Manzanar

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When Warren Furutani was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, he sometimes heard his parents refer to a place they once spent time, a place they called “camp”.

Warren Furutani:
You know, camp reference for me was summer camp or the Y camp. So what is this camp thing they keep talking about? The fact that it’s brought up here and there, but not elaborated on, you can’t help but wonder there must be much more to the story.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Warren was right. There was a lot more to the story.

Roman Mars:
Producer Emmett FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
During World War II, the US government incarcerated Warren Furutani’s parents, along with over 110,000 other Japanese Americans in remote detention centers. When they talked about “camp”, that’s what they meant.

Roman Mars:
In college in the 1960s, Warren got involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Asian-American Movement and as he got more politically active, he started to research his people’s history. He wanted to find out what had happened to his parents and other Japanese Americans during the war.

Emmett FitzGerald:
One day he was at a Vietnam war protest with his friend Victor Shibata, and they started talking about how they wanted to organize a march for the Asian American community, but they didn’t know where to go.

Warren Furutani:
And Victor and I said, ‘Well, there’s this camps that our parents were on. What? What are these camps?’ We started talking to some people about this place called Manzanar. It was the closest camp to Los Angeles and we said, dammit, we better just go up there and just find it.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t going to be easy to find. After World War II, Manzanar had been completely dismantled. By 1969, there were hardly any signs of it left. But Warren and Victor spoke with some people from their parents’ generation and learned that the camp had been located a few miles past the town of Lone Pine, off Route 395 and then a big green auditorium building was still standing, being used by the highway department to store machinery.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so on a clear fall day, the two men hopped in Victor Shibata’s old Triumph convertible and went looking for this place called Manzanar. They drove north out of LA about four hours toward the Sierra Nevada mountains and ended up in a high desert valley. It was totally desolate but a few miles outside of Lone Pine, they found the green building and they turned off the highway onto a small dirt road.

Warren Furutani:
Tumbleweeds, no trees, lot of underbrush, and in the background was the Sierra Nevada mountains covered in snow. It was as dramatic a landscape as you could imagine.

Roman Mars:
The two men continue driving through the desert and then suddenly they came across an old white pillar with Japanese lettering on it.

Warren Furutani:
It just was stunning. Just like it was waiting there to be discovered.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It was the original pillar marking the Manzanar cemetery and it was surrounded by faded gravestones of people who had died while in the camp.

Emmett FitzGerald:
As they explored the area further, Warren and Victor eventually came across a big pile of debris.

Warren Furutani:
And we found all of these broken dishes and on the back of the dish, said Army dinnerware with dates on it and different things we find it was like an archeological dig. It revealed this historical reality called camp.

Roman Mars:
The two young men had found the remains of a camp that only a few decades earlier had imprisoned over a 10,000 Japanese Americans. And in the process, they were helping uncover a dark chapter in US history that a lot of people at the time would have rather forgotten. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II wasn’t even mentioned in most high school history textbooks in the 60s.

Warren Furutani:
There was no books, no stories, no information. Couldn’t find it in the card catalog in the library. So we started writing our own history.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And part of writing that history meant drawing attention to Manzanar itself.

Emmett FitzGerald:
When Warren and Victor found it, the place had no historical designation, no sign, and no plaque. But that was all about to change.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Warren and Victor drove back to Los Angeles, but they knew they wanted to come back and bring more people with them next time.

Warren Furutani:
And there’s a thing in Japanese called ‘haka mairi’ where you have the pilgrimage back to important places.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so on a December morning in 1969, over 150 people piled into cars and vans and buses on a pilgrimage to Manzanar.

Warren Furutani:
Going to that part of California at that time of year was just stupid. Cold. It was so cold.

Roman Mars:
But the shivering pilgrims followed Warren and Victor’s directions to the cemetery.

Warren Furutani:
So we cleaned up the cemetery and we brought paint and wire brushes and scraped everything down and repainted the monuments. We did a lot of work in terms of refurbishing the area. We knew we were coming back.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Most of the people on the pilgrimage were younger Japanese Americans who had never spent time at camp.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But there were a few people there that day who had actually lived at Manzanar. One of them was Sue Kunitomi Embrey from Los Angeles.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The story of how she ended up in this desolate Valley begins in 1941.

Sue Embrey:
I was 18. I had finished high school in January and I was helping my mother take care of a small grocery store, which she had purchased just a year before.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Sue Embrey died in 2006. This audio is from an interview she did with Densho, the Japanese American Legacy Project, back in 2002.

