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The power of storytelling

Manzanar at dusk

On March 6, we stopped on our long drive between camping sites to visit a place called Manzanar. If you’ve never heard of it, Manzanar was one of ten sites of Japanese incarceration in California, now the destination of a pilgrimage founded by Japanese American activists in the late 60s / early 70s. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR signed an executive order to put over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry into so-called internment camps (a frustrating euphemism) up and down the West Coast. Infuriatingly, the majority of them were American citizens, and none of them truly possessed any threat.

Even though I am not Japanese, as an Asian American and also as a human being I was disgusted with the violation of human rights and dignity that the US government subjected all of those innocent people to, and enraged by the lack of consequences. Not only were the Japanese ripped away from their homes and possessions, most of them to be lost forever, but they were then forced into terrible living quarters under constant surveillance, with no idea of when or even if they would be released.

Most of our group agreed that in our high school educations, Japanese incarceration was only one sentence in our US History textbooks. I learned some more in college courses, but even I didn’t know about the extent of police violence at Manzanar. When many of the Japanese held there organized to protest their incarceration, two of the guards stationed fired into the crowd, killing two men and injuring fifteen or so others. During questioning, both guards confessed that nobody had told them to shoot, but then justified their actions by claiming they were “rushed” by the Japanese. And they both faced zero consequences. Surprised?

As a group, we have learned a lot over the past few weeks about the lack of consequences this country faces for stealing land and water. As a nation, we have learned a lot over the past year about the lack of consequences the police face for violence on Black and Brown lives. At Manzanar, we learned about the lack of consequences for the unrightful incarceration of Japanese people during World War II. Where are the consequences? Where is the accountability?

One of the things that Thomas, Kin-sin-ta, and Nah-tes helped us to learn is the power of storytelling. If you are wronged, and you say nothing, no one will know. If you are wronged, and you tell the story of how and who and why, people will know, and then they will act. Before the Japanese activists drew more attention to the stories of the incarceration camps, nobody cared. Exposing the story changed that. George Floyd’s story, told horrifically and graphically but told nevertheless, inspired millions to understand that Black Lives Matter. The stories that Thomas, Kin-sin-ta, and Nah-tes shared so generously with us has inspired us to care about and fight for Indigenous rights and Mother Earth. So storytelling matters. History textbooks tell the story of our country, and the story of Japanese incarceration is much larger than one sentence. We can hold our nation accountable by telling our stories.