Banners representing the 10 War Relocation Authority camps are displayed at the Manzanar Pilgrimage.


On April 29, hundreds gathered at the Ireito monument at Manzanar to celebrate the first in-person Manzanar pilgrimage since 2019.

After four years of absence from the former camp site due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Manzanar Pilgrimage felt more alive than ever. Despite the desert heat, over 400 people gathered to celebrate the return of the in-person pilgrimage and to connect with the Manzanar site.

The interfaith service was held at the Ireito, a monument erected by incarcerees in the camp cemetery.

This year’s pilgrimage was also important for remembering those who had recently passed. Saturday’s pilgrimage was dedicated to the memory of Jim Matsuoka, longtime Manzanar Committee member and one of the founders of the pilgrimage, who passed away last year. The pilgrimage also included a remembrance of Wilbur Sato, former Manzanar incarceree, Manzanar Committee member, and community activist, who passed away shortly before the pilgrimage.

Attendees offering flowers and tsuru (cranes) during the interfaith service.

The 2023 pilgrimage also marked important anniversaries: the 80th anniversary of the construction of the Ireito monument and the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Manzanar as a state landmark.

Bruce Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Committee, provided the opening remarks for the program. When asked about the importance of returning to in-person after four years, he emphasized the urgency of the present:

“Coming back to Manzanar is always an emotional and impactful event, and there is power in place. Having not been here in four years, much has happened since 2019, a lot that does not inspire us. We needed to be back here for the same reasons that my mother wanted us here. That we need to be here to stand with other communities, whether it is Black legislators expelled in Tennessee, or trans legislators expelled from Montana. As my mother would say, it is many struggles, one front.”

Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, gave the keynote address. (Photo by JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN)

Embrey is the son of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, longtime Manzanar Committee chair.

Keynote speakers for the event included Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of Stop AAPI Hate, one the leading national organizations that tracks the rise of anti-Asian hate in the U.S. She extolled the importance of remembering history as a part of preventing hate crimes and confronting the political divide facing the U.S. today.

Following Kulkarni’s remarks, renowned oral historian and Manzanar expert Art Hansen gave a keynote talk discussing his latest book, “Manzanar Mosaic,” which includes new essays and interviews conducted by Hansen and his former students during his time as a history professor at Cal State Fullerton.

Historian Art Hansen reflected on his research on the lives of Manzanar incarcerees, with Monica Embrey on his left.

Dreisen Heath, a community organizer and one of the speakers on Saturday, discussed the importance of the pilgrimage for inspiring activism.

“It’s been an empowering, sobering experience being here,” said Heath. “Feeling the sacredness of a place helps you to press ‘pause’ and be reminded why you are in this, and helps to ignite or reignite one’s commitment to activism. Our fights are interconnected and we can’t run away from that reality. I am so grateful and fortunate to have these amazing partnerships, to be invited here, and that there are people who care about me, care about reparations struggles, and care about everyone receiving justice given all we are faced with today.”

Activist Mo Nishida shares his thought on camp during Manzanar At Dusk, held at Lone Pine High School.

Other speakers included representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who discussed the ongoing solidarity between Muslim Americans and Japanese Americans, and Sarah Ando, UC San Diego’s Nikkei Student Union president.

The Manzanar National Historic Site includes recreations of barracks and a basketball court.

Musical performers included UCLA Kyodo Taiko, which regaled the audience with an opening performance, followed by musical guests Los Manzanares, who performed their latest song, “Here at Manzanar.”

For many, the return to an in-person pilgrimage was gladly welcomed. “There is nothing like seeing people and being together,” said Heath.

Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, commented that despite the four-year absence of the pilgrimage, things continued where they left off. “It feels like we are back in sync, like we never really stopped. It feels more relaxed now.”

Like Embrey, Masaoka emphasized the importance of place in returning to Manzanar: “Manzanar has always been a place of learning. It was the first place I came to learn about my father’s family. Every time I come, you think that Manzanar is something passé, but it actually becomes more important.”


Jonathan van Harmelen is a graduate student with the History Department at UC Santa Cruz, specializing in Japanese American history.

Photos by TOMOKO NAGAI/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)

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