And then when it was nearly over they went home. Many of the internees, particularly those from California knew by late 1944 that homecoming might not be such a welcome thing. Properties they owned or leased were in most instances gone. Fishing boats, houses, farmland, businesses of all kinds, money left in banks or other investments were confiscated by the government as Alien property and considered forfeit or simply stolen by neighbors and other opportunists. For many years there was an individual in my hometown who drove a Japanese farmers truck he had taken after the man was transported to Gila River. My father said he never showed any embarrassment and in fact was known to have said, “Served them right.”………  

The population of the camps had begun to wind down in 1943 as thousands of young men and women joined the military. Young people could go east for jobs, college or university if there was a family who would sponsor them or dormitories were available. Volunteers left to work in the beet fields of Idaho and factories churning out war materials. The only real caveat was that they couldn’t move to the west coast exclusion zone where most of them had lived before the war. Washington, Oregon, California and parts of Arizona were off-limits.

Leaving, 1945, National Park Service photo

A serious movement had begun, particularly in California to pass legislation at the Federal and State level to deny any Japanese the right to work or live in the Golden state. The same General DeWitt who had pushed so hard for 9066, Earl Warren, Harry Chandler who owned the LA Times and a cabal of like minded racists were trying to deny US citizens and their families the constitutional right to live and work wherever they wanted. 

Farmers didn’t need Japanese-American farmworkers anymore. The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bi-lateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on, short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program ever. 

The program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. On August 4, 1942 the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began. The program lasted much longer than anticipated. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78.

The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the United States worried that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages. In theory, the program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers. It guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer’s expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice however, many growers ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. Between the 1940s and mid 1950s, farm wages dropped sharply as a percentage of manufacturing wages, a result in part of the use of braceros and undocumented laborers who lacked full rights in American society. 

The program was simply another way to exploit immigrant labor. It was eerily similar to the formal and informal importation of cheap labor which had existed in America since it’s beginning. It started with the British transportation of Irish rebels and petty criminals to the plantations of Virginia and the Carolinas in the sixteenth century. Plans to transport the unproductive members of society first emerged in the late sixteenth century. Richard Hakluyt wrote to Elizabeth I in 1584 to suggest that ‘loyterers and idle vagabondes’ and Irish rebeldes should be condemned to service in Newfoundland and other parts of the Americas .” Within 35 years the first slaves arrived from Africa. Wave after wave of immigrants from different places have arrived in America, each to be exploited until they could work themselves up out of the muck and be accepted as Americans. The Japanese are no exception, though they do hold the distinction as one the two ethnic group to be incarcerated in concentration camps.

At Manzanar, the camp superintendent, Ralph Merritt said that, “The only relationship that Japanese understand is that of father and child” and that Merritt “had to become the father of Manzanar.” Merritt seemed to like this idea of being the “father” to the inmate population, quoting the head of the block mangers group as referring to him as having “been like a father to us” multiple times in his own project director’s reports. Neither the Issei nor the Nisei were children by any means and the reference to “father” Merritt could have been nothing but sardonic, dry, understated and faintly mocking. The leadership of the internees were nobodies fools.

To bear out Merritt’s paternalistic attitude and despite winning the respect of many inmates, there was never any question that Merritt was their overseer. In an editorial in the ironically named Manzanar Free Press, Merritt scolded his charges for indirectly causing their imprisonment by “crowding into the seven southern counties of California.” The prison director warned the soon-to-be-released inmates not to “create another Japanese problem” by trying to return there during a housing shortage. In no uncertain terms, he made it clear that the Japanese would not be welcomed to their previous towns. That Merritt is most often remembered by the Japanese inmates as a benevolent figure and as their champion suggests how much prejudice the prisoners had internalized.

Ralph Merritt perhaps without realizing it was the mirror image descendant of the slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson expressed the exactly the same sentiments in his famous Farm Book. The book, a diary of the operations at his plantations detailed life among the human beings he owned. Merritt owned his charges no less than Jefferson and unlike Jefferson, his were surrounded by barbed wire and high desert and had nowhere to run.

The Issei used their culture as a backstop in order to cope but the Nisei, American born had no such cocoon in which to hide. Merritt may have though of himself as a benevolent overlord but the young resented him until the day they died. 

Interviews with the parents of my friends decry the oft repeated, “They accepted their fate and moved on.” There is still resentment today, more than you imagine. Most of what your history books tell you is self-righteous nonsense. The Japanese-Americans did not write your school books and they were certainly not consulted.

Like Jefferson’s enslaved human beings who raised families and built a functioning society with celebrations, music, religion and, in some cases education, they were nevertheless confined, disfranchised, dominated,   coerced, deprived, imprisoned, chained, incarcerated, opressed, subjugated, suppressed; the list is very long, and they all apply. 