Sue Embrey:
On the notice that came to our neighborhood with a date of May the 3rd and we had to leave on May the 9th which meant we had about five days.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Five days to pack up all their belongings and report to Manzanar.

Roman Mars:
The camp was one of 10 set up by the U.S. Government to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II.

Roman Mars:
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese racism reached a fever pitch in the United States. Military leaders repeatedly questioned the loyalty of all people of Japanese descent without evidence.

Roman Mars:
And then in 1942, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, paving the way for the incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

Roman Mars:
Here’s a clip from a 40s propaganda film justifying the decision.

President:
“When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our west coast became a potential combat zone living in that zone are more than a hundred thousand persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them, American citizens, one-third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. Military authorities, therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Most families had to sell property quickly, often at a fraction of its value. Some rented out their homes or left them with friends, but others abandoned them altogether.

Roman Mars:
On May 9th, Sue’s family, her widowed mother and her six brothers and sisters, all went to the train station. They were told that they could only bring what they could carry with them.

Sue Embrey:
You know, I kept thinking we’re American citizens and they’re doing this to us and we have no rights and nobody to speak up for us.

Emmett FitzGerald:
They arrived at Manzanar in the dark and found their way to their assigned barrack.

Roman Mars:
The camp was divided into 36 residential blocks, each with 14 barracks, two latrines, and a mess hall. Families were usually allowed to sleep together.

Sue Embrey:
We had eight cots – a canvas cot. No partitions of any kind. We all slept in one big room.

Roman Mars:
In total there were 800 buildings and over 10,000 people packed into one square mile. One of the hardest parts of life at camp was the total lack of privacy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The latrines were completely open and exposed with no stalls or dividers between the showers or toilets.

Sue Embrey:
So in the beginning people like my mother would stay up late hoping to take a shower where her neighbors who weren’t around, but they all stayed up late. They all wanted to take their shower in privacy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
A five strand barbed wire fence encircled the entire camp with eight guard towers around the perimeter. Each guard tower had a searchlight and a soldier with a machine gun.

Sue Embrey:
I remember going out one day, one night, and a searchlight followed me all the way to the latrine and I think everyone remembers those searchlights.

Roman Mars:
Manzanar was undoubtedly a prison. But the people inside did everything they could to turn it into a livable city.

Emmett FitzGerald:
They had schools, churches, and clubs, baseball fields and basketball courts. People built rock gardens and planted flowers and vegetables.

Sue Embrey:
It was a real attempt to beautify their surroundings and I think it really helped the morale of the people.

Roman Mars:
The camp also had its own newspaper, ironically called the Manzanar Free Press, where Sue Embrey worked as a reporter and editor.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Manzanar operated through the end of the war. During that time, there were several legal challenges to the camps, but each time the courts upheld the constitutionality of Japanese American incarceration.

Roman Mars:
On November 21st, 1945, a few months after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nearly four years after the camp had first opened, the government closed Manzanar for good and dismantled the camp.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Families were forced to move once again. People who couldn’t afford to leave on their own were given a bus ticket and $25. Often, they didn’t have a home to go back to. When Sue Embrey’s parents returned to Los Angeles, they found that their old grocery store and house had been demolished.

Roman Mars:
After Sue Kunitomi Embrey left camp, she moved to the Midwest for a little while, but ultimately ended up back in Los Angeles.

Roman Mars:
But it bothered her how little people talked about what Japanese Americans had been through during the war. So when she heard about a bunch of young college students making a pilgrimage to Manzanar, she decided to join them.

Roman Mars:
Which brings us back to that winter day in 1969 when around 150 people traveled to Manzanar to draw attention to what had happened there.

Bruce Embrey:
The media showed up at this pilgrimage in December wing howling, very cold.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Bruce Embrey, Sue’s son. He says his mom and another person who had also been imprisoned at Manzanar began telling reporters what life had been like there during the war.

Bruce Embrey:
And it caused an uproar. I mean, people were just completely aghast that anyone would speak to the broader public outside the confines of the Japanese American community about what happened.

Warren Furutani:
The older generation, they were mad.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Again, Warren Furutani, who helped organize the pilgrimage.

Warren Furutani:
Why are you bringing this up? It’s better left forgotten, you know, the hatchet’s been buried, leave it buried.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But these activists were just getting started, especially Sue Embrey.

