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What A Trip To Japanese Internment Camps Means In Trump's America

When I traveled to the Manzanar and Poston internment camps after the election, I realized that the past has thrust itself into our present.

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Pictures of people who were incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Center are displayed alongside family tags at Manzanar National Historic Site.

Getting to Manzanar, the site of a former Japanese-American internment camp, most often requires a journey — the result of a deliberate choice made by the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to build Manzanar, as well as most of the other nine WRA-run camps, in remote corners of the American West. Located in California’s arid Owens Valley on a route that most people take to ski at Mammoth Mountain or to hike the John Muir Wilderness, the area once belonged to the Paiute before the tribe was forced off the land by the US Army in the 1860s, in the midst of the Civil War. The fields then became apple orchards tended by white settlers until the region’s water was siphoned away to meet the needs of the growing city of Los Angeles. The closest town — Independence (the irony of the name could not have been lost on people) — still today has a population of less than 700 people.

I found myself at Manzanar at the tail end of November after making the drive from LA, a trip of more than 200 miles traveling north on a desolate stretch of highway that snakes through the Mojave Desert and up into the stark beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This was not my original plan, which had been to drive from Southern California to Texas. But while in the city’s neighborhood of Little Tokyo, which was emptied out during World War II, I suddenly remembered that Manzanar was, if not close, not too far away, and the idea to see what remained of the camps, to go on a secular pilgrimage of sorts, wouldn’t leave my mind. On impulse, I decided to go, and after a bit of internet research later that evening, I also added a stop in Arizona, where the Poston internment camp had been built.

Blame my decision, too, on Donald Trump. The internment of Japanese-Americans had become an issue during his campaign, its specter raised whenever Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Last December, in an interview with Time magazine, Trump had demurred on whether he supported internment, saying, “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.” He had also previously argued that President Roosevelt had done “the same thing” when Trump proposed a Muslim ban and registry. Now, with his election win, what some had read as mere bluster took an alarmingly closer step toward reality, and his supporters had already begun using mass internment as justification for a future Muslim registry. The past had once again thrust itself into our present.

 I only understood internment as an abstraction, and my objections and horror, too, felt abstract.

Still, that doesn’t quite explain why I felt the need to be there. I had read of internment as an adult and studied its history while in college, and I had seen the documentary photos by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, yet I had never been to a former camp. All of this meant that to a certain extent, I only understood internment as an abstraction, and my objections and horror, too, felt abstract. The story often told of Japanese internment is one about tens of thousands of loyal Americans, who even while imprisoned proved their patriotism by volunteering to fight for their country, displaying a “stoic heroism” and a “majesty of character” that, in the words of the author James Michener, “should make us all humble.” Their loyalty, proved without a doubt after the fact, is what allowed President Ronald Reagan, decades later, to acknowledge that internment was “a mistake.” But focusing on the loyalty of those who were interned simplifies and obscures other truths. What could standing in these “landscapes of memory,” as the writer Lauret Savoy puts it, show me? Places have power. This is partly why, I suspect, prisons too are often in remote areas, so as to allow for a convenient forgetting, and it’s this basic truth that gives memorials their weight — something happened here, they tell us. We need to remember. I had felt paralyzed in the days after the election, and going to Manzanar, and to Poston, felt like a form of defiance, however small.

Today, Manzanar is a historic site managed by the National Park Service. Its goal, as Alisa Lynch, the site’s chief of interpretation, told me, is to help people “understand the fragility of civil liberties and civil rights, and to see people who endured this history as fellow human beings and fellow Americans.” According to Lynch, more people have visited the former camp this year than any other. She acknowledged that one possible reason could be its “relevance to other things that are happening in the world.” (Another, she pointed out, could be falling gas prices.)

Yet how does what we choose to remember about internment inform how we think about the present? There is no collective “we” in America, after all, nor a shared understanding of the past.


“It was completely justified!”

Those words, scrawled in black ink, stared up at me from the guestbook at Manzanar. I read them with red-rimmed eyes; it had been the sight of a simple wooden dresser encased behind glass just moments earlier that had finally caused me to burst into tears, the sort of ugly crying in public that compels strangers to ask if you’re okay. That dresser, the accompanying text explained, had been crafted from wood salvaged from fruit crates, as most of the internees had no furniture with them when they first came. They had thus built what they needed from the scarce materials of necessity, with their own hands — a dresser, a chair, a table.

