Pilgrimages to WWII American Concentration Camp Sites Starting in April

Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp. Photo: Richard Murakami.
Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Photo: Richard Murakami.

 

During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast without due process. Most of them were sent to one of ten concentration camps located throughout the United States: Amache, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake, as they are commonly referred to. The War Relocation Authority selected these locations because they were remote, owned by the federal government, and often near rail lines.

For many years after the war, Japanese Americans did their best to get on with their post-camp lives, preferring not to dwell on the unpleasant experience of incarceration. As the years passed however, the community became more interested in grappling with this part of its history. Trips back to the camps began, with some organizing group pilgrimages to facilitate the experience.

Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.
Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

Now, more than seventy years after resettlement, there has evolved what could be called a pilgrimage season. The 2015 “season” begins in April and ends in August. Following is a complete schedule with links to more information about each of the organized pilgrimages, including registration and fees.

Pilgrimage to Manzanar (California): April 25, 2015
Pilgrimage to Amache (Colorado): May 16, 2015
Pilgrimage to Minidoka (Idaho): June 25–28, 2015
Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain (Wyoming): August 21–22, 2015
Tule Lake (California) hosts pilgrimages every other year; the next one is scheduled for July 2016.

These are the five sites that have regular pilgrimages; we encourage you to visit the others as well. With the exception of the Gila River camp in Arizona, permits are not required. In February, President Obama recognized Honouliuli in Hawai`i as a National Monument, so perhaps Hawai`i will one day be added as part of the pilgrimage season.

A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.
A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

No matter who you are—whether you were incarcerated or not, whether you are of Japanese descent or not—you might consider visiting one of the former camp sites. There is nothing like standing there, feeling the air, seeing the mountains, sensing the scorching heat or the bitter cold. It is definitely worth a visit, even though they are remote and the conditions are harsh; in fact, that is the point.

A Visit from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

JANM docent Bill Shishima, left, led a tour of Common Ground: The Heart of Community for visiting staff members from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. From left to right: Piotr Kowalik, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Monika Sadkowska, and Ewe Chomicka. (Monika Koszyńska also travelled to Los Angeles with the group but was under the weather on the day of the JANM visit.)
JANM docent Bill Shishima, left, led a tour of Common Ground: The Heart of Community for visiting staff members from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. From left to right: Piotr Kowalik, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Monika Sadkowska, and Ewe Chomicka. (Monika Koszyńska also travelled to Los Angeles with the group but was under the weather on the day of the JANM visit.)
All photos by Leslie Unger.

 

Two weeks shy of her one-year anniversary at the Japanese American National Museum, Director of Marketing and Communications Leslie Unger had one of the most interesting days of her over-two-decades-long professional career. Read about it below!

On February 11, JANM was honored to host a group of visitors from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. They had traveled from Warsaw to visit several institutions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, primarily to learn about education department practices and activities. I tagged along with JANM staff members Clement Hanami, Allyson Nakamoto, Christy Sakamoto, and Lynn Yamasaki, knowing that this would be a memorable opportunity for cultural exchange. I was not disappointed.

POLIN is a new museum, opened in April 2013. Its core exhibition depicting the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews was opened at the end of October 2014. Over the course of the exhibition’s first three days, some 15,000 people visited. That’s a remarkable figure and I can only believe that it speaks to an essential need that POLIN is filling for Poland, for those of Jewish heritage and non-Jews alike.

In addition to learning about the history of Poland and Polish Jews, as well as how the POLIN Museum came into existence, I was fascinated by some of the concepts and themes that the Warsaw museum and JANM share, including notions of identity and citizenship, and how to represent a proud people scarred by immeasurable tragedy.

JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami gives the guests a behind-the-scenes look at our collection. From left to right: Hanami, Monika Sadkowska, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Ewe Chomicka, and Piotr Kowalik.
JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami gives the guests a behind-the-scenes look at our collection. From left to right: Hanami, Monika Sadkowska, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Ewe Chomicka, and Piotr Kowalik.

 

There was a very interesting discussion about the phrase “concentration camps.” This is terminology that JANM and others use in reference to what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II rather than other more euphemistic wording. Of course, “concentration camps” is also the terminology most often used to describe where Jews were sent and where so many of them perished during the war. And it is the context of the Holocaust that has brought an additional level of meaning to the phrase for many people.

When we told our Polish visitors that JANM uses “concentration camps,” I could see each of them experience a moment of discomfort. As someone of Jewish heritage, I had felt the same internal shudder the first time I heard the words used at JANM. But as I became more familiar with the story of Japanese Americans and focused more specifically on the actual meaning of the words themselves and not on additional connotations that have evolved, I became more comfortable. I shared this personal experience with our guests, and they too were able to speak more objectively about this powerful phrase and how it has in fact been used in numerous other situations, before and after WWII.

Although JANM’s Fighting for Democracy exhibition is temporarily closed to the public while we make improvements to the space, we were able to bring the POLIN visitors in for a quick look. Pictured here is Monika Sadkowska.
Although JANM’s Fighting for Democracy exhibition is temporarily closed to the public while we make improvements to the space, we were able to bring the POLIN visitors in for a quick look. Pictured here is Monika Sadkowska.

 

Perhaps one of the most memorable things articulated by our guests was that Jews are integral to the story of Poland and vice versa, and that the POLIN Museum tries to portray this symbiotic relationship as well as how Jews were and are part of the historical context of the larger geographic region. As one of them said: “The story of the Jews is presented to inspire respect for diversity.”

You could not write a statement that more closely mirrors the mission of JANM. The stories of Polish Jews and Japanese Americans are not the same. But in the span of just a few hours, I was emphatically reminded of how there is so much more that the human race shares than what might divide it.

Okaeri LGBTQ Gathering Welcomes All

okaeri_orig

The word okaeri in Japanese means “welcome home,” and the first-ever Okaeri gathering, happening at JANM this weekend, seeks to welcome and provide a safe, productive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) members of the Nikkei community, along with their non-LGBTQ friends, family, and allies.

Co-chaired by Marsha Aizumi, an author and activist whose son is transgender, and riKu Matsuda of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Okaeri was developed by a diverse coalition of individuals with strong ties to the local Japanese American community.

The initial impetus for the event came from Aizumi, whose son Aiden was born biologically female and came out as a lesbian before transitioning to his male identity. Initially believing that she had been a bad parent, Aizumi dug deeper and realized that the issue was one of choice. While her son did not have a choice about his identity, she did have a choice in terms of her own response; she could reject her son, or she could embrace and support him.

Choosing the latter led to a richly rewarding journey of discovery that produced the well-received book, Two Spirits, One Heart: A Mother, Her Transgender Son, and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance, co-written with Aiden and discussed in an event at JANM last year.

It is this spirit of love and acceptance that drives Okaeri, which seeks to bring visibility to Nikkei LBGTQ people and issues and break the cloak of silence that often surrounds them—a goal that gibes well with JANM’s mission to promote understanding and appreciation of ethnic and cultural diversity. Aizumi, Matsuda, and the other organizers envisioned this as a small event that would serve as a kickoff for more coalition-building in the future. But excitement has been spreading, and Okaeri is drawing more attendees than expected.

“We thought we’d be happy if 75 or 100 people came,” Aizumi said. “But now it’s looking more like 150 or 200 people, and they’re coming not just from L.A., but from San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C.”

Okaeri will kick off on Friday night with a reception and special screening of To Be Takei, the biographical documentary on actor and gay rights activist George Takei. On Saturday, attendees can join workshops, themed discussions, and performances as well as relax and network in a designated social lounge. For more information and to register, visit okaeri-la.org.