Episode 3: Gardening as resilience at Manzanar

Episode 3 transcript

Madelon: It was a way to develop a little community and we'd take turns watering the grass or growing a garden.  

Sue: They planted flowers, they had vegetable gardens, and it was a real attempt to beautify their surroundings, and I think it really helped the morale of the people.

Arthur: There was feeling in placing rocks. There is, in a Japanese form of placing rocks, there is a meaning for it and you had to have your own feelings to place it.

[Outside Voices Intro] You’re listening to Outside Voices podcast. We’re using our outside voices to redefine what it means to spend time outside and connect to nature. I’m your host, Sarah Shimazaki. Let’s get started. 

Narration: When I think of summer, the taste of raspberries floods my memory. I remember getting down in the dirt on my hands and knees, searching my grandmother’s raspberry bush for the ripest, reddest berries. In the fall, it was kaki or persimmon. Winter, mikan or tangerine. I grew up believing in the abundance of my grandmother’s garden— in my eyes, anything we ever needed grew in that backyard. And it felt special, too. You know, my grandmother didn’t speak much English and I never became fluent in Japanese, so nature was our common language. Being outside together, finding peace in our shared silence, it bridged the language gap that separated us in other contexts.

I am Japanese on my father’s side and Filipino-Chinese on my mother’s. As a person of Japanese ancestry—and yes, I’m using that term intentionally—I am acutely aware that during World War II, nearly 120,000 people who share my ancestry were incarcerated here in the United States. But this isn’t a story I always knew. They sure scraped over it in U.S history class. Growing up, my family didn’t really talk about these American concentration camps perhaps because my grandparents didn’t immigrate to the US until the 1970s, decades after the War. So, the camps are not a direct part of my family story. But as people who live in America, it’s still our story. It’s all of our story.

Fifty years ago, a group of Japanese-American students, inspired by the Civil Rights and identity movements of the 60s, organized a pilgrimage to Manzanar. A pilgrimage to reclaim the then-forgotten stories of their parents and grandparents. You see, Manzanar is one of ten detention centers where the U.S government imprisoned people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. It’s actually the first and largest one, located about four hours outside of Los Angeles. These student activists went on to form the Manzanar Committee and continue leading pilgrimages every year as a day of remembrance, solidarity, prayer, music and calls to action against injustice.

Though my immediate relatives were not incarcerated during World War II, I still felt a powerful connection to this place and piece of history. A connection through shared humanity, ancestry and also nature. So this past April, I drove from Oakland where I live to the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains to attend the 50th annual pilgrimage at Manzanar.

[Taiko drumming, applause]

traci kato-kiriyama: Welcome to the 50th anniversary of the Manzanar pilgrimage!

Let us also acknowledge everybody here who is an actual survivor of Manzanar or any of the concentration camps or detention centers. If you could just raise your hand. It's really hot. You don't have to stand. And show of hands if you are a descendant of anybody who was put in to an American concentration camp during World War 2, detention centers, federal prisons.

And everyone who is here today to acknowledge that this is actually all of our story. It is an American story it is a human story. Everyone who is here today for that. Everyone who is here today is a descendant of our story our shared history. Yes. Welcome.

Narration: Nearly 2,000 people gathered under the blazing sun next to the Manzanar cemetery, where the infamous white obelisk stood as witness-- as it has since 1943.  Amidst the crowds and intense heat of the day, I found myself seeking respite in one of Manzanar’s gardens. Sitting back on a cool bench, admiring the snow-capped Sierras, I realized these gardens were really the only place to find peace and shade, thanks to the trees planted many years ago by the Japanese. I’d later learn that not only were the gardens aesthetically pleasing and a means to foster healing and community, they were also a way the Japanese inmates asserted and emphasized their identity. This was an act of resilience and resistance, precisely when they were being confined for that very identity.   

We’ll get into all of that soon. First, let’s back it up to quote unquote “a date which will live in infamy.” December 7th, 1941.

[Soundbite of Looking Like the Enemy

Radio Host: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air. President Roosevelt has just announced. 

[Soundbite of Japanese Relocation]

Milton Eisenhower: We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. No one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move.

