By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Imagine touring the Manzanar Historic Site from the perspective of only the white administrators.
There would probably be no replica of the guard tower or latrines, and the December 1942 Manzanar uprising might be explained as a mere disturbance by a handful of disaffected troublemakers. The Japanese Americans at Manzanar would probably be described as content and happy.
This scenario could have been a reality (it almost became one at the Topaz Museum) had not scholars such as Arthur A. Hansen not produced meticulous research and conducted hundreds of oral history interviews with former camp inmates.
This is why “Manzanar Mosaic: Essays and Oral Histories on America’s First World War II Japanese American Concentration Camp” by Hansen is invaluable.
No other scholar has researched and conducted more oral history interviews on the Manzanar War Relocation Authority camp than Hansen, professor emeritus of history, founding director of the Japanese American Project of the Oral History Program and the Center for Oral and Public History (renamed the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History) and founding faculty member of the Asian American Studies Program at California State University, Fullerton.
While Hansen’s scholarship extends far beyond Manzanar, Manzanar appears to have a special place in Hansen’s five decades of work, since his first camp interviews were with former Manzanar inmates and the first WRA camp he visited was Manzanar.
The book is split into two sections: essays and oral history interview excerpts.
The first of two essays is “Doho: The Japanese American ‘Communist’ Press,’” co-authored with Ronald C. Larson. Readers will get a better understanding of how the Doho staff and community leaders interacted before the war and how that influenced their relationships in Manzanar.
The second essay, “The Manzanar ‘Riot’: An Ethnic Perspective,” was co-authored with David Hacker and published in 1974.
This treatise was truly revolutionary in that the authors actually included the voices of former Manzanar inmates and did not merely rely on government documents. Talking to the Japanese American majority that had inhabited Manzanar gave an entirely new dimension to what had occurred in December 1942.
To truly appreciate how ahead of his time Hansen was, it should be noted that, for example, up until the 1990s, tours of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, completely left out the voices of the majority inhabitants – the enslaved. In fact, white historians rarely recorded the lives of people of color.
Hansen, on the other hand, went further. At the urging of one of his older students, Betty Mitson, he initiated the Japanese American Project in the Oral History Program at CSU Fullerton. Thus began Hansen’s journey of recording the experiences of people associated with the WWII U.S.-style concentration camps.
The five oral history interviews in the latter part of the book include excerpts from former Manzanar inmates and their recollection of the Manzanar uprising. True to its title, the people interviewed come from a diverse set of backgrounds that spans from a progressive Nisei female educator to a conservative Nisei male journalist. The interview with Togo Tanaka should be of special interest since he rarely agreed to be interviewed.
Because Hansen took an active interest in the lived experiences of Japanese Americans and didn’t treat them merely as lab rats in order to further his own reputation, the interviewees opened up to him and provided a variety of information – some of which, up to that point, had not been uttered in public.
The oral history interviews are available to the public online at: http://coph.fullerton.edu/collections/JAcollections.php.
It should be noted that “The Manzanar ‘Riot’” essay also appears in the book “Barbed Voices,” another publication by Hansen that should be required reading for students of history and for the next generation of Japanese Americans. (Plus, “Barbed Voices” reveals how involved Harry Ueno had been in the beating of Fred Tayama.)
With “Manzanar Mosaic,” Hansen comes full circle, back to where it all started for him. Along the way, he uncovered groundbreaking information and made oral history an acceptable tool in interpreting and deepening our understanding of U.S. history. For this, we owe Art A. Hansen a huge debt of gratitude.
But as Hansen notes in the book, there is still much to be researched about Manzanar, so may this not be his final “farewell to Manzanar.”
Hansen will be one of the featured speakers at the 54th Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday, April 29, and will give a talk on “Manzanar Mosaic” on Sunday, April 30, at the Manzanar Visitor Center’s West Theater.
“Manzanar Mosaic: Essays and Oral Histories on America’s First World War II Japanese American Concentration Camp” by Arthur A. Hansen
Hardbound, 336 pp