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Sue Kunitomi Embrey (January 6, 1923 – May 15, 2006)

Early Pilgrimage, photo courtesy of Manzanar Committee.

Educator, activist, author, and Manzanar Committee Chair Sue Kunitomi Embrey dedicated her life to shedding light on the unjust incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. She led the fight to preserve Manzanar and many of the ten American concentration camps so that their stories would never be forgotten and to serve as lessons in democracy to be remembered in perpetuity.

Sue was 19 years old when Executive Order 9066 was issued, ordering all people of Japanese ancestry to vacate the western states. She had plans to attend college, but instead, helped her widowed mother sell their belongings and small market in Little Tokyo for pennies on the dollar.

She and her family were incarcerated at Manzanar, a remote, dust-swept camp surrounded with barbed wire and guard towers in the desolate Owens Valley of California. 11,070 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned there, without charge or due process from 1942 to 1945.

At Manzanar, Sue wove camouflage nets to support the U.S. war effort and became the editor of the Manzanar Free Press, the camp newspaper. In late 1943, she was permitted to leave Manzanar and more to Madison, Wisconsin. A year later, she moved to Chicago, Illinois.

The camps finally closed in August 1945, and her family moved back to Los Angeles with a ticket and $25. She returned to California in 1948 to help her family and became involved with the Nisei Progressives working on Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace’s campaign. Later, she would support the United Farm Workers and organized against the Vietnam War.

Sue received her Masters Degree, breaking the barriers spelled out by her father’s admonition that she had two strikes against her: “First you are a Japanese and then you are a woman.” She actively worked to protect the rights of workers and women in her work with the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1969, Sue, who was one of the few Nisei who would speak about their time behind the barbed wire, was invited to join a group of Asian American students at UCLA who were going to Manzanar in an effort to learn more about their history. While the students believed this was the first pilgrimage to the site, they learned that two ministers, one Christian and one Buddhist, had been visiting the site since the camp closed. Coverage of the pilgrimage ended up on the evening news and many in the Japanese American community were not happy about it, criticizing Sue for “dredging up the past,” and “talking about camp.”

The pilgrimage was a turning point for Sue and the other former incarcerees who attended, such as Amy Uno Ishii, Jim Matsuoka, Henry Matsumura, Rex Takahashi, and Karl and Elaine Yoneda, among others. They believed something should be done to keep the memory alive to prevent this injustice from ever happening again, and an ad hoc effort began. They held teach-ins, spoke to students, and worked with the Japanese American community to encourage people to speak about their experience.

Manzanar Pilgrimage in the ’70s. Photo courtesy of Manzanar Committee.

Sue became the driving force behind what would become the Manzanar Committee, contributing to the establishment of Manzanar as a California State Historic Landmark in 1972, and a National Historic Landmark in 1985. She authored The Lost Years: 1942–1946; numerous essays about her family’s experience; co-authored Reflections: In Three Self-Guided Tours of Manzanar; and Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Ueno, telling the story of resistance in camp.

Sue also dove into the legislative fight for redress and reparations. She supported the efforts within JACL led by Edison Uno as well as the legal strategy spearheaded by William Hohri. In 1975 Sue helped form EO 9066 with Paul Tsuneishi, one of the first grassroots groups demanding redress and reparations.

For 37 years, she spearheaded the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, which brought thousands of students, teachers, and community members to the site.

These efforts would contribute to what would become the movement to demand redress and reparations.

For the following two decades, she championed the effort to create the Manzanar National Historic Site, dedicated in March 1992. She continued to work tirelessly to ensure the incarcerees’ story would be told in their own words, not sanitized to lessen the weight of their experience.

In 2004, in what would be her last Pilgrimage, the Manzanar National Historic Site Visitor’s Center was opened to the public. In the stewardship of the National Park Service, it would attract hundreds of thousands to learn about the unjust incarceration and the importance of keeping the memory alive to ensure that such an injustice would never be repeated.

On May 15, 2006, Sue Kunitomi Embrey passed away, leaving a legacy in the fight for democracy and justice for generations to come.


* This article was originally published in the 47th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage: Kodomo No Tame Ni—For the sake of the children. Liberty and Justice for All on April 30, 2016 by The Manzanar Committee.


© 2016 Manzanar Committee

activist concentration camps manzanar Manzanar Committee manzanar pilgrimage pilgrimage redress Sue Kunitomi Embrey World War II