What is Manzanar?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 March 2020
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Manzanar is a site in the Owens Valley of California where approximately 11,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese resident aliens were imprisoned during the Second World War. Manzanar was one of 10 internment camps used during the Second World War, but it has come to be the most famous, thanks to the fact that it hosted an assortment of famous residents, and it has been remarkably well preserved in comparison with other camps. As of 1972, Manzanar is a California Historic Landmark, and in 1985, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, Manzanar is managed by the National Parks Service as the Manzanar National Historic Site.

The site was initially settled by Native Americans, centuries before miners and ranchers moved in during the 1800s. In early 1900s, the city of Los Angeles began to acquire water rights for the Owens Valley, concerned about supplying the growing city with water, and by 1929, Manzanar (which is Spanish for “apple orchard”) had been largely abandoned. In 1942, the United States Army leased the site from the city so that it could be used as an internment camp.

Like all of the Japanese internment camps in the United States, Manzanar was built hastily, and it hosted a huge number of people who had been forcibly relocated from their homes, friends, and businesses. The camp was expected to be self-sufficient, so prisoners gardened, worked in various workshops, and sometimes hired themselves out to the neighboring community.


Life at Manzanar was not necessarily brutal, but it wasn't pleasant, either. The temperature conditions in the Owens Valley can be quite extreme, and people struggled with both heat and severe cold, living in poorly insulated, dusty tarpaper shacks. While Manzanar had a high school, athletic events, and performances, the camp was cut off from the surrounding community, and prisoners were constantly reminded of their status by guard towers, patrols, and other measures which were designed to keep them contained. There was also friction in the camp between various generations, and between native-born Japanese and Japanese Americans.

Manzanar closed in 1945, leaving many prisoners with nowhere to go. Over time, the buildings at Manzanar were slowly taken down, until all that remained was a set of guard posts, along with foundations and the faint imprints of roads and sewers around the camp. When Manzanar was designated as a landmark, the National Parks Service rebuilt several structures, including a guard tower, so that visitors could get an idea of what Manzanar was like.

Visitors to Manazanar today can see a number of artifacts, along with writings about the camp from people who were interned there. Many people return for an annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, an event which commemorates the history of the camp and people who were interned there, and some people leave offerings such as origami, artwork, and food at the camp's memorial.

One of Manzanar's many famous occupants really stands out. 16 year old Ralph Lazo, a boy of Mexican-American and Irish descent, insisted on going to Manzanar in 1942 with his friends when he learned about the forcible relocation of Japanese-Americans. He found the idea of the internment camps entirely repugnant, and chose to live at Manzanar with his friends as a courageous act of protest, in addition to speaking out vehemently against the camps. He went on to serve with distinction in the United States Army.


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