Narration: You’re listening to an excerpt from Japanese Relocation, a 1942 short film justifying the concentration camps initiated by Executive Order 9066. Just ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the forced removal of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry across the United States.

Milton Eisenhower: They gathered in their own churches and schools, and the Japanese themselves cheerfully handled the enormous paperwork involved in the migration.

Government agencies helped in a hundred ways. They helped the evacuees find tenants for their farms, they helped businessmen lease, sell, or store their property.

The army provided fleets of vans to transport household belongings, and buses to move the people to assembly centers. The evacuees cooperated wholeheartedly. 

The army provided housing, and plenty of healthy, nourishing food for all.  

Narration: Now, this was not the reality of life for Japanese in the concentration camps, yet clearly this propaganda served to justify what the U.S government did in response to wartime hysteria and xenophobia.  And by the way, not that it really matters, but by the end of the war, not one person of Japanese ancestry was ever found committing espionage in the United States. Take a listen to this recent CodeSwitch episode, where Karen Ishizuka, writer and chief curator at the Japanese American National Museum, talks about how specific terminology was used to soften the severity of what really happened. 

(Soundbite of CodeSwitch)

Karen I.: The vernacular is camp, is and was and still is.

Adrien: Camp - a word that to Ishizuka sounded so innocuous, almost fun.

Karen I.: And I think a lot of Sansei, a lot of people my age grew up thinking, well, camp? Summer camp? You know, because that's all we knew. So we were totally in the dark.

Narration: Remember when I said I never knew much about these American concentration camps, growing up? Well, imagine knowing absolutely nothing.

After the war, the U.S government destroyed most of Manzanar and the other detention centers in an attempt to erase what happened. Many Japanese-Americans growing up in the 50s and 60s had next to no knowledge of their parent’s and/or grandparent’s experiences during World War II. There was a lot of unspoken shame and internalized stigma amongst former inmates. But, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Manzanar committee, demanding recognition through grassroots efforts, Manzanar was declared a National Historic Site in 1992. That’s fifty years after the signing of Executive Order 9066.

And let’s be clear: Manzanar was not an internment camp, relocation center or whatever nice, flowery euphemism the government wanted to use. Manzanar and the ten other locations like it in Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho and elsewhere, were concentration camps.  

[Soundbite of CodeSwitch)

Karen I.: A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed but simply because of who they are.

Adrien: Because concentration camp, she says, is still such a powerful term, so loaded, because it encompasses the enormous atrocity of the Holocaust, it's hard for people to think of it in any other way. But Ishizuka thinks of it in another way. She feels like she has no choice but to use concentration camps to describe what happened to her community.

Karen I.: To do otherwise is to really mitigate the injustice of the incarceration and thereby make it easier to happen again. I think that that's really the bottom line for me.

Narration: This takes us back to the pilgrimage at Manzanar, a day of remembrance so these concentration camps may never happen again. The day began with a welcoming ceremony and land acknowledgement from a member of the local indigenous tribe.

Kathy: I really want to welcome all of you to the traditional homeland of the Nüümü people who we call this place Payahuunadü, which means the place where the water always flows. My family’s lived in this valley for thousands and thousands of years. And we learned how to take care of it, we learned to respect it and we have deep ties to this valley even today.  

Narration: That’s Kathy Jefferson, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation.

Kathy: I know that a lot of you also have deep ties to good and bad memories of this place. We work hard the tribal people to preserve this land and teach other people to respect it. But I didn't realize how many other people cared. You talk about this being a sacred place. This is a very sacred place and we have great respect for it. We consider this whole valley a sacred place and we appreciate the respect that you guys have for this place. I just want to say thank you for all coming. It's going to take all of us to get together and let them know that we care and we are going to defend this place.

Narration: Yet another reminder of our intersecting histories, Kathy’s ancestors, the Nüümü people, were forcibly removed  from the land where Manzanar now stands to make way for miners and ranchers in the late 1800s. Not only that, but several U.S concentration camps were built on reservations, often over the protests of local indigenous tribes. Kathy reminds us of our shared relationships to the land and the importance of working together to tell its stories and defend it against further displacement and erasure.

