From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.


May 2007 - Healing Journeys: Pilgrimages to Former Incarceration Camps

Barrack at former Tule Lake incarceration center, California, July 1997 (from denshopd-i35-00044)
"So now it's out in the open... After the last pilgrimage, I'm not being quiet anymore. It might be a little late, but it's better than never."
   - Marianne West

Countless sansei (third generation) Japanese Americans will tell you their parents either never spoke of the camps that detained them during World War II, or they referred only in passing to lighter social aspects. The nisei (second generation) might have mentioned brass bands and baseball, but not the searchlights and guard towers looming above these all-American pastimes.


In the postwar "resettlement" period, Japanese Americans had trouble enough overcoming discrimination to find housing and employment or schooling; they had little time or inclination to dwell on the painful past. Before redress and a presidential apology lifted the stigma of the incarceration in 1988, Japanese Americans as a group repressed their internalized shame over being imprisoned by their government. They kept a low profile. They gave their children American-sounding names. Above all, they tried to forget the indignity and emotional toll of the incarceration. Historian Tetsuden Kashima aptly named this collective suppression "social amnesia."

The next generation broke the silence. Coming of age in the era of civil rights and protest, activist sansei (supported by nisei civil libertarians) publicly objected to the unjust incarceration. Densho interviewee and civil rights lawyer Lorraine Bannai, like many others of her generation, learned the truth about the conditions of the camps not from her family's passing references but from her own research:

It was just so shocking because I could not learn about it without seeing my parents and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles there. And, it was so difficult to realize that they lived in these horse stalls and lived in these desert camps, and seeing the pictures of Manzanar and the snow and the wind and all the snow on the mountaintops and how cold and how hot it must have been, and the guard towers and the guns. It was just really, very shocking and very sobering and frightening to think that this is what they were referring to when they were referring to camp.

The annual pilgrimages began in 1969, when sansei made the journey to Manzanar, wanting to see for themselves the site of their parents' imprisonment. Many nisei have no desire to return to the desolate scenes of their wartime exile, but the thousands who have gone on pilgrimages to Manzanar, Minidoka, Tule Lake, and other former camp locations traveled psychologically from repressed shame and pain to collective catharsis. Marianne West described returning to Tule Lake in her interview for the Densho Digital Archive:

The second time is much easier. The first time, there were some moments that were kind of traumatic, seeing the barracks, and I still can't believe that seven people lived in the area that we lived in. And at one place, when they stepped on the barbed wire fence and opened it up for us to come through, I had moments then. And going through the camp, it was kind of hard, but this time it's much easier. And the children were never aware of my camp experiences. They knew that I had been in camp because when… Congress declared that they had made a mistake, and during that time they found out that I had been in camp. But even my husband was unaware of those three hidden years of my life. And so now more and more is coming out, and we sit and talk about different things. And I think it's hard for them to believe, too, some of the things that have happened.

The commemorative visits to former camps fueled the redress movement of the 1970s. Grassroots efforts around the country coalesced in organized petitioning of Congress and the courts. In addition to seeking an apology for the wrongful incarceration, Japanese Americans lobbied to preserve the sites and artifacts of the camps as testimony to the massive injustice--and as a caution against repeating it. Volunteer committees have achieved national historic designation for five of the ten camps and are nominating others. Upon being named to the National Historic Register, the sites fall under the protection of the National Park Service and will be safeguarded as permanent reminders of the tragic breach of democratic ideals.

Once past the initial shock, later pilgrimages became opportunities for the nisei to reflect and reunite with old friends, and to educate their descendants. Marianne West concludes:

So now it's out in the open. After the last pilgrimage, too, I said that this was something I wasn't going to keep quiet. So I have been open about it in different areas. … I'm not being quiet anymore. It might be a little late, but it's better than never. …They [my children] want to know why I never said anything. And I just say, "Well, I don't know." And now all the questions are coming out, and so whatever they ask, I try to answer the best I can. And I think they're really interested. They seem to be taking everything in and asking questions. So I think it's great that these pilgrimages are happening, especially for the younger people. And if I should live long enough, I hope I can bring my grandchildren down.

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