‘Japanese Americans will be allies of Muslims. We know civil rights can be overridden in a climate of fearmongering.’
Manzanar, California – Jim Matsuoka left his marbles at Manzanar, the site of the Japanese American internment camp where he grew up during the second world war.
Two gallon-sized cans of toy marbles, earned mostly after being dismissed from class for unruly behaviour, are buried somewhere beneath the ruins of the old camp, which is now a US national park.
Matsuoka misbehaved as a child, imprisoned in the camp by the US government because of his nationality. And he says, proudly, he was never especially obedient as an adult, either.
He came of age in an internment camp only to find himself at the fore of an Asian American civil rights movement.
Now an octogenarian, he looks back on decades of speaking out – demanding redress for Japanese Americans and fighting to protect the civil liberties of other marginalised American communities.
Now, he eats a light sandwich and salad at Mitsuru Sushi & Grill, a restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, where he and other Japanese American community leaders often met when they were founding Nikkei Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR). It is an advocacy organisation that has demanded reparations for what was found to have been the unlawful incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war.
But they have not only represented Japanese Americans – they’ve also spoken out against Japanese officials on the subject of World War II Korean victims of sex trafficking and advocated well beyond their own Asian American community. The organisation helped to coordinate activism against Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11 and is doing so again after US President Donald Trump’s election.
At Mitsuru, Matsuoka tells a younger Japanese American social justice activist and multimedia artist, Kyoko Nakamaru, of his life at the camp, one of many across the country – and of his lost marbles.
“At first, they were taking all my marbles. I was getting cleaned out,” he explains of his marble-playing game at the internment camp. But Matsuoka was never one to be defeated. “I got pretty good,” he says.
“You were a marble hustler,” laughs 36-year-old Nakamaru.
Matsuoka is now a spoken-word poet and a potter at an east LA kiln. Nakamaru is one of many in the Japanese American community in Los Angeles who have been demonstrating against Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations and his advisers’ calls to register Muslim Americans that harken back to the events leading to her ancestors’ unconstitutional incarceration.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued decrees ordering that Japanese Americans – considered “enemy aliens” in their own country, the US – register. About 120,000 US residents of Japanese origin were interned during the war. Trump has cited Roosevelt’s action on Japanese Americans as precedent for his own policy on Muslims.
Matsuoka has returned to Manzanar several times. February 19 marks the Day of Remembrance that commemorates the internment – this year is its 75th anniversary. Matsuoka would like to go to Manzanar for it, but explains: “The mind is willing, but the body isn’t.”
It’s a four-hour drive to brave the bitter February cold of a region of California nestled between a snow-capped mountain range and a desert, beset by sandstorms – too much for many among the ageing community of survivors.
But Nakamaru will go. And Matsuoka entreats her, with a chuckle, to find his lost marbles.
“When it was time to go, I couldn’t bring my marbles. I couldn’t take them with me, so I dug a hole,” he says. “I had two gallon cans full of Victory marbles. Now, they are artefacts of children in Manzanar,” he adds, joking that Nakamaru could split the sale of the marbles with him, half-half, if she were able to unearth them.
It is a federal offence for civilians to dig on Manzanar, now a federally protected historical site. Nakamaru knows and respects this, but she plays along. “Where did you bury them?” she asks, as though planning a heist.
And then, as though it were yesterday, Matsuoka explains that he buried them beside the cots where he and his family slept: “Block 11, Barrack 6, Apartment 2.”
Nakamaru never heard stories like Matsuoka’s from her own grandfather, who was also interned at Manzanar.
“He never spoke about it to anyone. Like at all. Never talked about it,” she says.
The real truth of the camps is gone. Our memory changes history
Wataru Nakamaru, now deceased, was a young man when he and several other Japanese Americans, knowing they would soon be imprisoned at Manzanar, volunteered to travel there to help build the concentration camp that would house about 10,000 people on a single square mile. The site itself is vast, but the federal government had only leased a small parcel from the Los Angeles City government to imprison Japanese Americans.
Over lunch, Matsuoka tells Nakamaru that they often ate corned beef, wieners and sauerkraut at the camp mess halls. Few things were certain there – families had to smuggle in radios, which were forbidden, and they would have no way of knowing if the US was winning or losing the war. But corned beef was like death and taxes – a rare, if not onerous, certainty, Matsuoka says.
