Densho Digital Archive
Manzanar National Historic Site Collection
Title: Shirley Nagatomi Okabe Interview
Narrator: Shirley Nagatomi Okabe
Interviewer: Alisa Lynch
Location: San Jose, California
Date: January 30, 2013
Densho ID: denshovh-oshirley-01-0019

<Begin Segment 19>

AL: You had talked, when we were on the phone, you talked about going back, that your father went back, you went back with your father in 1946. Could you tell us about that trip and why you went and what you did there?

SO: Well, my father decided that he had to go back for Obon services, and so he, I guess, spread the word that they were going back, so we had two busloads. And he came in the house and said, "There's room for one more," and I said, "I'll go." I don't know if my older sister wanted to go, but I went with him and I recall that the two buses drove up, and we couldn't get in. And so they said, "You can't come in unless you have permission." So I think at that time, too, somebody contacted Mr. Merritt and he said it was okay -- I don't know where he was at this time -- but he gave the guards an okay. And so Jack Iwata, who went with us, said at that time, "Gee, they put us in and wouldn't let us out, and now they won't let us back in." Which was true, and that was the last time my father... no, my father went every year after that. I didn't go, but my father went every year after that 'til 1957, and that was his last one before he got sick. And then after that, I think Mr. Maeda used to go with a group.

AL: So our sign then is wrong, because the information we had is it was Robert Maeda and... so that's good to know. And I didn't forget, but I wanted to ask about, the story of the cemetery monument, I know you went back there, but that was built in 1943. How did that come about, how was it funded and designed?


SO: About the monument? Okay, well, my father and the YBA, the Young Buddhist Association decided they wanted to build a memorial for the people who had passed away in camp, and so they went to the WRA and said this is what they would like to do, but they didn't want the WRA to pay for it, they wanted the people of Manzanar to pay for it so they would collect all the money. And so my father and Jack Iwata went to go see Mr. Kado because they knew he had built the towers, I guess the gates, so they went to him, and then he drew up a plan which was okayed by the church members. Then it was built, and my father had to do the calligraphy, and so he chose the words Ireito, which means "in memory of the deceased." And I remember him getting about four or five brushes, calligraphy brushes, and wrapping it up because, you know, the writing's pretty big, so he was practicing. He practiced a lot until he said, okay, this is the one, and that's when they put it onto the monument.

AL: Do you know how they put it on there? Did they, like, stencil it?

SO: I think so. I think that's how... and then they painted it in.

AL: So how much did that... do you know how much people paid to build the monument?

SO: I think it was fifteen cents a family, something like that. It was minimal.

AL: Was it every family in camp?

SO: Just the ones... just Buddhists. I mean, whoever wanted to.

AL: Do you know how much it cost?

SO: No, I don't, I don't. But then, I mean, it's to pay for all the cement and whatever goes underneath that.

AL: What do you think when you see that monument?

SO: Well, it reminds me of my father, or our time in Manzanar.

AL: It is probably the most recognizable feature of Manzanar, and the Manzanar Committee, I mean, it is Manzanar to so many people, but I don't think to anybody as personal as it is to you.

SO: Thank you for taking care of it.

AL: You know like I was mentioning people still, even before the Park Service was ever there, have left things on that marker.

SO: I know. The picture you showed was amazing.

AL: It is amazing, and it continues. And we collect certain things off of it, like if somebody puts fruit on there, we don't leave it because we don't want it to rot.

SO: Right, right.

AL: Although the monument gets repainted, but we collect representative objects that go into our museum collection, and that's actually, that cemetery monument collection is a big part of our museum collection. And one of the advisors we had when we were developing a policy about that was the person who curates the Vietnam Wall. Because they get huge offerings, they've had a Harley Davidson motorcycle left.

SO: Oh, my.

AL: Wedding rings and all kinds of things, and that...

SO: Where do they leave it? It's such a simple...

AL: On the monument?

SO: Uh-huh.

AL: Well, there's those kind of three steps, you know, not steps, but levels. So we see a lot of coins and barbed wire. I think you'll be amazed when you see it.

SO: I'm looking forward to going again. I think I'm ready.

AL: Did your father... I know I've seen movie footage of an early pilgrimage, like 1946 or 1948, and your father's in the footage, and Toyo Miyatake and Ralph Merritt. Did your father keep in touch with Mr. Merritt?

SO: No, I think it was just the language barrier.

AL: So would they have a translator when they were meeting?

SO: I think so, I think so.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.