A complete guide to visiting the concentration camp at Manzanar, the historic site of the interment of Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II.
The Bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
In the spring of 1942, the US Army turned the abandoned town of Manzanar, California into a camp that would confine over 10,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants. Forced from their homes, many American citizens were denied constitutional rights on the basis of their ethnicity.
I think it’s important to reiterate that while this event is often remembered as “Japanese Internment” in the US, those forced into the camp included American citizens. It’s remembrance should not be oversimplified.
For decades before WWII, politicians, newspapers, and labor leaders fueled anti-Asian sentiment in the western United States. Laws prevented immigrants from becoming citizens or owning land. Immigrants’ children were born US citizens, but they too faced prejudice. Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor amplified hostilities toward people of Japanese ancestry.
Executive Order 9066
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the military to remove “any or all persons” from the west coast.
The Army applied the order to everyone of Japanese ancestry, including over 70,000 US citizens. These individuals had only days or weeks to prepare. Businesses closed. Classrooms emptied. The process separated families and friends. Ultimately, the US government deprived 120,000 people of their freedom. Half were children and young adults. Ten thousand of these individuals were taken to Manzanar.
Life at Manzanar
While at Manzanar, people endured substandard conditions and a complete lack of privacy. Life continued as best as people could manage over the years. Weddings occurred. Over 500 children were born.
At the same time, over 100 people died interned in a concentration camp. Furthermore, the camp employed people to craft nets and other goods to be used for the war. In other words, people worked to support the same war and government that forced them into a concentration camp.
Closure of the Camp
Manzanar closed in November 1945, shortly after the conclusion of WWII. An annual pilgrimage continues to honor those that died and promote civil liberties. Participation in the pilgrimage symbolizes remembrance and protest.
Six marked graves are still at the site, as many of the families relocated the remains of their loved ones to their preferred location. A white pillar was constructed in the cemetery to commemorate the events that occurred here. The Japanese Kanji characters read “Soul Consoling Tower.”
Related: The United States at a Glance
Getting There & Where to Stay
Manzanar is right off Highway 395 and just 10 miles north of the public land Alabama Hills. East of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it is about three hours from Los Angeles. The best way to reach the location is by personal vehicle or rental car. Because the road is paved, camping vehicles likely won’t face much trouble reaching the location. There is no public bus or train that services the location.
As Manzanar is a bit out of the way and practically in the middle of nowhere, I recommend adding the visit as part of a camping or road trip. Some of the best camping in the area is at Tuttle Creek Campground in Alabama Hills just south of the site. If you prefer a hotel, look to Lone Pine. This is the largest town in the area and just south of Manzanar.
What To Do
After the war, the government removed most of the structures and buried the gardens and basements. Manzanar was further erased by the hands of time. Today, the National Park service continues to uncover and preserve historic features, including early elements of the 1900s farming town of Manzanar.
The site is best visited by a 3-mile self-guided, driven tour. Many stops along the way offer visitors the chance to get out and explore further on foot. On the tour you can see several Japanese gardens, restored barracks and mess halls, and the real concrete foundations of demolished buildings. There are detailed signs and stories provided by the park service explaining what once stood in various locations. The drive could take as little as 15 minutes if minimal reading or stops were done, but it could also take several hours. The pace is up to you.
Related: Visiting Alabama Hills on Highway 395
Good to Know
As it is a free self-guided tour, there are some safety regulations to visiting the site such as a 15 mile per hour speed limit and restrictions against parking outside of specifically designated spaces. It is also against the law to disturb any of the history or removed any items from the site. Respectfully visit this site and apply the leave no trace mentality.
Access to the site and the self-guided tour are on primarily paved roads, with a few spots of gravel parking. You’ll likely find that you have cell phone signal in the area as well. The historic location itself does not have services such as gas or restaurants. However, a larger assortment of food can be found several miles south in Lone Pine.
As of March 2021, the visitor center has not reopened to guests due to the COVID-19 health crisis. The visitor center features exhibits about the camp and area history. It also as a film area and bookstore. Check the park website for center hours, programs, events, and special exhibits. The grounds are open for the self-guided driving tour from sunrise to sunset.
Visiting a concentration camp, you will be reflecting upon the experiences of the people who lived here. It is a somber environment and should be treated respectfully.
Violence Against Asian Americans
At first glance, it is easy to look at an event like Japanese and Japanese American internment and wonder how people could stand by while others were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to camps. It was an act rooted in xenophobia, discrimination, and fear. It upheld white supremacy in the United States by perpetuating the belief that non-European white individuals were threatening. This perception wasn’t left in the past though.
The steep increase in violence against Asian Americans since the start of the 2020 COVID-19 crisis is one manifestation of the perceived otherness of Asian Americans, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. The “forever foreigner” stereotype is a direct result of law that barred Asian immigrants from naturalizing until the 1960s. You can read more about the continued racism and violence Asians and Asian Americans experience in the United States here.