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Nearly 2,000 Visit The California Desert To Remember A Dark Chapter In American History

Buddhist monks bless members of the participants of the Manzanar pilgrimage in 2004. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)
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When Jim Matsuoka was asked to join the first pilgrimage from Los Angeles to the site of the Manzanar camp in 1969, he laughed bitterly.

He was just 7 years old in 1942, when he and his family were forced to move to the dusty camp in the Owens Valley, part of the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II that left him with ugly memories -- barbed wire, armed guards, searchlights, the school worker who talked to kids as if Pearl Harbor was their fault.

"Hell, I was already there for three-and-a-half years, I don't need anymore," he said.

But Matsuoka did go, reluctantly, and only out of solidarity with other Japanese American activists who wanted to take a stand on civil rights.

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Fifty years later, the pilgrimage has become an annual tradition -- something bigger than he and the other 150 original participants could have imagined.

Some 1,900 people traveled to Manzanar Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the pilgrimage, according to Yuki Buday, a ranger with the National Park Service.

About 150 or so people attended the first pilgrimage to Manzanar in 1969. (Evan Johnson Collection/National Park Service photo)

The event's appeal has only broadened since President Trump entered office. Many participants see White House policies on immigrants and refugees as driven by the same xenophobia and fear-mongering that led to the incarceration of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent in the 1940s.

"If we could go to Manzanar and just celebrate the contributions and remember the sacrifices that our community made, it would be wonderful," said Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee. "But we can't because [now] we're more relevant than we care to be."

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Embrey's mother, the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, co-founded the Manzanar Committee not only to raise awareness about what happened to Japanese-Americans like herself -- she was incarcerated at the camp, one of 10 in the country -- but to draw attention to the struggle all kinds of people face when their constitutional rights are challenged.

Members of the L.A.-based Vigilant Love participate in the 2017 pilgrimage to Manzanar. (Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee)

Muslim-Americans started joining the pilgrimage after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and found eager allies in the Japanese-American community, who've supported them through threats of a Muslim registry and travel bans.

The L.A.-based group Vigilant Love, a grassroots organization fighting Islamophobia, chartered two buses for the four-hour-long trip to Manzanar, which is sandwiched roughly between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley.

Traci Ishigo, co-chair of Vigilant Love, said going to Manzanar offers a visceral understanding of incarcerated life to younger generations. The six times she has made the trek, the elements in the high desert have been harsh: sometimes cold, other times windy or hot.

"It's almost a relief to know that at the end of the day, I'm going home," Ishigo, 28, said. "I can't fully appreciate what it meant to not be able to leave."

Thousands of Japanese-Americans were forcefully relocated to sparse barracks like this one at Manzanar during World War II. (National Park Service)

Saturday's programming featured an interfaith service at the cemetery and a speeches by activists such as Dale Minami, the attorney who worked on a landmark case to overturn the conviction against the late Fred Korematsu, who had refused to be incarcerated during the war.

Matsuoka, who was honored for his activism at the event, gave a tour to members of Vigilant Love.

"When people ask me how many people are buried there, I say a whole generation of people who [were]afraid to speak up, who walked away beaten," Matsuoka, 83, said.

Japanese-Americans wait for their housing assignments at Manzanar. (AP)

After that first pilgrimage in 1969, Matsuoka and his fellow activists got backlash from some members of the Japanese-American community for drawing attention to a chapter of American history they said they'd rather bury.

But Matsuoka said he couldn't sit quietly after witnessing the psychological and economic damage that mass incarceration had inflicted on his community. Many Japanese-American families, mostly from the West Coast, lost their farms and businesses because of forced relocation. His own father was never able to find steady work again -- Matsuoka regularly saw him at the unemployment agency -- and the family's survival depended on the earnings brought in by his two older sisters, who worked as nurse's aides after the war.

And then there were the reminders of how others saw them as un-American, even after the war.

"So we pull into the L.A. bus terminal from Manzanar, and some bastard is out there banging on the side of the bus, saying 'You Japs, go back!'" Matsuoka recalled.

Jim Matsuoka, who was incarcerated as a child at Manzanar, helped lead the redress movement that resulted in a government apology and reparations. (Josie Huang/KPCC)

Matsuoka worked with activists like Sue Kunitomi Embrey and Warren Furutani (who later became a state assemblymember) to get the U.S. government to recognize the historical significance of the camp. It became a national historic site in 1992.

Matsuoka also helped lead a redress movement that resulted in a government apology in 1988 and $20,000 in compensation to each survivor of the camp.

As slow as the government was to make amends, Embrey said that it's still worth recognizing.

"Our story is a cautionary one but also a hopeful one, in that it shows we are capable of righting wrongs no matter how severe or horrific," Embrey said.

For Matsuoka, there are plenty of horrific things still happening in this country. He feels a special bond with the immigrant children who were separated from their families at the southern border and are now in government custody.

They remind him of his 7-year-old self living in the barracks of Manzanar, and being made to feel "we're here because we were bad people."

"They're never going to be right," Matsuoka said of the immigrant children. "It's going to be with them all their lives."


April 27, 2:02 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the event at Manzanar.