California itself tried to pass legislation to bar Japanese-Americans from ever returning but the state was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign to keep the Japanese out. In late 1944 the last inmates of Manazanar were shown the door. The last reluctant internees, those who were very apprehensive about what was waiting for them were told that busses would be leaving and they must go. As with all inmates they were given a bus ticket to anywhere they wanted to go and twenty-five dollars in cash. 

They faced extreme difficulties in reintegrating into their old communities and in fact in some communities did everything they could do, both legal and illegal to keep them out.

Only about ten percent ever returned to the places they had lived. There was little or nothing of their former lives left in those places. The Japanese fishing industry in San Pedro and Wilmington never recovered. The boats, nets and hardware had been sold or confiscated by the government, houses foreclosed or taken over by squatters whose “rights” had been upheld by California courts. Many, many families relocated to the midwest and east where anti-Japanese sentiment was much, much less.

In the west it was very rough. There are true and documented stories of returning soldiers in uniform being spit upon or refused services in stores and markets. There were still “No Japs” signs in windows as late as 1948, years after the war. Hate has a long, long memory. It has burrowed deeply in to collective memory and there are those today who have no memory, too young to have direct knowledge who will not accept that the treatment of loyal American citizens was wrong, They simply accept the drumbeat of racial hatred as truth.

In Arroyo Grande were this story began it is difficult to get a firm count of returnees but it is thought by local researchers that somewhat less than half the Japanese ever returned. Nearly half the Arroyo Grande high school graduating class of 1942 were transported but few ever returned. Stores and businesses were gone, farm fields, if not owned, were gone too. A non-citizen of Japanese ancestry could not own property in California and if their children were owners it had it had likely been foreclosed. Banks were quick to do that as the expropriated property could be resold at higher wartime prices.

My father’s classmate Akira “Aki” Saruwatari  (Gila River Camp, File Number: 30434851121) who had owned a Radio and Electronics store downtown on Branch Street lost everything and moved to Santa Barbara. Aki was born in Arroyo Grande, a citizen of the United Staes. He started first grade in our elementary school and graduated with my father from Arroyo Grande high school in 1930. He was a registered Republican all of his life. People from farm and ranch families tend to be on the conservative side. None of this helped. As General DeWitt and one of my fathers closest friends said, “A Jap is a Jap.”

Throughout the state there were those people who were outraged by the treatment of their neighbors and went to extremes to preserve whatever they could of the property and possessions of the dispossessed friends. Houses were occupied by neighbors and friends to stop vandalism. Some of those suffered ridicule, gunshots in the night and attempted arson. Property that was owned by the deported had taxes and mortgages paid by citizens who saw that rents were collected. Some shop owners refused payment of debts upon return. Some debts were forgiven and lest you think that these were people who had no personal stake in war, many had family members, brothers and sisters, cousins and friends who served in the Pacific. There is a universe of difference between the pejorative “They” and “my friend.” One is intensely personal, the other, and not to put too fine a point on it, maligning, slanderous, and vilifying, the refuge of the ignorant and hateful.

The returning citizens had some things going for them, they were mostly young, had been decently educated and had lived in a closed highly co-operative society. They helped each other. It didn’t matter whether they retuned to their farms in Arroyo Grande or were forced to live in crummy trailer camps in south Los Angeles and shanty towns in the San Joaquin, families even working two or three jobs to make ends meet, they persevered just as they had been forced to do in the camps. 

Years after Manzanar was abandoned, it’s buildings sold off or bulldozed, the towers taken down, barb wire removed, blowing sand gradually covered the site. It almost completely escaped the collective historic memory. In an interview for local television in Inyo County, site of Manzanar, Dee Uyeda, a former internee and Joan Busby who grew up in Independence, just a six miles drive from Manzanar  were filmed during a trip they took together to the old camp in 1981. Dee was sent to Manzana from San Francisco with her family, including her father, Shinjo Nagatomi, who was a Buddhist priest. Joan Busby grew up in Independence, just up the road. The two women met as adults when both were teachers in Mill Valley. A chance encounter in the staff room in Mill Valley prompted them to take a trip to the old camp. As they wander the desolate and abandoned grounds they talk about the huge gulf between how they spent their young lives. Joan saying that people in Independence talked about the “Bad people” locked up at Manzanar. Dee wondered if Joan’s family was one of the ones she would see passing along the road, wondering who they were and where they were going. She had no idea that Independence even existed. Dee told a little story about the kids from her school going on a picnic outside the wire, something she was allowed to do only once. The most striking thing is her description of the air outside the fence, “Free air,” she said. Even though in reality it was the same, longing made it seem softer, more pleasant, somehow different. Even an eleven year old she could tell the difference.

The Nagatomi’s were the last family to leave Manzanar, motoring north in an old station wagon in November of 1945. Her father stayed to the last, saying it was his duty as a priest to be there for the last survivors. In 1943 Shinjo helped build the permanent cemetery behind the camp. It is a shrine which has been tended by survivors for 76 years, the only intact piece of the camp other than the original gatehouse entrance. The inscription on the Obelisk which stands in the center of the old cemetery was written by Dee’s father and says, ”Monument to console the souls of the dead.”

