Honors College Colloquium Class Gains Insight at Japanese Internment Camp

Colleen Locke | December 01, 2015
Paul Watanabe (second standing from left) and his Honors College students tour the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Paul Watanabe (second standing from left) and his Honors College students tour the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Image by: Son Ca Lam

I could sit at a long mess hall table, imagining how crowded it must have been for the hundreds of internees.

Manzanar Tour Featured on NBC News

Hank Umemoto was 13 years old when he and his family were relocated to Manzanar, a Japanese American internment camp in California. Earlier this month, the now 87-year-old Umemoto showed 10 students in Paul Watanabe’s Honors College Colloquium where he and his family were kept against their will behind barbed wire fences and armed guards.

The Honors College and the Ralph and Janice James Student Success Fund fully funded the trip to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and the Manzanar National Historic Site at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Owens Valley, California. A UMass Boston alumnus also arranged for the students to meet with the head archaeologist at Manzanar, Cultural Resources Program Manager Jeff Burton. A NBC news crew tagged along for their tour with Umemoto.

To the students, who are writing papers and preparing presentations about some aspect of internment for the class, the trip was invaluable.

Christine LaForte, a junior from Shrewsbury, is studying biology and anthropology at UMass Boston. She was particularly struck walking through the remains of the bathing facilities.

“Witnessing these living conditions added a depth to the stories and factual texts we had read in the course,” LaForte said. “I could walk where these strong people had walked, I could feel the hard straw beds on which they struggled to sleep, and I could sit at a long mess hall table, imagining how crowded it must have been for the hundreds of internees.”

Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar was one of 10 internment camps built following the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Watanabe, an associate professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Asian American Studies, says what happened there and at the other camps more than 70 years ago is relevant today when you consider how the U.S. is grappling with how to deal with Arab Americans after the Paris attacks.

“The students come from a variety of different fields – sciences, social sciences, and humanities – and are bringing their own perspective to what happened during the internment,” Watanabe said. “Some are looking at poetry and plays that deal with some aspects of interment, while others are dealing with what happened to Japanese towns like Little Tokyo, the economic impact, and health challenges.”

This is the third time Watanabe has taken students to Manzanar as part of his Honors College Colloquium. He says Umemoto always greets students with a handmade pamphlet and a signed copy of his book, Manzanar to Mount Whitney: The Life and Times of a Lost Hiker, with a message written to them individually.

The Japanese American internment is just one of the topics Honors College students can research as part of the Honors College Colloquium. This semester other Honors College students are researching President John F. Kennedy. Next semester’s topics are Narratives of War and Peace; Gender, Armed Conflict, and Peace; and Physics and Philosophy.

Honors College students outside the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 17,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.

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