Visiting Manzanar

June 27, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

The American concentration camp at Manzanar is somewhere I've wanted to visit for a long time. I'm a history buff and I'm particularly interested in questions around what it means to live in a free society. As an American immigrant, I am also deeply interested in questions of what citizenship means and how first and second generation immigrants can hold multiple identities simultaneously.

At Manzanar, a lot of those questions come into sharp relief.  Up to 10,000 Japanese Americans, most of them American citizens, were detained here for a large part of WWII. This was part of a broader incarceration of up to 110,000 Japanese Americans, largely from the West Coast. They were forcibly relocated from their homes, communities and businesses and forced to wait out the war, behind barbed wire, in primitive camps, in the most desolate of places. As well as being obviously morally wrong, the incarceration also clearly violated multiple constitutional rights which Americans even today largely consider inalienable (if you'll pardon the pun).

The stories of the people who were incarcerated at Manzanar are made very real through the artifacts, exhibits and reconstructions at the site.   I was particularly touched by this poem in the onsite museum.

The reconstructed barracks provide a fascinating insight into how the detainees in the camp lived.

Reconstructed Block 14, Manzanar

Reconstructed Block 14, Manzanar

From a photographic perspective, it's difficult to do justice to Manzanar.  The site is vast, but mostly empty. All evidence of the camp (other than the gates and museum / auditorium) are gone.  What little is there today is mostly reconstruction, as in the above photos.  For me, the emptiness of the site told a story in and of itself.  Why was the camp gone, erased?  How can a site so vast be disappeared so completely, with only the immovable concrete foundation piles remaining?   Maybe there's an innocuous answer but the only reason I could think of was shame.  The people who did this knew absolutely that what they did to Japanese Americans, to their fellow citizens, was wrong and shameful and that it would not stand up to the judgement of history, so they immediately worked to erase it as soon as possible.  Another slap in the face and a denial of the experience of what the people here went through.

If you drive around the site (which you should) and you look hard enough, you can find evidence of indomitability in the face of injustice.  This remnant of an ornamental pond and garden, built by inmates, is still tranquil and beautiful, even eighty years later.

Remains of ornamental pond, Manzanar.

The most moving spot at Manzanar is also the most photographed - the cemetery, with its central monument, the Soul Consoling Tower.  This sculpture was erected by the Manzanar Japanese in 1943 and has been a site of pilgrimage, offering and reflection in the decades since.  Against the backdrop of Mount Whitney, it is a stark, beautiful monument.

Soul Consoling Tower, ManzanarSoul Consoling Tower, Manzanar

Many offerings are left here, and when we visited, there were both large wreaths and individual pieces of origami attached to the pillars and ropes around the tower.

Origami wreaths at Manzanar Soul Consoling Tower

Manzanar CemeteryManzanar CemeteryOfferings at the Soul Consoling Tower, Manzanar.

In the end I came away from Manzanar with mixed emotions.  On one hand, it's incredibly depressing that not too much has changed.  America is just as racist today and it is crystal clear that tens of millions of Americans would still support extra-constitutional incarnation for people they consider "other", if the opportunity presented itself.  On the other hand, people are not defined by oppression or the brutality they suffer and this was clear at Manzanar.  The "detainees" made the best of their circumstances.  At Manzanar, they made art, they created beautiful spaces, they innovated, they built communities and made homes.  And after the war, the Japanese Americans of Manzanar moved forward and still contributed so much to the society which had rejected them.  They remained American.

You can see all of my Manzanar photos here.


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