National Park Service photo

Former Manzanar prisoners were the initial force behind the preservation of the site. 1969, the Manzanar Committee started an annual trek the old site, led by Sue Kunitomi Embrey. Embrey, a Los Angeles-area teacher who had been evacuated to Manzanar as an 18- year old. She attributed her drive to preserve and protect the site to the memory of her mother. “My mother was a very staunch Buddhist and she would always say, ‘Those poor people that are buried over there at Manzanar in the hot sun, they must be so dry. Be sure to take some water as an offering.”

Later Embrey along with another survivor,  Warren Furutani formed the Manzanar Committee and began a decades-long campaign to gain recognition, first as a state monument and then as a national historic site.

Outside the Japanese American community, resistance came from those who viewed the planned historic designations as a tribute to the nation’s former enemies. The push to have Manzanar declared a California historic site, which was successful in 1972, “was very, very ugly.”  Both WWII’s major veterans groups were adamantly opposed to the declaration. 

For the Manzanar Committee and other supporters of the project, the period of historical significance was the internment period, 1940 to 1945. This approach generated controversy among some World War II veterans. Acknowledging the wrongs of Manzanar complicates the collective memory and reputation of World War II as America’s “Good War,” which upset many veterans. One veteran went so far as to leave a voicemail message for the first National Park Service superintendent at Manzanar, saying that he traveled north from Los Angeles on a “pilgrimage of disgust” to urinate on the site’s commemorative plaque. Some felt that the public would view the park as a monument to the Japanese Empire. They viewed it as ennobling it as a prisoner of war camp

Educating the legislature and congress on the true nature of the site was hard fought and at times very bitter. Initially Inyo County in which the camp lies was also opposed, saying, “We don’t want to be known as the site of a concentration camp.”

The push for national historic site designation was delicate work that involved educating the public about the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II. Embrey and the committee once took a group of Japanese American World War II veterans of the 442nd and other combat commands with them to a meeting in Inyo County, where resistance was very high. When residents saw the old veterans in their uniforms, wearing their medals and campaign ribbons from the European and the Pacific theaters, the assumptions about the camp being a tribute to the enemy completely unraveled.

Manzanar was declared a national historic site in 1992. For the next several years, Sue Kunitomi Embrey remained involved with the park, leading a commission created to advise the National Park Service on matters related to Manzanar and the history being preserved. Even as she looked back at the past, Embrey’s eye was on the future.“I think having Manzanar named a national historic site is important for the whole nation, not just for those who were interned there,” she said. “It’s part of American history and it gives the public an idea of what can happen if people don’t care.”

Today if you drive up Highway 395 and stop at Manzanar you can see little of what was once there. There are touches though. Some ancient fruit trees still persist in the rocky soils, foundation stones litter the roadways, the cemetery with its few stones is well tended. The Japanese style Gardens still exist. The streams are dry and the vegetation so lovingly crafted by the artisans who cared for them are gone but you can still wander along the stream beds, walk the arched bridges and perhaps feel the ghost of something that once was, both horrible and at the same time sublime, for the park is not a monument to Ralph Merritt or the armed tower guards or the government who forced the camp into existence but to the courage and resilience of the internees. People who persevered in the face of humiliation, disenfranchisement and hate. People who made a life from nothing. 

Manzanar Cemetery and monument, authors photo

Perhaps the challenge here is to realize that all those involved in Manzanars present and future have to see the difference between history and nostalgia. Our memory lies somewhere between the two. Memory is a mix of history and a bit of emotion. History is what you need to know and nostalgia, what you want to hear. Nostalgia has no place here. A place like Manzanar cannot be relegated to the past and simply forgotten. The history of places like this points to who we are as a people, warts and all.


Primary sources – “provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occuring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.”

Densho Archives: The Densho Archives contain primary sources that document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s with a strong focus on the period of incarceration. It includes digital media, journals and letters, personal interviews and a mass of first person information.

National Park Service: The NPS has archived photographs and personal histories of dtainees, their families, camp staff and local residents in the telling the story.

Interviews: Personal interviews with family members and their children from the local Arroyo Grande area, both evacuees and non-Japanese residents.

USC Digital Library: Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive, 1941-1946.

Japanese American resettlement through the lens : Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA’s Photographic Section, 1943-1945.

US National Archives: Digital Archives

Los Angeles Times: Photo Archive

Particular thanks to those families and individuals who provided insight into the experience. Kazuo Ikeda, Haruo Hayashi, Vance Akinaka, Senator Daniel Inouye, Sandi Hirase, Will Kastner, George Shannon, Gordon Bennett, Marylee Zeyen, the Dohi’s, Henmi’s and Saruwarari’s. In a small community as ours used to be, where people knew each other there are many individuals and families that provided ancillary information for this series. I thank them all for their insights.

Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi. July 25, 1924 – September 25, 2016


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