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Three Japanese American soldiers relax next to a pond in Manzanar Internment Camp near Lone Pine, CA / Courtesy Photo

HSUMD to host speaker on Japanese Gardens at Manzanar

Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert–

For our April meeting, we will hear from Jeff Burton of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Japanese Gardens to be found there. The meeting will occur at the Historic USO Building at 230 W. Ridgecrest Blvd. at 7:00:00 P.M. on Tuesday, April 18.

The story of the Manzanar Internment Camp is mainly seen as a history of depriving American citizens of their civil rights. Still, it also contains stories of human resilience in the face of adversity. The internees lost much of their material wealth but saw a resurgence of their ancestral Japanese culture in their shared, harsh desert environment. One element of this resulted in the creation of American heritage, like grassy rectangular lawns, along with Japanese cultural aspects like bifurcating steams and cranes and turtle stones. The gardens themselves could be seen as a symbol of resistance, an assertion of Japanese culture and history against oppression and the harsh desert environment. But they were also a respite from the monotonous surroundings of austere desert and mountains and identical barracks upon barracks. The smaller gardens provided families a place to gather in the evenings and keep the generations together: grandparents, parents, and children. The more extensive gardens provided a similar function for the community, giving a pleasant environment for convalescing near the hospital or a convivial spot for promenading (or spooning) in Merritt Park.

After the war, the emphasis was on erasing the memory of the old camp. The buildings were moved or destroyed (or repurposed, such as the old Auditorium, now the Visitors Center). Often, the garden ponds turned out to be a handy place to bulldoze debris into. Afterward, many years of neglect covered much of the site with sand, the original plantings died and were replaced by invasive species. Forty years on, only traces of a few of the more extensive gardens remained to witness the internees’ determination to create beauty however they could. In 1992, Manzanar was declared a National Historical site, and soon after, archaeological recording and mapping of the camp began.

Surviving camp residents emphasized the importance of the gardens in camp life, so the gardens were made a priority in Manzanar’s 1996 General Management Plan. Restoration of the lost gardens has been an ongoing project ever since.

Jeff will give us insight into the process of restoration. Former internee’s memories, oral histories, and photographs (whether family photos, aerial shots, or Ansel Adams) have all been used to get a general idea of the location of the gardens, and then volunteer teams do an archaeological excavation of the area, and often uncover surprisingly intact features of the garden’s rockscapes and ponds, along with many artifacts either lost or bulldozed into the ponds. Then, invasive vegetation is removed, and the boulders and ponds are restored as close to their original state as possible. In some cases, plantings similar to the originals but more drought-tolerant are added. In most cases, water can’t be added back to the ponds because of expense or lack of a nearby source. It is hoped that three of the gardens, which will provide examples of small, medium, and extensive-size gardens, may be restored fully, including year-round flowing water and sustainable plantings. Thus, Manzanar visitors will get a true sense of what the internees managed to build with so little.

Jeff Burton is Cultural Resource Program Manager at Manzanar National Historic Site. Each year he leads volunteer projects uncovering Manzanar’s history, including restoring gardens built by imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII. Jeff has traveled to Japan 10 times to study, work at, and help construct Japanese gardens. His archeological overview of Japanese American internment sites was cited in the national law that created the $38 million Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program. His work has also been pivotal in the establishment of National Park Service units at three other confinement sites:

Minidoka (Idaho), Tule Lake (California), and Honouliuli (Hawaii). He has received awards for his work at confinement sites from the Japanese American Citizens League (2006), Society for History in the Federal Government (2014), Society for American Archaeology (2017), Historic Hawai‘i Foundation (2020), and Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation (2022).

Many of his publications can be found here:

The HSUMD meets on the third Tuesday of the month, except for July and August. Each meeting features a presentation on some aspect of local history. All are welcome to attend. For more information on this or future meetings, call 760- 375-8456. —Andrew Sound gardens in camp life, so the gardens were made a priority in Manzanar’s 1996 General Management Plan. Restoration of the lost gardens has been an ongoing project ever since.