Katari: Keeping Japanese Amer. Stories Alive


In March 2018, the Manzanar Committee , with multiple partners, launched a new project that took college-age youth to the Manzanar National Historic Site  for two days of intensive, experiential, place-based learning about the unjust incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. This project worked to bridge the generation gap that has made it much more difficult for young Japanese Americans to teach others about this history—teaching others about it is absolutely critical given the current political climate.

A second group of students were given the same learning opportunity at Manzanar in November 2018. Both trips were highly successful, exceeding goals and expectations.

This year, another group of college students will make the same journey in early November. Although some of the necessary funds have already been raised, we need your support to raise an additional $6,000.00 to fully defray the costs of lodging, meals, transportation, insurance and supplies for our students, and other program participants.


Nearly 78 years ago, more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and communities on the West Coast and were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps, and other confinement sites. As a federal commission determined in the 1980s, this heinous, unjust act was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

The first of the American concentration camps to be built was Manzanar, located approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where 11,070 people were forced to endure painfully harsh conditions, many for more than three years.

To be sure, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was one of the most blatant violations of Constitutional rights in the history of the United States, a dark chapter of our nation’s history that should never have been repeated again, to anyone, anywhere.

In December 1969, about 150 people, many of them Japanese American college students, made the first organized pilgrimage to Manzanar to pay tribute to their families who endured life behind the barbed wire. But perhaps more important, they made that journey to start filling in the blank pages in their history books—left blank because their parents and grandparents were so reticent to speak of their incarceration, still suffering from the pain and strong feelings of guilt and shame attached to this experience so many years later.

It didn't take long for the Manzanar Pilgrimage to become, not only a tradition, but a community institution. But by the mid-1990s, the time had come for the program to evolve in order to reach younger generations.


In 1997, Japanese American college students helped start Manzanar After Dark, an interactive event where participants could hear the stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar, or other camps and confinement sites, straight from the mouths of those who experienced that injustice. Participants were also able to discuss what they learned, draw parallels to present-day issues, and talk about "what can we do now?"

Next April, the Manzanar Committee will hold its 51st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, marking 78 years since the signing of Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the unjust incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. 2020 will also mark the 28th anniversary of Manzanar being designated as a National Historic Site (March 3, 1992), and Manzanar After Dark, now known as Manzanar At Dusk, enters its 23rd year—it has become an integral part of the Pilgrimage weekend, promoting inter-generational and inter-ethnic discussions about the lasting impact of Japanese American Incarceration.

Given the current political climate, this history is far more relevant today than we would like it to be, especially given the fact that immigrants are being incarcerated in what are, by definition, American concentration camps. Indeed, history is repeating itself, placing greater emphasis on the need to educate people about Japanese American Incarceration and what we can learn from that national mistake that can be applied today.

Although the milestones mentioned above are something to commemorate, they also clearly mark how much time has passed. Due to the shifting dynamics and demographics within the Japanese American community, including a growing recent immigrant population from Japan, and the previously mentioned younger generations, a large group of Japanese Americans are either two or three generations removed from the experiences of those who were forced to endure America’s own World War II concentration camps, or they have no connection to this history at all. As such, an increasing and alarming number of young people lack the knowledge and experience to be able to keep the stories of Japanese American incarcerees alive. It is absolutely critical that these stories are kept alive—passed down to each generation. After all, if we can’t tell our own community’s stories, who will?


The Manzanar Committee, in partnership with the National Park Service staff at Manzanar National Historic Site, and the Nikkei Student Unions at California State University (CSU), Fullerton, CSU Long Beach, California Polytechnic University, Pomona, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego (organizers of the Manzanar At Dusk program), seeks to bridge these gaps through this project that we’ve named, Katari, which means, “to tell stories” in Japanese.

As our first two groups of students have done, this year’s student organizers will spend a weekend (November 2-3, 2019), at the Manzanar National Historic Site, participating in intensive, place-based learning, training, and collaboration. Our students will have the opportunity to personally engage with Japanese American History. They will also be provided with some of the tools needed to keep the stories of Japanese American incarcerees alive and to teach that history to others, which, as previously stated, is especially critical today, given that this history is indeed repeating itself.

