A Red Rose for the Songbird of Manzanar

“Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams” runs through April 27 at the Fullerton Museum Center. At the January 21 exhibit opening, I was honored to meet two people who were interned there with their families as children. There are many stories from the Japanese American internment camps. One such story is that of Mary Kageyama Nomura (often called the “Songbird of Manzanar” due to her love of singing), who shared her story and experiences with me.

Mary, now 97 years old, was born in Los Angeles. She learned to sing from her very talented mom, who owned a music school. She would sing popular songs like “Sentimental Journey” by Doris Day and wanted to be a recording artist. Mary would sing, and her sister would dance in performances. She also performed at Buddhist temples. Her father was a ceramist but died in 1929. Her mother eventually remarried but died during childbirth when Mary was only eight. Her older siblings took care of her from then on.

One day, when Mary was sixteen, notices appeared on telephone poles around town stating that all people of Japanese descent would be sent to internment camps. They could take one suitcase but had to leave everything else behind. They had six days to get things together and get on the bus for the long ride to Manzanar. The family sold some items, like their piano, for $5. Other precious possessions, like photos, were stored at the Japanese school where the family thought they would be safe (though everything was gone on their return years later).

At Manzanar, they lived in uninsulated barracks furnished only with cots and coal-burning stoves. Residents used the common bathroom and laundry facilities, but hot water was limited- ed. The camps were surrounded by barbed-wire fences and patrolled by armed guards who had instructions to shoot anyone who tried to leave. There were eight watch towers. The food was terrible – once, they had squid, and the place stunk. Everything was dusty.

Shikata ga nai (or shō ga nai) is a phrase in the Japanese language that means letting go. It means accepting what you cannot change and doing your best to let it roll off your back, sons from. What does it mean to be an American? How did the U.S. government allow the Japanese internment camps to happen? People need to know what happened so that it never happens again.

Mary said everyone had a job at the camp. She was a receptionist. For fun, they would play baseball, practice judo, or organize musical events and dances where she would sing. Shiro Nomura, “the handsome guy,” escorted her to the dances. She said she made true friendships during her experience at the camp. Luckily, they had the best doctors and nurses who would come to take care of the Manzanar people. The head doctor was Caucasian.

After a while at the camp, the military recruited all eligible men to serve in the war. Nearly 18,000 agreed. But those who didn’t agree to go ended up in the penitentiary. Mary’s brother refused to serve in the army.

After Manzanar was closed, Mary and Shiro were married on Sunday, June 10, 1945, in Pasadena, California. The couple opened a fish market and then a Japanese grocery in Garden Grove. They started small with Japanese food, then added Korean, Chinese, and Filipino food, and a gift shop. It was successful and popular.

Mary is the mother of five and the grandmother of twelve. Her husband, Shiro, passed away in 2000. She is a fantastic chef (she makes Hom Yu, the infamous Chinese dish served back in the day at Little Tokyo Far East Cafe) and enjoys gardening. She designed blouses with materials from Japan and loves red roses and butterflies. An annual Manzanar reunion each August meets at the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

There are parts of American history that we should remember and draw lessons from. What does it mean to be an American? How did the U.S. government allow the Japanese internment camps to happen? People need to know what happened so that it never happens again.

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the American government forcibly relocated thousands of Japanese Americans to detention camps. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, through Executive Order 9066, established the camps in 1942. Over 120,000 Japanese American citizens were housed in ten camps between 1942 and 1945. The government’s long history of racism and discrimination against Asian immigrants and their offspring reached a boiling point, culminating in that action.

The majority of the internment camps were in western states, with Manzanar, near Lone Pine, California, being the first facility to open. The centers were situated many miles inland, often in remote and desolate locales, and included Tule Lake and Manzanar in California; Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas; Poston, Arizona; and Granada, Colorado.

Over 145 Japanese Americans died at Manzanar. Some were sent back to their hometowns for burial, while most were cremated in the Buddhist tradition. Fifteen victims were buried in a small area of land next to the camp’s perimeter fence.

After the camps were closed, Japanese Americans from seven Internment camps met to create a policy to seek federal reparations and apology for losses incurred by those detained. A lengthy battle spanning numerous administrations ended when the final Civil Liberties Act HR 2991 was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in November 1989. The first redress checks for $20,000 and formal letters of apology were presented to the oldest surviving detainees in 1990. Two years later, Congress expanded the bill to include 20,000 additional survivors.

For a description of the long fight for apology and reparations, visit: and-Publications/APA/Historical- Essays/Exclusion-to- Inclusion/Redress/

Call the Fullerton Museum Center at 714-519-4461