Which brings us back to the gardens at Manzanar, where Japanese inmates cultivated their connections to the land in an attempt to assert some control over the situation and improve quality of life in the community.

Henry: everything was just barren because there were no trees there at all because, with the exception of an apple tree here and there, they bulldozed everything … they bulldozed the whole area

Narration: Meet Henry Fukuhara, one of ten children born to Japanese immigrant parents. By the age of 20, Henry was receiving praise for his watercolor and acrylic art from well-renowned museums and publications. However, Henry’s prolific art career was put on hold when he and his family were forcibly removed from their home and sent to Manzanar. 

Henry: So, you know, it was very barren, and that was another thing that was bad about it, was it was so barren that -- and it was, the ground was very sandy there. And the Manzanar area was a very windy area and the wind would come up all of a sudden -- for no reason at all, the wind would come and, and it would be so bad that you could hardly walk outside, and then when it did blow like that, in the beginning, the sand would come up through the cracks in the floor and would come in through the sills of the window, and it was terrible.

Narration: To cope with the bleak, unforgiving landscape, Henry and others imprisoned in the camps built Japanese-style gardens for their barracks, mess halls and surrounding grounds. In Manzanar alone, over one hundred gardens were planted and cared for throughout the years. 

Henry: it made the appearance more, more appealing and more comfortable 

Narration: Japanese gardens can be traced back to Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Early, traditional practices of the religion used rocks, water and plants to create an intentional sacred place amidst nature. In the concentration camps, these same elements brought color, movement and shade to the otherwise desolate scenery. 

Sue: everybody lined up for their meals outside the mess hall and there was no shade and no place to sit, so he talked to the mess hall people and the men in the block and they decided they would build this, this garden. And I think that they wanted to really beautify the place because it was such a barren and windy place and people wanted to be able to, you know, sit there and enjoy each other's company and not have to sit in the hot sun, or stand in the hot sun waiting for their meals.

Narration: That was Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who like Henry, was forcibly removed as a young adult from Los Angeles to Manzanar. Sue is also one of the founding members of the Manzanar Committee.

Sue: … and the people also built gardens in front of their unit. They planted flowers, they had vegetable gardens, and it was a real attempt to beautify their surroundings, and I think it really helped the morale of the people.

Narration: Something as seemingly simple as a garden had the ability to uplift spirits and forge some semblance of home amidst prison-like conditions. These tangible symbols of hope and resilience helped the Japanese survive incarceration. But perhaps more than anything, beyond providing aesthetics in a bleak landscape, a way to pass the time and shade in a hot desert, the essence of the Japanese gardens at Manzanar was that of cultural identity. The gardens were a way for imprisoned Japanese— many of whom were former landscapers and farmers —  to reclaim their power, space and freedom.  

For many, it was an act of resistance and defiance, literally taking up space and rejecting their situation as it was. A way to heal, honor their traditions, and modestly, but boldly assert their cultural identity in spite of persecution and forced Americanization. It was their way of saying “we did this and this is who we are."

Today, volunteers are working with the National Park Service to make sure the gardens are preserved and so far, archeological excavations have stabilized 20 gardens at Manzanar. There are more efforts to restore the gardens in the coming years, to further understand and learn from the resiliency of the Japanese people.

Prayers from pilgrimage: We were called model minority because we had absorbed all the injustices, all the insults, without fighting back. We had become a doormat people, licking the boots of our oppressors. We were docile. Not because we were Japanese, not because we were Buddhists, not because we were Shinto-ist or Confucian-ist. We were docile because we were immigrants.

Jim: No one can tell you to go back where you came from, because you are already home. This place belongs to all of us.

Narration: We’re back at the pilgrimage and that was Jim Matsuoka, another founding member of the Manzanar Committee. You know, in too many ways, America’s political landscape hasn’t changed. Fear and ignorance still overpower the ideals of freedom we claim our country is founded on. Our communities are experiencing the same threats to democracy, oppressive policies and rampant racism our ancestors faced. Just listen to Bruce Embrey, the son of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey whom we heard from earlier.

