Summertime is when many Japanese Americans make pilgrimages to the World War II Japanese American concentration camps. These pilgrimages can be an individual trek to a former camp site, a shared journey with family members and friends, an experiential process with several hundred pilgrims over several days, or a one-day gathering with a couple of thousand participants. It is a time for learning, experiencing, and sharing about our Japanese American elders and the places that incarcerated them during World War II.
Last week, I was in Idaho to speak to a group of 320 pilgrims visiting the former Minidoka concentration site. This was the camp where both my parents, all four of my grandparents, and seven of my uncles and aunties were incarcerated. Similar to the other pilgrimages I have participated in over the past 20 years, I heard funny stories, and sad and frightening memories to give me a more nuanced understanding of the camp experience. For example, I heard a story of a local farmer who hired Japanese Americans to work his fields, and when his son unexpectedly borrowed the farmer’s shotgun, he assumed Japanese American workers took the gun and almost had Army soldiers shoot a carload of workers returning to camp.
I also felt the raw force of nature with triple digit temperatures and high winds. I asked several of the Nisei how they coped with the weather while living in uninsulated, tar-papered barracks. An 87-year-old Nisei, with a sparkle in her eyes, said she had air conditioning, smiled at my confused expression, and then laughed as she demonstrated this "air conditioning" by fanning herself with a piece of paper!
The pilgrimages are a personal and visceral way to commemorate and learn about the Japanese American incarceration. We owe a huge thanks to pilgrimage organizers—almost all volunteers—who plan and work hundreds of hours to keep the World War II incarceration story alive and real. Please say thank you the next time you see one of these organizers. They deserve our gratitude and our support!