“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, corn beef again,’ it was, ‘When are we gonna eat the corned beef?'” he says.
Even this small detail of history impresses Nakamaru, whose father is Japanese American and mother Swedish American.
“My Swedish family made corned beef and my Japanese grandfather wouldn’t eat it. It seemed to make him angry, and you just revealed to me why,” Nakamaru proclaims.
Although she has researched the topic, many of her family’s stories of internment remain unfamiliar to her. So, Matsuoka’s account is like a valuable artefact.
In 2009, Nakamaru was in the midst of writing a memoir, piecing together what she did know of her family’s history of internment, when thieves broke into her New York City apartment and stole her computer. She tried to return to the project, but the emotions poured into her lost work were gone. The project stopped. But, today, she’s trying once more to get back to that work of piecing together her history.
Matsuoka was seven when he, his parents and two sisters lined up outside a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. There, they were tagged like livestock and loaded onto buses.
He takes Nakamaru to the site of that temple. The edifice has been preserved with great care; inside is a community advocacy group called Go for Broke National Education Centre, inspired by the Japanese American World War II veterans who served the US while its government incarcerated their relatives.
“Their story of valour, patriotism and sacrifice is more relevant than ever today, as we face hard questions about social justice, due process, equal protection under the law, and the nature of democracy,” says Mitchell T Maki, Go For Broke president. “We want people of all ages and backgrounds to understand the Nisei experience, and to act with similar courage in their own lives.” Nisei refers to Americans born to Japanese parents.
“We’re engaging with other communities, other faiths, and all those who support civil rights and the rule of law. We will always remember, and [the organisation] exists to keep that flame alive.”
There’s an exhibit at the former temple called “Defining Courage” with a recurring theme of suitcases. That’s because the sanctuary of the former Buddhist temple was used by congregants as a storage space before they were shipped off to unknown destinations. Words are projected onto a model of storage, interactive elements on computers installed into what look like suitcases.
For Matsuoka, this hi-tech, interactive exhibit is a sign that his legacy will continue, even if he can no longer make the trip to Manzanar.
That’s one of the reasons why Go For Broke is collecting testimonies. “The Nisei World War II story is a timeless American story – it will never lose its significance,” Maki says.
Matsuoka says there are stories out of the camp that need to be told more often than they are in his community.
“There’s areas which they don’t want to talk about,” he says.
Even those more open to talking about their experiences than Nakamaru’s grandfather fall silent on certain topics.
One of those topics is what at Manzanar was called the “Children’s Village,” a section at the back of the camp, towards the base of the mountains, the wilderness. This so-called village was populated with orphans.
War Relocation Authority staff went to orphanages across the state, Matsuoka explains, looking for children of any fraction of Japanese descent.
“They went through all orphanages in California looking for anyone with a trace of Japanese blood. You wanna talk about Nazism? You don’t know what that is,” he says.
“I’ve heard nightmare stories about that,” Nakamaru responds.
“That’s an area you never hear about – we talk about a lot of things about the camp, but when it comes to children’s village, people …,” Matsuoka fades off.
With no family to console them and just the howling winds that cut through their overcrowded, ramshackle barracks, these children were worse off than Matsuoka.
Over the course of their conversation, Nakamaru and Matsuoka learn that their ancestors both came from Hiroshima, the site of the US atomic bombing. The bombing marked the devastation of their ancestral homes and the deaths of relatives. But, it also marked the close of the war.
They share many things in common – both are artists. Matsuoka also reveals that he has a sister named Kyoko.
“This is beginning to get weird,” he says.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she adds.
The next day, Nakamaru sets out with Al Jazeera for Manzanar. She is tasked – if only jokingly – with finding the lost marbles.
“Still, 50 percent of the marbles are mine,” Matsuoka says.
“All the marbles are yours,” Nakamaru responds.
The road to Manzanar is flanked by picturesque vistas so vast they appear to shrink the few people, cars and animals they contain.
There are large expanses of nothing in particular and mountain ranges that have remained relatively untouched since this part of the US was Mexico.
Occasionally, there are small towns and roadside stands selling pistachios, beef jerky and local honey.
Countless Westerns were filmed here, because of the relative proximity to Hollywood and because it is so desolate.
The small town just before Manzanar, Lone Pine, has a population of just over 2,000. Its tagline is “Little Town, Lots of Charm”. Just past Manzanar is a town called Independence.
