UCLA Professor revisits internment camp for documentary project
By Dmitri Pikman
April 29, 2004 9:00 p.m.
One of Robert Nakamura’s earliest memories is standing in
line for food at the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese
“We were incarcerated for no other reason than we had the
face of the enemy,” said Nakamura, a UCLA film and television
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on Dec.
7, 1941, the U.S. government ordered the relocation of over 120,000
Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps all over the
On Saturday, Nakamura went back to visit the camp at Manzanar,
California, 220 miles north of Los Angeles, to film the grand
opening of the interpretive center built on the grounds of the old
Nakamura plans to use footage from the ceremony as part of a
documentary film he is working on.
This documentary project is organized by several different
groups, among them the Center for Ethno-Communications at the Asian
American Studies Center at UCLA and the Downtown Community Media
Center, a community media organization.
The project is partly funded by the UCLA Center for Community
Partnerships, which supports projects that link the community to
“We are going to be driving parallels between the
aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the aftermath of the September 11,
2001 strikes, in terms of treatment of people who had perceived
ties with the “˜enemy,'” said Nakamura, who is the
executive director of the documentary project.
Nakamura has a personal reason for his interest in seeking
similarities between the fate of Japanese Americans during World
War II and Muslim Americans following the 2001 terrorist
“On that day in September, I was still in my bed when my
wife woke me up and told me to turn on the television, and later
when I was watching the news I felt really guilty (because) I felt
relieved that the suspected attackers were not Asians,”
“Then, of course, I totally reversed myself, and worried
about what will happen to Arab Americans, and to other people from
the Middle East. But my first reaction was, “˜Thank God (they)
weren’t Asians, we don’t have to go through that
again,'” he said.
Nakamura spent three years in the Manzanar camp during World War
II, from ages 6 to 9, and has subsequently visited the camp on many
“I have been going on a pilgrimage to Manzanar for over 30
years, so I was actually on the first pilgrimage. But the one
Saturday got a little more publicity because of the opening
ceremonies,” Nakamura said.
The pilgrimage, organized by the Manzanar committee, is a yearly
event which brings together Japanese Americans who were held in the
“We do the pilgrimage every year with a visit up to
Manzanar, where we pay homage to the people who were there,”
said Sue Embry, chairwoman of the Manzanar committee and a speaker
during the opening ceremonies.
Richard Popashin, a park ranger at Manzanar, said the road to
securing funding and recognition for the park was long and
difficult. But due to efforts of community activists such as Embry,
Manzanar was declared a national historic site in 1992.
Nakamura went to Manzanar this year with his wife, his
mother-in-law and his wife’s aunt. He spent most of his time
behind the camera, but still found time to locate the Japanese rock
garden his mother-in-law’s father constructed when he was
imprisoned at Manzanar.
With more than 50 years already gone since his time at Manzanar,
Nakamura still feels a strong connection to the camp.
“It’s always very moving when I go there. I spent a
very traumatic part of my life there, so I always have an emotional
tie to the place,” Nakamura said.
In 1989, people incarcerated in the Japanese American internment
camps received an official letter of apology from the government
and $20,000 each in symbolic redress fees.
Nakamura was among those who received these items, but said they
are only token actions that cannot redress the full scope of what
his family endured. His father lost the family’s produce
market when he was imprisoned, and worked the rest of his life as a
gardener as a result.
For Nakamura, Manzanar is also an ongoing theme for his movies.
In 2002, he won an award for a documentary portraying the life and
career of Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake.
Miyatake was most famous for his photograph of three boys
standing behind a barbed wire fence, a picture that has come to
symbolize the injustice of the incarceration of Japanese Americans
during World War II.
“We tend to use art as a catharsis, and in the beginning I
think my earlier films were just that,” Nakamura said.
As a student at the UCLA film school, the first movie Nakamura
ever made was about his childhood in Manzanar.
“I tried to recapture childhood memories of the camp,
trying to work through everything,” Nakamura said of his
His subsequent films were somewhat less cathartic, focusing more
on trying to bring life to the issue of interment camps for
“In the 1950s and 1960s the camps were never mentioned in
history books, and the inmates themselves didn’t want to talk
about them, and it was really the Sensai in the 1960s and 1970s who
tried to bring attention to (the camps),” Nakamura said.
The Sensai are the third generation of Japanese Americans.
Nakamura’s generation is referred to as the Nisei, or second
generation, and Issei is the term for the immigrant generation.
“For a lot of the Nisei, the fact that the camp has been
preserved and has gotten funding kind of validates their
experience,” Nakamura said.
“Our experiences will not be forgotten.”