By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
The skies were clear, the Sierra Nevada covered with snow, but there were no buses of pilgrims gathered at the Manzanar National Historic Site on Saturday.
The Visitor’s Center and Block 14 barracks, latrine and mess hall have been closed since March 17 and will remain so until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if thousands didn’t gather on the site of the former concentration camp, many watched the Manzanar Committee’s Virtual Pilgrimage in their homes. The one-hour video went live on the committee’s website and YouTube on Saturday and the program followed the contours of the event, which has been staged on the last Saturday of April for the past 50 years.
Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, welcomed viewers, acknowledging the unusual circumstances.
“This virtual pilgrimage is a first for us. For one thing, this is the first time in the past 50 years that we have not made it back to Manzanar,” Embrey said. “We hope our virtual pilgrimage makes you feel connected and engaged as we take a moment to look back and reflect in order to inform how we should move forward.”
The pilgrimage was dedicated to Hank Umemoto and a short video tribute showcased the ways Umemoto, a former incarceree, volunteer docent and author of “Manzanar to Mount Whitney,” was involved with telling the Manzanar story.
“He was such a model in so many ways for us, his community-minded spirit, his tenacity and hard work,” Embrey said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo.
Superintendent Bernadette Johnson offered greetings with a tinge of sadness at the present circumstances.
“For all of us who work at Manzanar, we didn’t get up this morning to put on our green and grey to greet you. I’m not wearing my ranger hat, so rangering is very different in the midst of this pandemic,” she said. “We are joining you virtually, anxiously waiting until we can see you all again in person and when we can safely open the Visitor’s Center and welcome people back to hear about wartime experiences.”
She explained that the rangers are both remotely and on site on interpretive, oral history and archaeology projects, as well as ensuring the buildings and site are maintained.
Speaking from his home, Alan Nishio, who was born in Manzanar, gave the keynote speech. He filmed his portion on an iPhone perched on a stepladder, after an earlier attempt on his desktop computer was at too low a resolution.
“For me it was good to participate in the (virtual) pilgrimage. It’s a small way to be part of resistance, to try to change the course of where we’re going in society,” Nishio explained afterwards.
Nishio’s keynote speech drew forcefully upon his years as a civil rights activist. He said 2020 is a critical turning point and he urged Japanese Americans to support efforts by organizations such as Tsuru For Solidarity and Nikkei Progressives as they protest against the Trump Administration and seek the release of migrants from ICE custody.
“The current era we are in will decide the direction our country will take for years to come. A moment when we reaffirm the principles of democracy and civil rights or a moment when we turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism. We will remember this moment,” Nishio stated.
“During Trump’s term in office, he and his regime have assaulted the rule of law, undermined the Constitution, and normalized authoritarianism. Trump has empowered white supremacists and other right-wing extremists, the core of his base of support. When we look back on this era, what will we find? Will we have changed the direction of our country or will be see the continued slide into xenophobia and fascism?
“As a product of the ’60s, I joined with others in a sense of hope and optimism for the future. Today I also see reasons to hope. More people are questioning what is happening in the world and looking for ways to take action. People who were too busy with their own lives and work now realize that it is up to them to make the world better.”
San Francisco State University Professor Russell Jeung shared a presentation on the surge in incidents of anti-Asian hate due to the pandemic. The STOP AAPI HATE reporting center has received almost 1,500 reports of coronavirus discrimination, including two dozen reports from Japanese Americans.
“This virulent, virulent widespread hostility is similar to 9/11. Not sure if it approximates what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, but you can see history repeating itself,” Jeung said.
Jason Muljadi of UCLA Nikkei Student Union said that participating in the Katari Project at Manzanar was a foundational experience. He cited Ralph Lazo, the Mexican-Irish American teenager who joined his Japanese American friends in solidarity at the concentration camp.
“I am reminded by my wonderful auntie Cherry Uyeda, one of the many incarcerees at Manzanar and my lifelong mentor, that people such as Ralph Lazo existed, people that stated that internment was wrong and that Japanese Americans are no less Americans than they are,” Muljadi said.
The video also features highlights from the religious interfaith service held at the Manzanar cemetery and footage from the 1969 pilgrimage shared by Don and Sue Rundstrom.
Joyce Okazaki was seven when she was at Manzanar and is the committee’s treasurer and chair of education outreach. She watched the virtual pilgrimage over the weekend and found it “moving and powerful.”
“Especially in these times of our current White House administration, I thought Alan Nishio was very powerful speaker, saying what is happening and encouraging people to make the change in administration. Loved the poem Sara Omura read, and how she read it. Jason was very eloquent, dynamic and moving, talking about his heritage as it relates to the discrimination of Japanese Americans in time of war. The tribute to Hank Umemoto was truly moving as he was an important part of our committee.
“And Bruce Embrey spoke so eloquently about the jailing of immigrants and children at the border, and the ICE prisoners who are also jailed. This actually is so against our democratic ways and why we all should support Tsuru for Solidarity. Also included in this program were clips of past pilgrimages, including the very first one. At our regular pilgrimages, we can’t show these scenes of past pilgrimages, with pictures of Sue Embrey and others who have passed. It was very emotional to see all of these pictures. This pilgrimage video program is outstanding, excellent.”
Embrey gave credit to Evan Kodani, who edited the video. He said the virtual pilgrimage was a way to continue to an important tradition.
“From the very beginning the pilgrimage has been very intentional that this is about building community, building our resilience and our understanding not just of who we are, but how the community has evolved,” Embrey said.
“We can still tell people the story, we can still honor our families and our community and the sacrifices and accomplishments of the Issei and Nisei. We tried to convey that.”
The Manzanar Virtual Pilgrimage can be viewed at manzanarcommitte.org.
Photo editing by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo