days Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp isn't must more than a few reconstructed displays in a large desert valley, but every year the site holds a pilgrimage for survivors to return and share their stories.

Channel 2 was there for the 75th anniversary of the creation of these camps, and these are the stories of the survivors.

Part I: History of Manzanar

During World War II more than 10,000 people were imprisoned just a few hours south of Reno at the Manzanar Japanese Internment camp.

Now, 75 years after the camp opened, survivors return to tell their stories.    

The Manzanar National Historic Site is a pretty barren desert. So bare that you might not even notice it as you drive south on 395. It's easy to be distracted by the stunning mountain ranges, pine forests, and picturesque valleys. It's just past Bishop, but if you hit Lone Pine, you've gone too far.

The camp was opened in 1942 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order giving the War Department (now Department of Defense) authority to round up people of Japanese descent and put them in camps around the country. The biggest of those was Manzanar, situated in the upper Owens Valley, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
 
"Just the irony," Warren Furutani said of the view. His parents were incarcerated at Manzanar. "The irony of this place and the background of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains and the beautiful day. And you're at a concentration camp."
 
Furutani's parents were a few of the 10,000 prisoners who were taken to live in barracks surrounded by barbed wire, watched over by guard towers. They were removed from their homes, schools, and livelihoods due to anti-Japanese sentiment and fear following the Pearl Harbor attacks.

Most of them were American citizens; some, for several generations. Many didn't even speak Japanese, like Wilbur Sato.
 
"We didn't know what was going to happen to us," Sato said. "Were we going to be gassed like they did in Germany? Were they going to send us to Japan?"

Ultimately they were held in the camps until the war ended, although, not everyone left. Several graves occupy a small cemetery near the only original remnant still standing-- a white stone obelisk carved with Kanji symbols.

More than 40 years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, officially apologizing to Japanese Americans and granting reparations for their time spent in the camps.

But the survivors and their children say the most valuable take-away is the lesson.

"People have experiences where they have been judged as a group, not as an individual," Furutani said. "They've been judged not by the content of their character, but as a group. And that's when we all have to stand up."

Part II: Survivor Stories

Every year the Manzanar Historic Site holds a pilgrimage for survivors of Japanese internment to discuss their time there with younger generations. There aren't many survivors left who remember being imprisoned there, since the camp closed more than 70 years ago. And many of those who are still alive are reluctant to tell their stories. But we did find two who were willing to share.

"I remember the sand storms," Alice Kiyoko Nakagawa Rodriguez said, "the sand coming through the floors in the barracks. I remember the barracks and the tar paper. The snakes. We had a lot of snakes that would come up through our floors."
 
We found Nakagawa Rodriguez searching for her own name on a wall of Manzanar prisoners inside the site's museum. Her family was separated and sent to the camps when she was just a baby.

"I was one and a half," she said, "and my sister would have been about four and a half."

For years the family lived within the barbed wire of the camp, waiting in line for food and wondering what would happen to them. The anxious uncertainty about their future is a common thread throughout the survivors' stories.

One survivor, when asked what he remembers most about his time in Manzanar:

"Not knowing what's going to happen to us," Wilbur Sato replied. "Just kind of sitting there."

Sato was a 12-year-old living in Los Angeles when he was herded onto a train in 1942.
 
"People were pushed into these cars.It was dark and children were crying. We didn't know where we were going."

He spent eight hours in the dark until he found out.
 
"When we came to Manzanar, we were met at the train station by soldiers with bayonets on their rifles."
 
Sato's parents were citizens. His mother was born in the United States, and had previously volunteered for the war effort.

"We were patriotic Americans," Sato said. "And all of a sudden we were the enemy. We are not Americans anymore if they can do that to us, you know?"

They see Japanese internment as America's concentration camps. Stripped of their rights and property and held for nearly four years, Japanese Americans left with scars. The camps were taken down, and memories were lost, as older generations chose to forget.
 
"She said the bad memories, I don't want to bring it up," Nakagawa Rodriguez said of her mother. "My mom was a really happy person. She always wanted to think the best of people, the best of something that was going to happen. And she just said that was a part that she didn't want to remember or talk about. So we just left it alone."
 
Now, the younger generations are speaking up in their place. Nakagawa Rodriguez said she's glad to see it. And if there is one message she'd like to take hold?

"That it should have never happened."

Part III: Modern Lessons

Over the weekend we sent a crew to the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp to meet the survivors who gather there once a year.

We knew we would find survivors, and we knew we would see reminders of a dark part of America's history. But we didn't expect to see generations of Japanese Americans standing up in defense of a different group entirely.

Traditional Taiko drums sounded a rallying beat to welcome the survivors of Manzanar, and younger generations, to the annual pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage is a mostly somber ceremony, as survivors share stories of forced removal from homes and years spent within barbed wire fences. But there is also an undercurrent of anger at a period of our history sometimes forgotten.

"For decades, almost no one talked about or wrote about America's concentration camps," Bruce Embrey, the co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, said from the podium.

That anger motivated redress through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and secured reparations for Japanese Americans, but the survivors of Manzanar and their children still feel their work isn't done.

"The political and social climate in our country feels strangely familiar," Embrey said. "Calls to exclude people based on religion or to refuse refugees and immigrants entry into our country, or to create a Muslim registry, emanate from many elected officials today."

The Manzanar community is worried. They see the possibility that history could repeat itself; this time, with Muslim Americans.

"It happens in different ways," Warren Furutani, whose parents were incarcerated, said. "Maybe it won't be physical, an actual camp. The Muslim registry, if you have everyone's information and you keep track of them, it's just like having a bracelet on your ankle."

That possibility is not lost on the large contingent of Muslim Americans present at the pilgrimage.

"It was necessary for us to come and be reminded of the history of this nation," Sahar Pirzada, a member of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said. "During World War II, you had storefronts that said such horrible things, such as 'Japs keep moving.' Today we have 'Muslim-free zones.' We are in a moment where we have to fight for our rights."

A fight with unusual allies, perhaps, but allies nonetheless.

"Seeing folks from the Japanese American community of all generations show up today and speak so strongly and so supportively of the Muslim American community gives me hope," Pirzada said, "that if anything were to go down, I would not be alone in this struggle."

For more information about the Manzanar Historic Site, click here.

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