MARCH. TWO MONTHS into the new year, I resume. I was apparently temporarily frozen, the proverbial deer in the headlights, in the face of a return to this country after a pleasant and eventful European interlude, dismayed by the level of public discourse, discouraged by a number of unfinished projects left over from the old year, distracted by the stupid daily errands and repairs.
Distracted by further travels, too. A week after our return from Stockholm, January 11; we drove down to Los Angeles, returning via Reno (Nevada). Along the way we stopped at Manzanar. This is the site of one of the infamous relocation camps hastily improvised for thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry, taken from their homes on the West Coast and held for the duration of World War II.
The site is ten miles north of Lone Pine, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the flat, windswept, arid desert at the foot of that remarkable range, near the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. The photo above will give you an idea: it shows the monument in the former cemetery, with a view of the Sierra — the “Range of Light” — in the background. In the foreground, desert.
I have dim memory of that relocation. In 1941 I turned six years old. I lived, with my parents, in a middle-class neighborhood in central Berkeley. A number of Japanese-American families lived in bungalows along Grove Street; I seem to recall the carp ponds in their back yards. One day these families were gone: rounded up, taken away.
The area around Manzanar had a long, complicated, troubled history. Native Americans hunted, gathered, and gardened it for centuries. They were edged out by pioneer whites in the 19th century, attracted by the climate and its agricultural potential, especially after the coming of the railroads, which facilitated marketing.
Manzana is Spanish for “apple.” It was given the name in the 20th century, when it had become an improbably prosperous fruit-raising area. Fairly rich soil, hot summers, cold winters, and abundant water, and the patient and skilful attention of a few hard-working families, produced hundreds of tons of fruit for the quickly growing Los Angeles market — until that city realized its water was even more crucial to its future, and diverted it all for its own use, quickly reducing the land to desert.
The farmers sold their water rights and were left with barren land. Fortunately for them, empty land, on a rail line but far from “sensitive” coastal areas, were exactly what was needed to house a hundred thousand “relocated” Americans — temporarily, of course, just for the duration of the war.
This is what Manzanar looked like during World War II. The railroad stretches north and south along the eastern edge of the “camp,” whose neat, orderly blocks of bunkhouses are hygienically set apart to minimize the threats of fire and disease. Each array of eight or so bunkhouses has its own mess hall and two common lavatory-shower facilities, one for each sex. There were minimal recreational facilities — basketball court, baseball diamond — and, of course, the remnants of broken-down orchards, and chickenyards, and a factory where women could help make parachutes and other nonstrategic items needed by the war effort.
Improbably, the prisoners —for that is what they were —made the best of things. They even made gardens. The federal government has installed an admirable explanatory center at Manzanar, and developed a self-guided tour of the facility. We drove the tour — with a few stops for photographs, and meditating, it took almost an hour. It took us, for example, to the cemetery, on the western edge of the site.
Along the way there were a number of explanatory panels. On one of these a faded color photograph recalls one of the traditional Japanese gardens these people managed to create:
“You are standing before San-shi-en, or 3-4 Garden. Water once flowed over these silent stones, soothing troubled spirits and easing the monotony of long mealtime lines. Designed and bilt by internees, mess hall gardens served as a source of block identity and pride.
“These and other gardens in Blocks 9, 12, and 22, share symbolic roots in ancient Japanese design. In each, you will find three distinct levels aligned north to south: a hill of earth represents the mountains from which water flows south to a pond, symbolizing an ocean or lake. Here, internees planted trees from the camp nursery and hauled stones from the rugged Inyo Mountains to the east."
After the camp was abandoned in 1945 these gardens were gradually buried under windblown sand and the sediment left by springtime snowmelt. Archaeologists unearthed this one in 1999, and reconstructed the fence that had protected it. They have not reconstructed the garden itself; only its rocky bones, as you see in the second photograph here.
One of the mess halls, and one of the bunkhouses, has been restored and is left open for visitors to inspect. Here too welcome, fairly detailed, and sympathetic explanatory panels help the visitor understand just what life must have been like for these people. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph these interiors — it’s just too poignant, too intimate a glimpse into what may have been the most injurious aspect of this place: its theft of the dignity of its occupants.
A number of photographs show them as they were, in this place, at that time. They are surprisingly modern, lively, optimistic. They put on a good face, whether for their own morale, or for the benefit of whatever eventual onlooker they expected these photographs to find. They are well dressed, in the plaid pleated skirts and the sweaters and wide trousers of the early 1940s. You can be sure — there’s photographic evidence — that they jitterbugged to big-band swing; they played cards; they swapped stories.
Ultimately they survived, most of them, and returned, somehow, to a normal life. The war over, they were given twenty-five dollars and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. If they were lucky, a kind neighborhood might have looked after their homes and farms. They were a stoic lot, for the most part, and patiently endured their readjustment, as they had their confinement. Ultimately, during the Reagan administration, the government recognized its error, apologized, and paid a modest compensation.
The National Park Service has done a fine job recording all this, and making it available to visitors. They’ve done this, of course, in order to ensure that such an injustice may never be repeated. It’s something to consider during this presidential campaign.
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Today, we tend to condescend to our elders who lived through the horrors of World War II and its aftermath.
It seems naive to us today to think that people feared their ethnic Japanese fellow citizens. But we must recall that the beginning of America's entry into the war was an attack on Pearl Harbor. Our government, and most Americans, fully expected a full-scale invasion by the Japanese on our Western Continental shores. Would the Japanese living in America identify with and embrace the invaders? Could they be capable of spying on us? These seem idiotic questions today, but they were very real to Americans in 1941.
In retrospect, we scorn our government for deciding to drop the first atomic bombs on cities. But we forget how terrible the first invasion of the Japanese homeland was, in Okinawa. The Japanese were prepared to defend their homeland without regard for their own life; some have estimated that a full-scale ground invasion of Japan could have cost as much as a million lives, a third of them our own boys. Would it have been better to stage a "demonstration" of the bomb to the Japanese? But no one knew the enormity of the devastation these weapons would create. It wasn't until John Hersey's long article "Hiroshima" came out in The New Yorker, later, that we would understand what we had done.
The Japanese in Manzanar were courageous and civilized beyond any expectation. We now are shamed by what we did. But we must understand the context. People often act in irrational ways, and during wartime, irrationality is never in short supply. That's the lesson of Manzanar--not the familiar "multi-cultural relativity" nonsense--but that we must weigh facts and information, instead of acting on impulse and fear.
Well said. And I should add that the attendants at the site, both National Park staff and volunteer, understood and spoke to your point.
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