A procession of banners representing the 10 concentration camps marks the start of the 43rd Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday.


Photos by MARIO G. REYES (see Manzanar Pilgrimage photo journal here)

Ken Koshio leads a sing-along.

I’m sure Sue is singing with us,” Ken Koshio said as he strummed his guitar, leading the gathering at the 43rd Manzanar Pilgrimage in an impromptu rendition of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey’s favorite song, “Sukiyaki.”

Kunitomi Embrey’s spirit was very much present in the joyful and reflective ceremony, held for the 43rd time at the site of the former concentration camp. This year marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 and the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

How far the pilgrimage movement has come since its beginnings in 1969 was evident in the diverse gathering of approximately 1,000. Among the attendees were many former internees and their children and grandchildren. Groups joining in the pilgrimage included the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, Council on American Islamic Relations, Florin Japanese American Citizens League, Japanese Business Association of Southern California, Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, Pomona College, UCLA, USC, the City of Monterey Park and the United Teachers of Los Angeles.

Consul General Jun Niimi offers a prayer before the cemetery memorial.

Consul General Jun Niimi made his first visit to Manzanar, riding on the JBA bus to experience the three-hour service.

“I am quite impressed and touched by the fact that so many American citizens of Japanese ancestry were once interned here, and had a very difficult time,” said Niimi. “I think we Japanese should know more about the history of Japanese American people.”

“The state of the present is based on the accumulation of past history and events, and the U.S.-Japan relationship is no exception. Last year, Japan was struck by the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the U.S. extended warm support to us. And we Japanese are so grateful to the American people and now the two countries enjoy friendly, good relations.”

Harumi Yamashita, who was 11 when she was sent to Manzanar from Terminal Island, brought many of her family with her to the pilgrimage. She recalled harsh conditions facing her as a little girl. Japanese Americans from Terminal Island were given just 48 hours to evacuate their homes in February 1942.

“We came to Manzanar at the beginning of April when they were still building. I lived in Block 10 and I had to go to Block 4 to go to the bathroom, because it wasn’t connected yet. So we had to walk to the next block,” said Yamashita. When we first came, there was no light, and they had a hay mattress that we had to shake and put on the bed.”

The Manzanar Committee marked the passage of some of the early pilgrims, including Victor Shibata, who coined the term “pilgrimage” for the annual event, and Kazuko “Koo” Sakamoto, a longtime committee member who survived Manzanar as a young single mother raising two children. The committee also honored the passing of Gordon Hirabayashi.

Her daughter, Pat Sakamoto, paid an emotional tribute to her mother, who died last October. Her voice heavy with emotion, Sakamoto told the gathering that it was her first pilgrimage without her.

“She would never speak of her days here in Manzanar. When I would ask her, her only reply was, ‘It was not a good time, there was nothing to remember,’” said Sakamoto.

Through the yearly pilgrimages, Kazuko eventually revealed to her daughter that she had given birth to Pat’s older sister alone because her husband was working in the beet fields. While in camp, her father abandoned his wife, then pregnant with Pat, renounced his citizenship and returned to Japan with his parents.

“I realized how really strong my mother was, to have survived this whole thing that went on in 1942 to 1945, and that’s why I come here every year,” said Pat.

Rose Ochi (center) receives the Baka Guts Award from Kerry Kunitomi Cababa and Bruce Embrey.

Rose Ochi was honored with the Baka Guts award, a tribute to the legacy of Kunitomi Embrey. Ochi played a key role in getting Manzanar named a National Historic Site and in securing the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

“I don’t need any rewards because just seeing these crowds every year of former internees, their children, their grandchildren, and college students, they are people who we see are going to be our future advocates,” said Ochi. She thanked Bruce Embrey and Kerry Kunitomi Cababa, cochairs of the Manzanar Committee, for organizing the yearly pilgrimage and keeping the spirit of Kunitomi Embrey alive.

“Sue was someone who was always willing to risk family scolding and community ostracism for pushing unpopular causes, including her pioneering efforts to decry her unconstitutional deprivation of rights and to advocate for wartime redress,” said Ochi, who was interned at Rohwer, Ark.

Dr. Mitch Maki, vice provost of academic affairs at Cal State Dominguez Hills, gave the keynote address. One of the authors of “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” Maki said the injustices experienced at Manzanar resonate beyond Japanese Americans to any one who has suffered prejudice due to their religion, sexual orientation or ethnic heritage.

Mitch Maki

“The concentration camp story does not end with the closure of the camps. There was a whole second chapter to that story, the chapter of redress,” said Maki. “The chapter of how a small, disenfranchised community that was hated and despised by the rest of the country was able to find its voice and stand up to the nation and say, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied. We are owed an apology.’

“The concentration camp story of World War II is not just a great Japanese American story, it is a great American story.”

Frank Hays, former Manzanar superintendent, now superintendent of the Western Arctic National Parklands in Alaska, was welcomed back with a certificate of appreciation. The Manzanar Committee also honored Charles Abbott, manager of Crystal Geyser Roxane, who provides water to the annual pilgrimage.

“I got choked up to tears at many points today. It’s such important national park, it tells such an important story. It’s one of the highlights of my career and my whole life, my time spent here,” said Hays.

An interfaith religious ceremony was held at the Manzanar cemetery and UCLA Kyodo Taiko, who performed at the beginning of the ceremony, gave flowers to attendees to offer as tribute. At the conclusion, the gathering formed a wide circle and danced to the ondo standard “Tanko Bushi.”Jane Okubo, who was born in Amache, said she has been to the Amache Pilgrimage and was joining the

Manzanar Pilgrimage with a group from the Florin JACL. The Amache Pilgrimage will take place next month.

“I’m very much impressed with the presentation and have ideas to take back to the Amache Pilgrimage,” said Okubo.