Written by Elaine Lieu
The Pearl Harbor Attack was really what Roosevelt made it out to be: “a date which will live in infamy.” Immediately after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that serious action was required to provide national defense. Rumors spread here and there, entirely focused on Japanese Americans and their loyalty to Japan. The result was great fear amongst other Americans. In addition, the army and the navy pushed forth for internment and evacuation of all Japanese. Shortly after, President Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9066 and created military areas allowing the exclusion of anyone they felt harmful to the United States’ well-being. 1942 marked the beginning of the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese American to internment camps.
The traumatic event had a long lasting effect on all Japanese Americans spiritually, culturally, and psychologically. Professor Robert A. Nakamura, the associate director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, was 6 years-old when he was incarcerated with his parents. When asked about the experience, he made observations about the traumatic experiences that all Japanese Americans faced. “All previous friendships deteriorated in the face of the enemy. Nisei, the second generation Japanese Americans, attempted to erase all memories of internment, only to find themselves becoming whiter than white.” They yearned for acceptance from the American community, and believed that this could only be done through denial of their past. Their main goal was to live a new and improved life where they could be accepted. In addition, they focused all their attention to schools and studies, but this was only a method of internalizing and avoiding the stress that came from such a traumatizing event.
The decision to eliminate this part of their history, however, was not possible. During the 1970s, the third generation Sansei made a strong effort to figure out their past and their history, as they worked to bring their community’s issues to America’s attention. It was not until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan signed an apology under the Civil Liberties Act to distribute $1.25 billion to all individuals who had been incarcerated. Although the process of appropriating the funds was extremely difficult, the president’s decision to sign the act represented a move towards Japanese American recognition in American history.
UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union, an on-campus organization formed with the mission of bringing awareness to Japanese American issues, also seeks to develop and improve the Japanese American community. Each year, Nikkei Student Union and its members attend the Manzanar Pilgrimage to learn more about the internment experience. NSU understands the importance for Asian Americans to see the impact of Executive Order 9066, not only for past generations, but future generations as well, who need to be informed of the past. The Manzanar Pilgrimage is one form of commemoration that helps students better understand the importance of Asian American history and identity. The pilgrimage consists of museum exploration, NSU performances, and a group discussion activity called Manzanar at Dusk.
This year marks the 43rd year of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. The number of people attending has grown and diversified. After September 11, Muslim Americans began to attend the event because they supported the commemoration of those who were interned. In addition, Shin Nisei Japanese Americans, or children of Japan-born parents who immigrated to the U.S. after World War II, continue to be active attendees of the pilgrimage because they see an importance in learning about the American experience. This year, more than 1000 people attended the pilgrimage.
Attending this event for 3 consistent years, NSU Shin Nisei members Hiromi Aoyama and Yuta Ebikawa share their experience about the pilgrimage. Aoyama was able to witness the diversity of the event, which gave her exposure to Japanese American history. “By going to Manzanar, I really did appreciate the status of [our] community today and being able to have an education.” The whole experience left her in shock, but overall, she developed a deeper understanding about its history and was genuinely more interested in it. Ebikawa emphasizes how important it is for the current generation to know about “the past and to prepare to fight any future threats.” He greatly cherishes the “space and opportunity to talk with other generations and hear their stories.” Both members continue to promote and encourage as many individuals to attend.
This year, more than 40 members attended the pilgrimage. Besides the pilgrimage, Nikkei Student Union continues to provide all students with an opportunity to form their own community here at UCLA while preserving the history of Japanese Americans. Every year, NSU hosts their annual cultural night, which consists of dramas and performances by members. Through their performances, members are able to express their creativity while revealing important details about the Japanese American identity. Their hard work and achievements bring members together and give them the opportunity to learn more about themselves while bonding with the UCLA community.