August 02, 2016

Photo Essay: Manzanar, The Wartime Japanese Prison Village

There's an issue that plagued me as a child, that I haven't quite shaken off.

I was constantly blamed for things I didn't do.

I don't really know why. In my immediate family, I was villainized—even demonized. (Literally. They called me "the devil child.")

My parents and sister considered me not only naughty, but bad—and born bad. Bad to the core.

So, they thought, I must've done all the things that went wrong in the house.

It was like I was their own little poltergeist. And they were constantly trying to exorcise me from the family.

Eventually, it worked.

Growing up under a constantly suspicious pallor made me relate to the wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted.

And that may be why I found my visit to the Manzanar site so disturbing.

Photo: Scene of barrack homes at Manzanar by Dorothea Lange, Public Domain

Manzanar, and other "war relocation camps" of its ilk in the World War II era, isn't something we learned about in history class in Upstate New York. I had no idea about the anti-Japanese sentiment that prevailed on our shores after the bombing of Pearl Harbor—that is, until I moved to California.

And after over five years of living here, it was time to finally make my pilgrimage to Manzanar, where over ten thousand people with Japanese ancestry of any degree were interned.

They were not "evacuated." And if there's any question as to whether or not they were, in fact, incarcerated here, just look at that tower that once housed armed guards (now a rebuilt replica standing in place of the original). You can't miss it—no matter where you are in Manzanar.

Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans alike were given little notice to pack up their families and whatever they could carry and move several hours north of Los Angeles, to the middle of the desert, until it was deemed "safe" for them to return (presumably, after the war was over).

When they entered the site, they were greeted by military police...

...specifically, a sentry who guarded the camp to control who came in, and make sure nobody got out.

Sure, it had all the makings of a real town, like its own fire station...

...but these so-called "evacuees" left their homes and businesses behind to come live in military-grade barracks, surrounded by barbed wire.

The restored former auditorium is one of the few original buildings still standing—once used for public assemblies like high school graduation, memorial services, and dances, and now serving as the historic site's visitors' center.

But perhaps the most recognizable part of the Manzanar site is the cemetery, though only six people are actually still buried there. (The rest were removed at their loved ones' request, at some point or another after the war ended.)

The obelisk at the center has an inscription that loosely translates to mean "Soul Consoling Tower."

People visit and leave trinkets, toys, and other mementos—perhaps to console themselves, and perhaps to console the souls that were lost.

Manzanar wasn't a concentration camp linked to a genocide the way that, say, Auschwitz was—but people did die there, and people were buried here.

Garlands of paper cranes have been left as offerings...

....both on the cemetery boundary fenceposts...

...and on individual graves.

There's even a pet cemetery. There's no evidence as to whether or not the animals were of Japanese ancestry, too.

But mostly, Manzanar is a ghost town.

If you walk through or take the "auto tour," you've got to imagine what life must've been like there, in this place where its inhabitants had to make the best of it—because there was no other choice.

There's the historic orchard...

...the ponds and the Japanese gardens and playgrounds...

...the nurses' and doctors' quarters...

...and the hospital wards.

You can see where the incarcerates once ate, slept, prayed, went to school, and played baseball...

....where they crocheted camouflage nets for the war effort...

...and where they were reminded that they couldn't leave until the war effort was over.

Manzanar wasn't the only site of its kind during World War II—it was actually the sixth of 10 total such internment camps throughout the United States, though you rarely hear about them.

Although the war ended in August of 1945 and Manzanar closed just three months later, Japanese "aliens" weren't allowed to become naturalized citizens of the U.S. until 1952.

Twenty years later, Manzanar was designated a National Historic Landmark; and twenty years after that, it was established as a National Historic Site (only one of two in the nation).

In fact, it wasn't really until the 1970s that anyone even acknowledged that Manzanar happened—or the effect it had on the people who were sent there.

In 1988, the U.S. government finally apologized to 82,000 former internees.

Is it possible that some of them might have actually been scheming against the U.S. on our own soil, on behalf of their ancestral motherland? Maybe.

But they weren't imprisoned based on suspicious activity or having pledged allegiance to the enemy of the time. The powers-that-be designated them a threat without provocation. They were suspected of villainy and demonized.

There's too much to say about Manzanar in just one post, but at least it's a start. If you're interested in learning (and seeing) more, there are tons of historic photos available online here.

Or just go visit in person. Photographs just can't do it justice.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Santa Anita Park & Racetrack
Photo Essay: The Japanese Garden That Almost Became a Freeway
Photo Essay: The Ruins of White Point
Photo Essay: Southwest Marine Shipyard at Terminal Island, A Japanese Fishing Village Ghost Town
Photo Essay: A Farewell to the Palace on Mount Yamashiro
Don't Blame It On Me

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