Bruce: Honestly there is no difference from the actions of our government today and the actions of our government in 1942. Children are being separated from their families and placed in cages in our southern border. Just as in 1942 when our families were ripped apart and our oji-sans were sent far away.

Nihad: This white supremacy then is creeping back into our politics today.

Narration: That’s Nihad Awad, the co-founder of the Council on American Islamic Relations. 

Nihad: We as Americans have to stand united against any suggestion of Muslim registry or Muslim ban or Muslim discrimination or against racial profiling against African-Americans or not giving or allowing Native Americans access to their lands and then natural resources or any separation of children from their parents. An attack on one community is an attack on all of us. This should be our commitment. And if we believe in this, if we love those people who spent years in here, we should act as one community against injustice. 

Narration: Calls to action were echoed amongst all the speakers, including Karen Korematsu, public speaker, educator and civil rights advocate and daughter of the late Civil Rights icon, Fred Korematsu.

Karen K: I want you to ask yourself what does it mean to be an American. What does an American look like. Now I can tell you being an American means to uphold citizens and non-citizens. We need to stop the hate the racism xenophobia and this racial and religious profiling. We cannot be complacent. And remember what my father said. Stand up for what is right.

Bruce: So the pilgrimages were more than just about Manzanar. They were and they are today a place where our community can gather to support those who are facing essentially the same struggles and the same persecutions that we had faced in 1942. This is important for us to think about. Because in 1942 no one stood up for our community. No one outside the Nikkei community demonstrated or protested. There were no editorials. There were no protests. There were no vigils. No one stood on the floor of the Congress to say this is wrong. Today must be different. Today we must stand together against hate and not stand silent when white Nationalists take to the streets of our cities. We cannot stay silent while armed vigilantes patrol our southern border. We must remember the Manzanar Committee declared 50 years ago that Manzanar should not just be a symbol of what is wrong with our nation but that Manzanar should become a monument to our core values of democracy and civil rights.

And today we can honestly say Manzanar is such a monument. Our message is simple. Speak out, demand equal justice under the law for everyone no matter who they are or where they come from. Today at the fiftieth anniversary of the Manzanar pilgrimage we ask that you join us so that what happened here at Manzanar never happens again to anyone anywhere.

Narration: For much of the long drive home with my partner, the sun falling to our west and turning the Sierra Mountains pink, I was silent. It’s a somber experience walking around the barren and dusty concentration camp and every time I try to imagine life surrounded by barbed wire knowing if I lived in the US a few decades earlier, this would’ve been my reality. And not to mention, this is reality for many today.

There’s a Japanese phrase often associated with the concentration camps of World War II. Shikata ga nai. Now, there are different interpretations of this concept, but it’s commonly translated to, “it cannot be helped” or “nothing can be done about it.” Growing up, I was told the Japanese adopted this cultural concept to survive incarceration. The narrative was and is that we are complacent, submissive, doormat people. That we put our heads down to bear the worst of our circumstances.

But this is why stories like these are essential. Stories of my people asserting who they really are and defying the conditions of their incarceration. Stories of resistance, organizing and demanding recognition in the face of erasure. Stories of solidarity, understanding that our stories are everyone’s stories and speaking out against the injustices of today.

To the stories of my own grandmother, literally putting down roots and making a home in a foreign country that doesn’t and never tried to understand her or the language she speaks. Finding connection to her ancestors and the land and her English-speaking granddaughter through raspberry bushes and persimmon trees.

I like to think the Japanese—my people—found creative and courageous ways to quote unquote “do something about it” and continue to this day.

Dale: It's never again never again never again.


Thank you for tuning in to our third episode of Outside Voices Podcast! Many thanks to our fabulous intern, Marisa Orozco for co-producing this special episode. 

If you’d like to read more about Manzanar or check out our photos from the pilgrimage, visit our website: www.outsidevoicespodcast.com. You can also follow us on Instagram, @outsidevoicespodcast 

Shoutout to Brooklyn Bell for our rad logo, cover art and branding work.

Intro and outro music by LIVS or Olivia VanDamme and produced by Jamison Stegmaier.

Outside Voices Podcast is a project by Resource Media with support from True North Foundation and Brainerd Foundation

Until next time.