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Sunday, April 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Internment camp for Japanese Americans now museum

The Associated Press

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Take a virtual tour of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

The Associated Press

MANZANAR NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, Calif. — Like many Japanese Americans interned in the wind-swept Owens Valley during World War II, Towru Nagano remembers the sun, swirling dust and searchlights that kept prisoners awake at night in cramped barracks behind barbed wire.

Mostly, he recalls the realization that his nation didn't want him.

"The worst part of camp was the psychological effect of being rejected by the public as an American citizen, as an equal," Nagano said yesterday while visiting his former internment camp.

Nagano, 78, was among hundreds of former detainees and their descendants who traveled to the Manzanar National Historic Site for the opening of a National Park Service museum that preserves a bitter memory for many Japanese Americans.

Manzanar, a Spanish word meaning apple orchard, is the best-preserved of the camps where thousands of Japanese Americans and citizens of Japan were held during World War II.

The center features photos, films and documents that record the roundup of men, women and children amid racial prejudice and fears of sabotage and espionage after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The $5.1 million museum is set amid the backdrop of the peaks of the eastern High Sierra about 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The entrance features a wall-size photo of the Manzanar prison camp — an American flag whipping in the desert wind.

Exhibits take visitors through the background behind the government order to detain about 110,000 people. The museum details life at the detention centers and tells of the gradual release and the official apology signed by President Reagan in 1988.

Yesterday's opening coincided with the 35th annual pilgrimage to the site by Manzanar inmates and their families. Many searched for their names and those of their parents and grandparents on a list of internees that stretches nearly to the museum's 17-foot ceiling.

Louis Watanabe found the name of his grandfather, who worked as a stonemason and handyman.

"I think it's important to talk about history so maybe we don't repeat mistakes of the past," Watanabe, 47, said before a ceremony that sought to blend patriotism and an embrace of Japanese culture. Featured were a Taiko drum group and the presentation of the colors by the Veterans of Foreign Wars from nearby Lone Pine.

The museum, and plans to restore portions of the camp, reflects the National Park Service's effort to appeal to what it calls "heritage tourism," or sites that may evoke painful memories.

"We learn as a nation and we grow as a nation from stories that are not always the positive stories. We've got to tell both sides," said Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service.

At its peak, Manzanar held more than 10,000 people. About two-thirds of all those interned there from 1942 to 1945 were American citizens by birth.

The camp had many aspects of a city, with schools, churches, temples and even a newspaper. Many younger detainees have fonder memories than their elders.

"We used to sneak under the fence and go out to the hills as far as we could go," said Itsu Iwasaki, 70, of Orange. "We used to rabble-rouse, see what we could get away with."

Toshiko Tanner of Lakeland, Fla., was 8 when she arrived at Manzanar. Her sister, Sekiko Kawasaki, was 13. They ticked off unpleasant memories, including bad food, lack of privacy, a straw mattress and scorpions. Neither expressed bitterness.

"Because of that, we can stand anything," Kawasaki said.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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