By Charles James
There was a record-breaking attendance at this year’s 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. Over 2,000 visitors attended the Pilgrimage held on the weekend of April 29 and 30. With this year being the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt which resulted in the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans and those of Japanese heritage, this year’s theme, “Never Again, to Anyone, Anywhere!” took on special meaning.
Roosevelt’s Executive Order allowed a whole group of American citizens to be deprived of their civil rights and civil liberties based purely on their national origin and outright racism and be segregated into concentration camps.
Manzanar was one of the best-known camps of the ten concentration camps established under the executive order. Over 10,000 Japanese Americans and legal permanent residents of Japanese heritage were held behind barbed wire fences in this remote location called the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II from December 1942 to 1945.
Most of the speeches and even conversation between visitors to the Pilgrimage referenced the current Trump administration’s attempts to ban Muslims and its ongoing comments from the President and his supporters against them and other minorities
The ceremony started with the UCLA Kyodo Taiko drummers, followed by a welcome from the Manzanar Committee. Manzanar’s Park Superintendent Bernadette Johnson told the gathering that the camp’s history and the stories of those incarcerated there, would be preserved. A new record of over 105,000 visitors came to the park in 2016.
The Consul-General of Japan in San Francisco, Jun Yamada, spoke of the hardships endured by camp incarcerees and of his past visit to the Manzanar, saying it had a great impact on him. His comments were followed by speeches from others that expressed outrage and defiance at the seemingly similar conditions that led up to the concentration camps during WWII and the current political atmosphere being touted by the current Trump administration.
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey said that “there was a vicious, just despicable drive to make sure that these camps were sites of suffering. That the people here were going to be isolated psychologically and physically, far from civilian populations, in desolate areas intended to humiliate and make people suffer.”
The Manzanar Committee’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Award was presented to Alan Nishio in recognition of his more than 40 years of advocacy on behalf of civil rights.
Former California State Assemblyman and long-time community activist Warren Furutani was the keynote speaker. He was critical of the attempts to malign Muslim Americans and those of Muslim descent living here legally as threats to national security. He encouraged Americans to stand up to it…and vote, offering words of caution against the despotism and fascism that seems to be threatening the country.
As always, the Pilgrimage ended with an interfaith service at the “Soul Consoling Tower” cemetery monument. An Ondo Dance was in progress as visitors began to leave. On the minds of many was the question, “Are we witnessing another time in American history when human and constitutional rights are again being attacked by our own government?”