Bruce Embrey:
I think the pilgrimage made her understand how important the site was to the community.

Bruce Embrey:
And I think in particular, how the community itself had to come to grips with what happened.

Roman Mars:
Following the 1969 pilgrimage, Sue Embrey, Warren Furutani, and others formed the Manzanar Committee with this specific goal of getting this site recognized as a historic landmark.

Warren Furutani:
We felt that we needed society to acknowledge this fact, not let it be buried in the back pages or in a simple paragraph in a history book.

Roman Mars:
They lobbied hard for three years, all the while continuing yearly pilgrimages to the site.

Roman Mars:
In 1972, the state of California designated Manzanar a state landmark and agreed to install a bronze plaque. It was one of the first public acknowledgements of what had happened there during the war.

Bruce Embrey:
So the wording of the plaque became a huge issue.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Particularly the question of what to call Manzanar. Was it a concentration camp, an internment camp, a relocation center?

Roman Mars:
This is still contentious today. Some people don’t like the term concentration camp because it’s associated with the Nazi genocide. Then again, internment camp feels like a euphemism.

Warren Furutani:
Don’t let my mother-in-law hear someone call it an internment camp, and she’s a 93 year old white-haired, petite dynamo. She’ll kick your ass.

Roman Mars:
In the end, after a few fiery meetings, the Manzanar Committee convinced the state the plaque should read as follows.

Plaque:
‘In the early part of World War II, 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were interned in relocation centers by executive order 9066. Manzanar, the first of 10 such concentration camps was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers confining 10,000 persons, the majority of which being American citizens. May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, of racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again. California registered historical landmark number 850.’

Emmett FitzGerald:
1,500 people attended the 1973 pilgrimage to watch the plaque get installed. But it didn’t go over too well with some folks who lived in nearby towns.

Bruce Embrey:
Within weeks they’ve shot it full of shotgun pellets. Someone took an ax to it to try and chisel off the word racism.

Roman Mars:
You can still see the bullet holes on the plaque today.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Sue Embrey and the Manzanar Committee were undeterred. In fact, they were already thinking bigger. They wanted Manzanar to be a national historic site.

Roman Mars:
It’s important to note that all this was occurring alongside a larger fight for redress and reparations. Several Japanese American organizations had demanded an official apology from the U.S. Government and payments for those who had been incarcerated during the war.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act giving $20,000 in reparations to every living person who had been sent to a camp.

Ronold Reagan:
“Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. We’re here, we admit a wrong. Here, we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

Roman Mars:
Sue Embrey was very involved in the redress movement and she wanted to keep the momentum going in the fight to get Manzanar turned into a national historic site.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But the Manzanar Committee faced stiff opposition from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The DWP actually owns the land and the rights to its water.

Bruce Embrey:
So here comes this middle aged woman saying, “No, this land is really significant to us, our community, and to the region itself and we want it to be a national park”. Well the DWP didn’t want to have any part of that.

Roman Mars:
The Manzanar Committee ended up drafting legislation for Congress and Sue Embrey flew to Washington, D.C. to testify before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks and Forests.

Bruce Embrey:
She says, “democracy is a fragile concept, only as good and strong as the people who practice it. Let us tell the world that we are a people strong and resolute, acknowledging the errors of our past in order not to repeat them in the future”.

Bruce Embrey:
And this is the legacy which we believe the Manzanar historic site can leave for future generations.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The legislation passed. And on March 3rd, 1992 Manzanar was declared a national historic site.

Roman Mars:
But apart from the cemetery, there was hardly anything there. The National Park Service had to decide how they wanted to memorialize this injustice. They formed a committee that included people who had been incarcerated at Manzanar, and the committee decided that they didn’t just want a museum where visitors could read about what happened on placards. They wanted to rebuild portions of the camp exactly as they had been during the war so that visitors could feel what life had been like.

Alisa Lynch:
So you walk in, it’s a empty room. Although we have a cot, and a stack of army blankets, and a stack of mattress covers, and a bunch of cots up against the wall.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Alisa Lynch of the Manzanar National Historic Site showing me a rebuilt barrack.

Emmett FitzGerald:
She says they tried hard to get it right, but it’s still not as harsh as it would have been when people arrived here back in 1942.