Nakamaru has been once before, with her father Robert “Bob” Nakamaru, in 2002.
“The beauty of Manzanar struck me instantly,” she says. “That’s the first breath. In the second, you realise there’s no escaping. The beauty falls away to the fact it’s a prison that’s inescapable. The road on either side led to hostility and the mountains were impenetrable.”
For her, to return this year is of particular importance – and not just because of the 75th anniversary and the parallels she sees between the internment and the Trump administration’s proclamations. Nakamaru’s grandmother, Miyoko Mikasa, whom everyone called Sunny – a nickname she received at the camp where she was interned for her friendly demeanour, died last summer. Sunny, for various reasons never shared stories of her incarceration at Poston camp in Arizona.
With both grandparents deceased, Nakamaru realises there’s a lot she’ll never know.
“I had a complicated relationship with my grandfather,” she says. “And I feel like I have clarity [about his experience] now, maybe because we’re in a time that is so terrifyingly reminiscent of what he experienced. I can ask myself, ‘What would I have done?'”
Nakamaru moved to Los Angeles months ago. Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, where hers was the only family of Japanese origin, she faced discrimination and racial taunts. For her, to have access to a larger, more outspoken Japanese American community in Los Angeles has been empowering.
“I can’t speak for families on the West Coast, but people in the Midwest almost all didn’t know their families’ stories,” she says.
History, she reflects, is always coloured by recollections, inaccurate because humans are often so. “The real truth of the camps is gone. Our memory changes history,” she says.
Nakamaru attended a vigil in Little Tokyo on the eve of the signing of Trump’s immigration ban. Such demonstrations are, for her, an opportunity to witness other Japanese Americans, proud of their origins and actively working to redefine, broaden and fortify the American experience.
Pulling up at Manzanar, she gets out of the car to photograph a watchtower. She’s uncertain whether this is the actual watchtower that was here during her grandfather’s internment or if it is a reconstitution designed to hint at the experience of the internees.
War Relocation Authority workers, who had promised to return the land to the Los Angeles government when the internment was over, stripped down the barracks and other facilities and sold them off immediately after the camp was closed, Manzanar park rangers tell Al Jazeera. Some barracks are said to be still standing – they have been renovated and turned into motel rooms in neighbouring Lone Pine, the rangers say. Local motel owners could not immediately confirm this to Al Jazeera.
Entering the Manzanar visitors’ centre, park rangers Rose Masters and Patricia Biggs greet Nakamaru.
Masters is in charge of the site’s oral history programme. There are no former internees here today, she says.
There will be more people from Matsuoka’s generation arriving in the summer, she anticipates.
Masters has devoted her career to preserving their stories. She is from nearby Independence, a name she notes is ironic, given the legacy of the camps.
“I think about what happens when those people [from Matsuoka’s generation] are gone. Will we still listen as closely and see this as important?” she asks. She hopes the testimonies she collects will allow the legacy to last “for all eternity”.
Masters and Biggs are not Japanese, but as Nakamaru begins to ask them questions about her family, it becomes clear that they treat the site and the descendants of its former inmates with great care. Ancestors’ names are pronounced with an appreciation for the cadence of the Japanese language. Nakamaru – the U sits behind the top front teeth, almost nasal.
“You learn a lot when you work here for a long time,” Masters says, smiling.
Nakamaru enquires about her grandfather. There is a database available, with printable records, the rangers say. But beforehand, Biggs hands Nakamaru a form that she can mail to the US National Archives that will allow for the release of the Evacuee Case File on members of her family.
“I want to give you the disclaimer that you don’t know what you’re going to find,” Biggs says; some of the information may come as a shock.
On Wataru Nakamaru, the park rangers inform her that contrary to what she thought, that he signed up to helped build Manzanar, that was not the case. “We put volunteers in quotes; they would come anyway,” Masters explains.
Los Angeles’ Griffith Construction had already been contracted to come to Manzanar to build the barracks. So when Wataru and his group of so-called volunteers arrived, they were met with the non-Japanese construction team.
“They didn’t necessarily welcome the help,” Masters says.
Nakamaru is amazed. “I can’t believe you have the information. He never talked about the camps,” she says.
“That’s one of my favourite things about working here. How many national parks do you get to come to and learn your personal family history?” Masters responds.
