Sunday, September 9, 2012

Disassociating from Manzanar

Highway 395 through the Owens Valley is unrelenting like a ghost of California's past, showing us the dreams of men and women laid to waste under the hot, arid landscape.

The roads are so long and straight, and the land is so barren, there's little else to focus on. Even the hum of the Honda ST's engine remains constant and unwavering as I hold the throttle at 80mph.

Why anyone still lives here is anyone's guess. Perhaps it's to get away from the congestion of the cities, or perhaps it's to prove something.

When I turned off the highway to visit Manzanar, I could feel my senses tighten.

"There's a lot of pain in here", I thought to myself.

I began to disassociate, a reaction I developed back in my childhood to escape from the pain of abuse. Except today, I use it to avoid my emotions.

A film showing Japanese children dressed up like George and Martha Washington, to celebrate Independence Day, seemed all too humiliating to a group of people whose faith in the American Dream had just been laid to waste.  The same Japanese children were depicted dressed up as Indians, ironic considering the government also forced Indians from their homes.

japanese racism
I never felt a connection to Manzanar because my mother immigrated from Japan long afterwards. Even though I grew up being called, "Jap", or assumed to be a Kung Fu master, I still never felt the sting of racial hatred.

If anything bothers me it's how we as a society have disassociated from the failures of our past.

For most people, Manzanar is simply a "Japanese thing", not a concentration camp. The US didn't even call it that, preferring to use "war relocation center" instead, thus denying Japanese-Americans the sympathy they should have received.

At one time we used the word "shell shock" to describe soldiers returning with severe psychological trauma. Just the words themselves make the condition sound troubling. Today, we call it "post traumatic stress disorder", because it sounds more friendly, and let's us broaden the scope to include any kind of stress.

Had we still used the words "shell shock", perhaps we'd feel more sorry for our veterans, and give them more attention.

The same thing about Manzanar.

manzanar tshirt
As I walked out of the museum and into the gift shop, I couldn't help but notice the t-shirts they sold with the word "Manzanar" on them. I guess you can emblazon the name proudly on your chest and boast about how you've been there. Again, a little disassociation helps us all.

I wonder if they sell similar t-shirts at Auschwitz.

Leaving Manzanar, I headed south on Highway 395, past the abandoned motels, run down shacks, and rusted sedans dotting the scenery. It's all right there for the viewing, exploring, and perusing.

I stopped at an old abandoned cafe, walked in and saw the vintage oven and countertop amidst piles of trash and plywood. There's an eerie sense that people ate sandwiches and sipped soup here long ago, that this was once someone's pride and joy. Now it's just a home for ghosts and rattlesnakes.

The desert has a way of being truthful. Without any trees to get in the way, you can see the failures of America's past so clearly.

abandoned cafe


  1. Great article! Clearly, I'm an ignorant American and probably one of many (or is it most) that weren't aware that this place still existed. In fact I never knew where the camps were located. Very sad view of our past. However, I have a hard time with the comparison of Auschwitz to Manzanar. Yes, a race of people were held here, but they were not waiting to be executed. It was clearly a crime to hold people here for doing nothing, but the comparison is cruel to all those who were slaughtered in Germany.

  2. Happy to have found your blog and very moved by your post on Manzanar. A civil liberties tragedy of the 20th Century, and not well understood by the majority of Americans today.

    The main point of congressional findings decades later is that there was no military reason for the evacuation of Japanese Americans, hence the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

    I see you are in San Diego. Take a look at this information about a Japanese American site in Huntington Beach, We are trying to save it.

  3. change the world and the people in it? Luck with that... and before we abused the Japanese Americans, the American Indian, and the Blacks... we were abused in Europe... The story of the Human race... an unending pathetic circle...

    The ONLY one you can have ANY hope of changing... lives right between your own ears

  4. We visited Manzanar on our way home from Reno recently. I was struck by the similarities between Auschwitz and Manzanar. The general population were told the Jews and the Japanese were staying in the camps for their own safety and that they wanted to be there. The difference is that Hitler wanted the Jews dead and found men among his military to get the job done.
    Freedom in this country comes with a responsibility of the Citizens to keep informed and involved. You can't be part of a Free country and just expect to be taken care of. When that kind of power is given to those in charge they will take care of you. It just may not be the way you want.


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)