LA’s Japanese Americans converge on Manzanar to recall internment


UCLA’s Kyodo Taiko drummers perform April 29, 2023 at the 54th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage at Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo by Susan Valot.

About 1,000 people converged on Manzanar National Historic Site in California last weekend for the 54th annual pilgrimage to honor the Japanese Americans who were held here during World War II.

“The Manzanar pilgrimage gives life to this notion that there’s a power of place,” says Bruce Embrey, whose mother was an organizer of the first official pilgrimage in 1969. “It’s an extremely powerful place to be. You can sense its history.” 

In 1942, just a couple of months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced Japanese Americans from the West Coast into desolate camps like Manzanar. Ten inland incarceration camps held more than 120,000 people during the war. Many of the Japanese Americans held there lost their homes and businesses over the course of the internment from 1942 to 1945.

One of those families came from a fishing village on Terminal Island in San Pedro. Toyo Yamashina was about 2 at the time. The 2023 pilgrimage was the first time she returned to Manzanar, primarily drawn by a group photo in the visitors’ center. It shows her as a child sitting next to a little girl wearing the same dress that her mom had made. She wants to find out what happened to that little girl. 

They were both among the 11,070 Japanese Americans forced to live behind the barbed wire in the harsh conditions of Manzanar. Yamashina remembers bits and pieces about living in a tar paper-covered barrack there, enduring dust storms and no privacy in the public bathrooms.

On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Yamashina’s dad was a fisherman who made a living with his own fishing boat. That day the fishermen of Terminal Island had left in the morning to go fishing, Yamashina recounts. By afternoon, the government had ordered them all back to shore. Those fishermen, including Yamashina’s dad, were detained and sent to Montana.

Then a couple of months later, the Japanese Americans living on Terminal Island were given 48 hours to get out. They were eventually sent to what the U.S. government called “war relocation centers,” camps located inland. Yamashina, her mom and her sister ended up in Manzanar, where they were eventually reunited with her dad. 

Yamashina says before they left, her mom and about 10 other families had put their belongings into storage in Whittier.

“During that time they were in Manzanar, they got word that there was a fire and they lost everything, all their belongings in there,” Yamashina says. “They were pretty sure it was set on fire. People took things out first.”

Yamashima did not find the child next to her in the old photo on this trip, but she did meet Masako Kami Hollowell, also pictured in the photo, while standing in front of a display of the image in the visitor’s center. The pair now plans to go to lunch.

Hollowell says she doesn’t remember much about living here and her parents, who were originally from Glendale, really didn’t talk about it. She says they only remembered the happy occasions, like the friends they made.

But they did tell Hollowell about the day she was born in the camp. Hollowell’s family lost their grocery store in Eagle Rock. She says they made do with what they could find.

“My mother was very creative. She took some old orange crates that she saw and she built me a high chair,” Hollowell says.

Mae Kageyama Kakehashi, who turns 100 later this month, recalls she had just graduated from Venice High School when she was sent by bus to the camp, not knowing where she was going.

“I was 18, 19 years old, so I didn’t know what’s going on in the world. I thought we were going to Japan,” she says with a laugh. “All of us in the bus, we were all Japanese and thought, ‘Gee, where are they going to take us? To Japan?’ And Japan, we were at war with them already and why do they want us over there?”

Kakehashi says as she set out on her first big trip, she felt bewildered and also curious.

“It was sort of a little adventure because I’d never driven out of Los Angeles,” Kakehashi says.

Kakehashi ended up getting a job doing stenography at the hospital in Manzanar, and got married there. And she tends to focus on more positive memories, like when a Japanese American truck driver from the Manzanar warehouse took her and some hospital co-workers to the foot of Mount Whitney, about 10 miles away, to play in the snow.

It was nice freedom for a few hours,” Kakehashi says.

People gather around the white, concrete obelisk in Manzanar’s cemetery, draped with colorful paper cranes. The obelisk, built in 1943, contains Japanese Kanji characters that read “Soul Consoling Tower.”  Photo by Susan Valot.

“It’s a solemn place. It’s a sometimes difficult place to be,” Bruce Embrey says of the annual Manzanar pilgrimage. Yet “we have turned one of America’s most shameful moments, a site that was, in essence, a negation of American democracy, into a site of justice, of social justice, and actually [have been] able to create a site that was not just one of shame, but one of accomplishment and celebration, as well.”