Nakamaru also finds camp newspaper clippings describing her great-grandfather’s death, but omitting the story that the family told: that it had been a suicide. That great-grandfather, her grandmother’s father, was interned at Poston. He had asthma, and as the story is told, could not breathe in the harsh southwestern US climates. And so, it is said, he took his own life.
Nakamaru also learns of a relative she did not know existed – a great uncle, Tamotsu “Tom” Mikasa, whose relation to her family she has since verified with older relatives.
Masters escorts Nakamaru through the camp to a reconstitution of a barrack. It is, Masters says, nicer than a true Manzanar barrack would have been. “If we had rebuilt them to be exactly as they were in 1942, it would not have been legal to let visitors inside, which says a lot about the construction at the time,” she explains.
Families sometimes shared these barracks with strangers. Toilets and showers had no dividers. But the men in the camp built dividers between the women’s toilets – the indentations in the asphalt are a sign of how the internees tried to improve their living conditions, Masters observes.
The conversation turns to Matsuoka’s marbles.
“Did you find two giant cans of them? Because, apparently, Jim was quite the hustler?” Nakamaru asks. Masters says she has not, yet.
“The thing we found more than anything else was marbles – everywhere,” she says. This was how the children escaped the realities of incarceration. Masters suggests that Nakamaru contact Manzanar archaeologist Jeff Burton, who is currently working on multiple requests to dig for souvenirs of internment, tucked into the earth. They have found things like marbles and more recently, bottles of sake, a type of Japanese liquor that had been contraband at the camp.
Masters escorts Nakamaru to the site of Matsuoka’s barrack, a five-minute walk from the reconstructed barracks. Calculating by feet and using remnants of piping and foundation left there, Masters estimates where Matsuoka’s cot would have been.
And there, a tree with soft, bright bark, tenacious branches springing from the earth, has grown. Right where Matsuoka would have slept, Masters says.
“That just seems like magic, right? Like, life springs from … I don’t know. I don’t even know what to think of this yet,” Nakamaru reflects.
Nakamaru observes a round metallic object on the ground and wonders if it is the top of a container of marbles. It is not, but still she says: “It feels really powerful – really positive to have like a treasure buried somewhere here. And a lot of what I’m doing as a yonsei – a fourth generation [Japanese American] – is like uncovering this buried treasure. And it’s really only treasure to the people who know where it’s buried.”
The winds howl as she visits the space where the orphan children – some of whom suffered from tuberculosis – would have eaten. She pays her respects at a monument – an obelisk that sits at the back of the former camp. The monument says ireito – meaning a monument that consoles the passed. There are offerings there – Japanese paper cranes and coins – but also small toys: a bear, a Powerpuff doll.
“WE REMEMBER,” Nakamaru writes into the sand, as the wind picks it up. It is one of several such transient messages carved around the ground there. And then, she leaves.
Back at the visitors’ centre, signatures in the guest book reveal a kind of back-and-forth.
One visitor wrote: “Ziro thinks this museum is pointless.”
Another wrote, “Ziro is wrong.”
Then another, “Exactly why we need this museum; it can too easily happen again.”
A visitor who signed their name “Raechael” wrote on January 29, “Be aware of present-day madness.”
“I agree,” wrote “Jerry,” beneath that comment.
There are multiple swastikas and other doodles on the book. But, the number of “never again” messages outnumber the swastikas.
Nakamaru plans to return to Manzanar to find Matsuoka’s marbles. She has already started writing her memoir again, with renewed purpose. Matsuoka has participated in a book project with the University of California, Los Angeles, Asian American Studies Department to document his and other civil rights battles.
There is a desire now, more than ever, the two say, to reach out to others. Matsuoka has been speaking at mosques of late – counselling fellow Americans of Muslim faith on how to remain vigilant in such uncertain times.
“When I speak at the mosques, I say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give up. Don’t back away, reach out – participate in the politics, vote. Let no one tell you that you’re any less than anyone else,'” Matsuoka says.
“Governments are always making mistakes. You kind of hope that people learn from those mistakes, and that they don’t do it again,” he adds.
“By accepting redress, you say, ‘You made a mistake, let’s start off on a new way to go. And you acknowledge me as a first-class citizen. I will not be defined – I won’t let you define me, I’m a first-class citizen, and you can kiss my ass.'”