Anne M. Blankenship: Pilgrimage to the WWII Japanese American Incarceration Centers: Championing Civil Rights for All

Morality, Politics, and Compromise: The Plight and Prospects of the Moderate, Then and Now by Anne. M BlankenshipToday we welcome a guest post by Anne M. Blankenship, author of Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. Blankenship’s study of Christianity in the infamous camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II yields insights both far reaching and timely. While most Japanese Americans maintained their traditional identities as Buddhists, a sizable minority identified as Christian, and a number of church leaders sought to minister to them in the camps. Blankenship shows how church leaders were forced to assess the ethics and pragmatism of fighting against or acquiescing to what they clearly perceived, even in the midst of a national crisis, as an unjust social system. These religious activists became acutely aware of the impact of government, as well as church, policies that targeted ordinary Americans of diverse ethnicities.

In today’s post, Blankenship shows how present-day pilgrimages to historic sites of incarceration have become opportunities to champion civil rights for all by creating a communal memory of a painful past. 


Last summer, over 1,000 people took pilgrimages to the sites of former Japanese American incarceration centers.  Pilgrimages have become sites of resistance not only by reshaping the memory of an ethnicity’s disenfranchisement, but by employing remembrance in the fight for the civil rights of first themselves and then others.

The groups who first visited the remains of California’s two camps in 1969 saw their project as one of not just healing, but a way to organize the Japanese American community for social justice work. The pilgrims campaigned for official recognition of the sites, first as state historical monuments and eventually as national historic landmarks within the National Park System. They also headed successful initiatives for redress movements to force the U.S. government to admit their constitutional violation and try to make amends. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the defense of Muslim and Arab Americans has become a central theme within the Manzanar pilgrimage in southern California.

The annual Manzanar Pilgrimage includes a keynote address, cultural programs, ondo (traditional Japanese group dancing) and taiko (drumming), tours of the camp site, updates from the National Park Service, intergenerational small group discussions where former incarcerees share their stories, and interfaith services to commemorate Nikkei who died during the war, either in camp or on the battlefield.

The committee chairs of Manzanar’s program consciously shape the communal memory of incarceration to embrace the experiences of other minority groups and define remembrance as an obligation to support the rights of others. To close the 2015 ceremonies, Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar pilgrimage and son of Manzanar Committee founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey, told pilgrims:

Remembering is not passive. We must act on our memories. We must stand, today, with all those who face civil rights abuses, stand with those who are unjustly accused or persecuted simply because of their faith, their birthplace, or ancestry. We must stand up for others if we are to truly honor the sacrifices of our families . . . and all the sacrifices they made so that we may pursue our dreams. . . . We remember and work to preserve our story so that our people, our country can learn from our past and not be condemned to repeat it. This is why we remember.

Four years earlier, he closed by saying that “our legacy, as a community that was systematically deprived of our civil rights, is to make sure America does not forget what happened. Our legacy is to ensure no other group, be they Muslim, Arab, or any other group, be vilified and denied their civil and constitutional rights.” Embry explicitly defines the goal of the Manzanar Pilgrimage: a rite of remembrance, yes, but also an active pledge to pursue justice.

Last year, the theme “Watashi wa Manzanar [I am Manzanar]: Continuing Our Civil Rights Legacy” used what linguists call a “snowclone,” a play on a language template constantly reused in popular culture—in this case, to demonstrate solidarity with an individual or group suffering from injustice or other trauma. Speakers at the event exhorted the audience to expand the sentence to “Watashi-tachi wa Manzanar”—“We are Manzanar.”

We heard that “we are all Parisians” after the terror attacks in 2015. “We are (or were) Trayvon Martin” after his murder in 2012. We have “all been” Orlando, Charleston, Ferguson, Egyptians, Malala, Salman Rushdie, and others. Whether you approve of these memes or not, the Manzanar Committee’s use of this trope reinforces the increasingly inclusive nature of their pilgrimage. It’s about everyone. Rarely do insiders—the victims (or even their descendants)—use this particular snowclone to involve outsiders, to demand that outsiders are in fact one of the victims. And without the solidarity promoted in their annual pilgrimage, it would not be possible.

Representatives from local Native American tribes and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have spoken at the Manzanar ceremonies, and verses from the Qur’an were read alongside Buddhist and Christian scripture during the 2002 memorial services. The Council on American-Islamic Relations brings busloads of people to pilgrimage each year.

One of the greatest challenges to pilgrimage today is the dwindling number of former incarcerees. In Memory, History, Forgetting (2004), Paul Ricoeur emphasizes the need to preserve one’s heritage, while remaining separate from victimization. He said that descendants should not take on the “moral priority” of past victims. The Manzanar Committee dodges this type of “memory abuse,” as Ricoeur calls it, by reshaping painful memories into positive acts for future generations. Ricoeur rightly names justice as one of the motivations for a “memory project,” relating it to the “duty of memory” and the Freudian “work of mourning.”

Only with a complicated combination of remembering, forgetting, and forgiving can time and life progress. Ricoeur’s paradigm of justice and memory offers practical ways to think about the necessity of memorialization for Japanese Americans and gives their project greater urgency.

Anne M. Blankenship is assistant professor of American religious history at North Dakota State University. Her book Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II is now available.