Alisa Lynch:
I mean, there should be dirt blowing up through the floor. The building should be creaking. The thing is, we had the option of either building them as they were, but not allowing people to walk in because they wouldn’t be safe for people to come into, or we could rebuild them to earthquake standards, accessibility standards, and that’s what we chose to do.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Outside, there’s a dirt basketball court with white metal hoops and a one-way road tracing along and winding circuit through what used to be the camp. Signposts along the way show where specific buildings once stood. In some places, cracked concrete foundations, and the remains of rock gardens are still visible or have been unearthed. In the distance, you can see a rebuilt guard tower. It’s 40 feet tall with latticed wood sides and a giant searchlight at the top.

Alisa Lynch:
It was very controversial because a lot of the locals especially, did not want it to have a guard tower because people don’t want it to reflect badly on the community.

Roman Mars:
But the park service continued to seek guidance from folks who had actually lived at the camp.

Alisa Lynch:
Over time, people have said over and over, the most important thing to show are the guard towers and the latrines.

Alisa Lynch:
I’ve had people literally say, you know, we’re glad you have the visitor center. We really like that you have the barracks, but no one will ever understand until they go in and see that row of toilets.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Alisa Lynch takes me to the site’s newest edition, a replica of a woman’s latrine.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The building wasn’t open to the public when I visited, but she showed me inside. It’s just an open room. There’s a long trough sink and a row of five toilets with no dividers between them.

Alisa Lynch:
You hear over and over about the humiliation. You know, I’ve heard women talk about having your first period in public, you know, which I think is a very personal thing to all people, all women, and there’s no privacy here.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Lynch has spoken with hundreds of people who lived at Manzanar and they all have different perspectives on their time at camp. Some people finally remember the friendships they built here.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Others say the experience tore their family apart.

Alisa Lynch:
Yes, it had baseball teams. It also had 120 armed soldiers, you know?

Alisa Lynch:
Yes, it had beautiful gardens, but it also had guard towers.

Emmett FitzGerald:
She just wants the site to show the full, messy history of what happened here.

Alisa Lynch:
I think the national parks represent America at its best and Americans at their best, and I think it’s also good that we look at the times when we haven’t been our best and it’s a lesson for the future.

Bruce Embrey:
This site exists. This national park exists because of the efforts of ordinary people to make sure that their story wasn’t swept away by the wind or buried by those that don’t want to be reminded of the weaknesses of some in our past.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Bruce Embrey again.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Every spring, he’s one of the hundreds, if not thousands of people who to Manzanar for the annual pilgrimage. The one that started back in 1969. They hold religious ceremonies and drumming performances and remember what happened here together. But it’s not just for Japanese Americans.

Bruce Embrey:
Here lately, since 9/11, the pilgrimage has almost always had a speaker from the Muslim community.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In recent years, the activists who lead the pilgrimage have tried to connect the wartime discrimination against Japanese Americans with contemporary discrimination against Muslim Americans in the name of security.

Bruce Embrey:
It’s really important that the parallels to what’s happening today get raised, and this is a story I think that needs to be amplified and shouted from the rooftops so that America doesn’t embark on some of the same nonproductive, racist behavior.

Roman Mars:
This year’s pilgrimage will happen on April 29th, and Bruce thinks it’ll be the biggest yet.

Credits

Production

Producer Emmett FitzGerald spoke with Los Angeles activist and politician Warren Furutani; Bruce Embrey current co-chair of the Manzanar Committee and son of Manzanar Committee co-founder Sue Embrey who passed away in 2006; and Alisa Lynch, head of historical interpretation at the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Audio of Sue Embrey comes from an oral history in the archive of Densho: the Japanese American Legacy Project.

More images of the internment process and Manzanar by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange can be found via the Library of Congress and National Park Service.

  1. Kristi Lin

    Great episode! I love how 99% Invisible is discussing the design of social justice issues! The Sanctuary episodes were great as well!
    As a Japanese American college student, I have helped organize pilgrimages to Manzanar for the last two years. We bring college students, former WWII internees, Muslim American activists, Buddhist priests, and community organizers to the site. When we arrive at Manzanar, the site is literally where we find common ground. Through walking the same worn paths and seeing the barbed wire fence in the same place as it was 75 years ago, we share an experience, build lasting friendships, and reaffirm the need to protect civil rights for all Americans regardless of religion or national origin.
    I love 99% Invisible! Keep up the great work!