I had spent the previous hour wandering the former high school auditorium that had been turned into a cavernous exhibit hall in 2004. Each display felt like a carefully calibrated punch to the gut. One of the first things you see when you enter the hall’s doors is a blown-up black-and-white photo from the era, dominated by a banner printed with these words:

“JAPS KEEP MOVING — THIS IS A WHITE MAN’S NEIGHBORHOOD”

Later, I stood at the cemetery, where the bodies of day-old children and the elderly alike had been buried. It was forever their fate to die surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, weather-worn headstones unreadable today yet still draped in paper crane wreaths made by nameless mourners, their backdrop the solid wall of the imposing Sierra Nevadas. I thought back to that anonymous writer (for they had chosen to remain nameless in the guestbook, a sort of internet troll come to life).

They had presumably seen exactly what I had seen. They had stood on the desert landscape, surrounded by the one square mile of arid land on which 10,000 people had been forced to live, dotted with sagebrush and the old fruit trees that had been nurtured by the internees and still bloomed even now. They had gazed at the remains of what for three years had been the largest town in the Owens Valley, a prison — the scattered remnants of the barracks, so poorly constructed that people would wake up coated in a thin layer of dust: the remnants of the rock gardens that had been built by those who wished to maintain a semblance of normal life in the face of its exact opposite. You’re asked when you enter the visitors center to ponder these two questions: What does Manzanar mean to history? What does Manzanar mean to me? They had seen all this, and yet this was the thought that remained and the answer to those questions: “It was completely justified!” Nothing, it seemed, had convinced them to see those who had been here as “fellow human beings, fellow Americans.”

Still others would rather not remember at all, a fact made clear to me at breakfast that morning at the motel where I was staying. The chatty attendant asked me why I was in town, and I told her that I was there to visit Manzanar. A woman with a Kate Gosselin–esque blonde hairdo and a bit of a nasal twang a few tables down interrupted us. “What’s Manzanar?” she asked, and then once the attendant gave a brief sketch, she exclaimed, “I had no idea!” She then got silent, before changing the subject and talking about a cemetery she and her husband had seen earlier on their travels. “One woman died in 1903!” she said, a note of curious marvel in her voice.

Leaving Manzanar behind, I made the 400-mile drive to the Poston internment camp in Parker, Arizona, where almost 18,000 Japanese-Americans had been incarcerated, making it one of the largest of the camps during the war. Dislocations within dislocations — one of two internment camps on Native reservations, Poston had been built on the land of the Colorado River Indian Tribes at the request of the Office of Indian Affairs, over the objections of tribal leaders. The OIA, collaborating with the War Relocation Authority, had decided that building an internment camp on CRIT land and using internee labor as well as wartime funds to build irrigation systems, housing, and schools could help accelerate their plan to, using their own terminology, “colonize” the reservation with Native Americans from other reservations in the Southwest. Fields of cotton and verdant green swaths of alfalfa surrounded me as I entered the reservation; the OIA’s vision, it seemed, had won out.

The history of Poston was relatively new to me, and I pondered why it had never figured in most retellings of the internment experience that I had read. Perhaps it’s too close a reminder that internment, far from an aberration, is firmly in line with the most American of stories. The past, here, is too present; a deeper interrogation would require an interrogation of founding myths that most would like to leave untouched.

Perhaps the history of Poston is too close a reminder that internment, far from an aberration, is firmly in line with the most American of stories.

My destination was the memorial monument that had been designed and built in 1992 by former internees. I kept an eye out for the palm trees that would signal I had arrived; spying them, I parked my car in the gravel lot. I was alone on a clear winter day, and it was preternaturally quiet. This memorial was small and easy to miss, standing on one acre of land that had later been donated by the tribes. I could see rows of houses in the distance, yet there was no sign of life other than the occasional rumble of a truck passing through, loaded with hay bales.

I grabbed a brochure from the concrete kiosk, shaped like a Japanese lantern, before walking up to the monument — a single 30-foot column spearing up into the sky, its squat, six-sided base ringed with bronze plaques detailing life at the camp. Interspersed with the history of the monument and a tribute to the Poston internees who volunteered for military service were poems penned by detainees:

Endless war

and endless desert

a line of simmering air

There wasn’t much else, and I thought of leaving, but the crunching of gravel behind me told me other people had arrived. A truck came to a stop and an older couple emerged, dressed in the standard outfit of the middle-class white tourist — a shirt from Alaska, Merrell sneakers, wraparound sunglasses. I eyed them as they walked the path to the memorial and paused to snap photos, and soon they were standing next to me.

“We like to visit places that are off the beaten path,” the woman explained, after I asked why they had come. They were snowbirds from Washington state, traveling the Southwest to avoid the harsh winters up north.

“Sadly relevant for today, isn’t it?” I ventured.

The man looked at me. If I had expected he would chime in and agree with me, I was about to be disappointed.