The students will also meet and collaborate with National Park Service staff at Manzanar—establishing relationships with those who care for our history is critical.


As previously stated, two cohorts of students have participated in this educational experience at Manzanar, each deeply impacted by their weekend there.

“What struck a chord in me and still sticks with me today is the impact of being able to learn about all of this while being at the Manzanar National Historic Site itself,” said Kevin Amemiya of the UCSD Nikkei Student Union. “In classrooms, we are detached from our environment. We learn about our history, but we never experience it. We never go out and interact and utilize the vast knowledge we learn behind our desks.”

“Being at the Manzanar National Historic Site was, to say the least, overwhelmingly and incredibly powerful,” added Amemiya. “We walked on the sands that those who were incarcerated there walked upon throughout their daily lives. We ate at [a replica of one of the] mess halls that some of them [ate] their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in. We strolled through a park where couples would go to get away from the world. We sat in a replica of one of the barracks that they slept in for over three years.”

“The connection to the land and its history was so great that every single thing I learned was amplified to the point where my emotions would often get the best of me and honestly, I’m glad they did. It only made the experience that much more impactful for me...I realized that our lives are a product of our ancestors and we have a duty to them to keep their stories alive so that something like this will never, ever happen again.”

These students came from very different backgrounds: some had families incarcerated, some were shin-Nisei, and non-Japanese, but they all brought with them passion and a willingness to learn. As Amemiya alluded to above, in a time where the numbers of those incarcerated are decreasing, it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to pass on their stories and connect to younger generations and we have not only succeeded in achieving our goals with our first two cohorts, but we have exceeded our expectations, as the experience has been deemed to be transformational and even life-changing by our students.

“As someone who is shin-Nisei and half-Japanese American, I never felt a deep connection to the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II,” said Emma Boyles of the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA. “I was aware of Executive Order 9066 and other historical acts, but I didn’t have the personal ties that other Yonsei (fourth generation Japanese American) and Gosei (fifth generation Japanese American) students in the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA had. Their grandparents or great-grandparents had to endure the struggle of living in the camps for years and the impact on them continued to ricochet through the generations.”

“Going into the Katari trip, I thought I was going to learn more about the history of Manzanar and the events that led up to the incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans,” added Boyles. “I was right to expect that—I learned so much about the history of the site—but I didn’t expect to hear the emotional, personal accounts and the first-hand experiences of incarceration from Japanese Americans themselves. It is so true that it is hard to understand what these people went through without traveling to the actual site and hearing from former incarcerees and the extremely knowledgeable rangers. That really opened my eyes to what happened at Manzanar.”

“I came away from the weekend with a new level of understanding and empathy for what happened. I believe that anyone can benefit from going to Manzanar, regardless of their race or ethnicity. Everyone can learn from the personal stories and larger historical events that surround Manzanar to ensure that something like this will never happen again.”

This year’s group will see our first efforts to expand the program beyond our Manzanar At Dusk student organizers. Indeed, additional students from the student organizations we are already working with on this project will be invited to participate. In fact, this year’s cohort could reach a maximum of 20 students compared to five in March 2018 and eight in November 2018.

Looking further down the road, we hope to expand this project even more, to potentially include a second cohort of students from more college campuses who would make the same trip at a different time of the year. Our goal is to be able to reach beyond our current group of students within the next 2-3 years.


Although we have already raised some of the funds needed to cover the costs of meals, lodging, travel from Southern California, liability insurance, and supplies for our upcoming Katari trip in early November 2019, your support is needed to help us raise an additional $6,000.00 to help us fully defray the cost of this trip for our students and other participants. Your support will help us take a big step towards ensuring that the critically important stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated in America's concentration camps will live on, long after their own voices have gone silent.

For more information, please go to https://manzanarcommittee.org/katari  for detailed information about our project. You can also find what our students have said about their experiences as Katari participants, along with photographs from Phase I and Phase II.

The Manzanar Committee, a 501c(3) non-profit organization, is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger. An all-volunteer organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site.


Gann Matsuda
Los Angeles, CA
Manzanar Committee
Registered nonprofit
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