  2. As i was listening to this episode, I kept thinking that I have heard of this place Manzanar. “Where have I heard of this place?” I kept asking myself. In my head, I could hear someone say “Man-zan-ar Re-location Center” in a very slow and distinct voice. Where have I heard this!!!! Then it finally dawned on me! The movie “Karate Kid” (old version) with Ralph Macchio. Daniel is going through Mr. Miyagi’s (played by Pat Morita) memory box, when he comes across a letter. He reads aloud that Mr. Miyagi’s wife and child died at the Manzanar Relocation Center due to complications arising from child birth. As Mr. Miyagi was a soldier fighting in the war, his pregnant wife was in this forced relocation center. This is a dimension to the movies plot that I simply did not understand when I watched the movie as a kid. And the movie really didn’t do anything to explain the significance of what had taken place at Manzanar Relocation Center. Yet it adds a further tragedy to the story. Thanks for this sad but illuminating story.

  3. Josh

    It’s so horrible that this event happened. And how shameful that no one spoke up against something that is both unethical and unconstitutional.

    But it’s so much more horrible and shameful that this is a timely podcast that applies to current politics when the United States is on the verge of repeating the mistakes of the past.

    This podcast is showing that you can do more than educate, you can change the world.
    I loved the Sanctuary episodes and I love this one too. Keep it up.

  4. Nicholas

    It’s not just Japanese Americans. Many Alaska Native people were imprisoned in similar camps. After the war the men were ‘released’ first, ostensibly to rebuild their homes and villages which had been substantially‚Äč damaged by soldiers stationed in the Aleutian Islands before their families returned to the villages.

    In fact, they were enslaved by the us military. With their families held hostage in the camps, the men were forced to hunt and slaughter fur seals by the thousands for their pelts to secure the returns‚Äč of their loved ones.

  5. Akemi Matsumoto Ehrlich

    This was a timely and well done story that could apply to any of the other 9 camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated. My mother was in Rowher, Arkansas, in a swamp. Quite a change from Los Angeles. The experience was degrading and shameful, and it haunted her for the rest of her life.

    I think another story worth your time would be about Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and other photographers who were hired by the War Relocation Authority to document life in the camps. The WRA wanted propaganda photos showing how comfortable the camps were and how the internees were treated well. Once they saw the photos, they impounded them and wouldn’t allow publication because conditions were so grim.

  6. Ben

    Great episode – would have been interesting to hear some discussion about landscape modernist icon Garrett Eckbo’s contribution to the site in master planning the staff quarters and designing amenities for the guards. Architects had a hand in the tragedy of Manzanar as well.

  7. Kyle Z

    I’m guessing this could very well happen again if the US engage in major war with another nation. Like China? Russia? Middle East countries?

    Right now a lot of Americans are hating the Chinese simply because we are trying to make a better living and sustain our own nation. They think we’re evil and taking away their jobs, they think we are bullying neighboring countries. They think we all work in sweatshops and there are no personal freedom and we need to be saved with democracy like how they “saved” Iraq. Through these racist and cold-war like views I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chinese American camps popping up in the future if things got worse

  8. You can learn much more by reading Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II, a new book by CityFiles Press that examines photos taken by the government and the subjects of those photographs. (cityfilespress.com)

  9. Alexi Starr

    Towards the end of this podcast your narrator states that ‘in recent years the activists who lead the pilgrimage have tried to connect the wartime discrimination against Japanese Americans with contemporary discrimination against Muslim Americans in the name of security’. That seems like an admirable aim to me, however, this narration is misleadingly inter-cut with one of your interviewees, who immediately afterwards goes on to refer to ‘…America embarking on some of this same non productive racist behaviour’, whilst referencing the modern day Muslims you refer to.

    This is disingenuous on your part as this statement goes unchallenged, perpetuating the myth that Islam is a race, which it clearly is not; anything you can convert from or to is clearly an ideology and not a race. Criticising the worst excesses of the Islam, and societies based on that ideology, does not make a person a racist, or someone that discriminates against Muslims, who are a group of people affiliated with the ideology of Islam. Sadly, in recent years, it has become all too common for left wing political extremists to disingenuously slander people with the term ‘racist’ merely in order to poison the well and shut down legitimate discussion of the worst excesses of Islam.

    In the main I enjoy your intelligent and well researched podcast. However, by embarking on clumsy, disingenuous, partisan rhetoric such as this you diminish your product and yourselves.

  10. Tiffany Redding

    The story of my father-in-law Dick – who was the same age as Sue Embry – which he was never able to articulate to his own family…

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