“You know, I worked hard all my life and saved money so I could retire early. I never even went on a vacation! Now I get to travel all the time. People have it too easy these days. They just expect things to be handed to them,” he said. “These people came here, and with hard work made the best of it.” They then snapped some more photos with their iPhones, got in their truck, and drove off to Lake Havasu.

I thought about Ansel Adams as they sped away. The photographer, who had spent time at Manzanar documenting the camp and its residents in the summer of 1943, wrote afterward that he was “impressed with their solidity of character, their external cheerfulness, and their cleanliness.” They had, he noted, built a city of shacks in the desert through diligence and patience, a “detour on the road to American citizenship.”

Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times

Former internee Ruth Okimoto visits the burned out remains of the auditorium at the Poston internment camp. She was among more than 17,000 people of Japanese ancestry held at the camp during WWII.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes museum is a small storefront next door to a CVS in a shopping center in Parker, the largest town on the reservation. I had stopped here hoping to speak with someone who could shed some light on what remained of Poston. Earlier, I had found some of the few buildings from the camp that were still standing — a cluster of decrepit adobe structures that once made up the elementary school at the camp, now scrawled with graffiti and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Unlike Manzanar, where millions of public dollars had transformed the entire site into a monument to history, learning more would require some asking around.

Wilene Fisher-Holt, the current director of the museum, grew up in one of those barracks, which had been offered to those living on the reservation after Poston officially closed in 1945; when she was a child, it still had the black tar paper lining to keep out the wind and dust and was still filled with the furniture that a previous family had left behind. Her parents’ generation had kept the memory of Poston alive, she said — her father would tell her tales about going to the camp while in high school and playing basketball with a team of Japanese-American students, despite warnings from the OIA to keep away from the camp.

She told me she had no personal opinions on internment, which surprised me. Yet she had also gone to the memorial in the past to clean it up. “It was bothering me,” she said, “that people would find it a mess.”

At the Manzanar visitors center, there is a photograph of a group of five men huddled around a white cross in what looks like a military cemetery, behind them a seemingly endless sea of crosses recedes into the distance. Juxtaposed above the photo is a quote from President Truman from after the war, directed to the internees who had served in the military: “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice — and you’ve won.”

Days after I had left Manzanar and Poston, I kept returning to the photo in my mind. While it seemed to celebrate a sort of triumphant patriotism, the men's faces suggested they were pondering realities beyond loyalty and love of country, and the look in their eyes — bleak and haunted — has stayed with me.

The men's faces suggested they were pondering realities beyond loyalty and love of country, and the look in their eyes – bleak and haunted – has stayed with me.

The story of internment is the contradiction etched in their faces, and it is the story of Native tribes, on whose lands camps were built. Draft resisters and labor organizers and those who refused to pledge their loyalty to a country that imprisoned them — internment is a story that contains them as well. Yet we have tended to privilege only one telling of it.

President Ronald Reagan gave that narrative the imprimatur of officialdom when he signed the act in 1988 that provided reparations for Japanese-American survivors of internment, praising the “tens of thousands” of Japanese-Americans who had “remained utterly loyal to the United States” and in particular the “scores of Japanese-Americans [who] volunteered for our Armed Forces, many stepping forward in the internment camps themselves.”

Even those who took the unpopular stance of helping Japanese-American internees tend to lean on this narrative to explain their motivations. Take the case of one Elizabeth Humbargar, a high school teacher in Stockton, California, who, despite being called a “Jap lover” by others, donated books and trained teachers so that her Japanese-American students, now interned, could continue their education. Later, once the camps were closed and its inhabitants sent off with $25 in their pockets as a parting gift, she opened up her home as a temporary refuge for her former students and their families, many of whom credit their ability to rebuild their lives to her efforts. When asked decades later why she did all of this, she had this to say: “If it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else. But the Japanese did it themselves through their honesty, their integrity, their diligence, their perseverance. All I ever did was what anyone would have done that knew the people.”

I have a difficult time with this story, not only because it came too late or because its central premise masks the complexity of people’s responses to internment and elides other narratives that are equally as true — resentment, despair, and, yes, resistance — but because it relies on a kind of easy empathy, one that demands the perfection of its victims and excludes those who don’t fit the description. We should all be suspicious of empathy that comes too swiftly, for it too often depends on an erasure of what has caused it to be necessary in the first place: your race, your gender, who you love, your right to make mistakes and display anger — in short, your full humanity.

Why should our compassion and our protest only be reserved for those who are deemed deserving of it based on a flawed calculus? The “loyal” internee. The “good” immigrant. The “patriotic” Muslim.

If that is the limit of our imagination and the basis of our objection to what will surely confront us during the next four years, then we must find ways to broaden it.


Esther Wang is an emerging writers fellow for BuzzFeed and is based in New York.

Contact Esther Wang at esther.wang@buzzfeed.com.

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