Originally published on Al Jazeera on February 19, 2017

Manzanar, California – Jim Matsuoka left his marbles at Manzanar, the site of the Japanese American internment camp where he grew up during the second world war.

Two gallon-sized cans of toy marbles, earned mostly after being dismissed from class for unruly behaviour, are buried somewhere beneath the ruins of the old camp, which is now a US national park.

Matsuoka misbehaved as a child, imprisoned in the camp by the US government because of his nationality. And he says, proudly, he was never especially obedient as an adult, either.

He came of age in an internment camp only to find himself at the fore of an Asian American civil rights movement.

Now an octogenarian, he looks back on decades of speaking out – demanding redress for Japanese Americans and fighting to protect the civil liberties of other marginalised American communities.

Now, he eats a light sandwich and salad at Mitsuru Sushi & Grill, a restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, where he and other Japanese American community leaders often met when they were founding Nikkei Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR). It is an advocacy organisation that has demanded reparations for what was found to have been the unlawful incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war.

But they have not only represented Japanese Americans – they’ve also spoken out against Japanese officials on the subject of World War II Korean victims of sex trafficking and advocated well beyond their own Asian American community. The organisation helped to coordinate activism against Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11 and is doing so again after US President Donald Trump’s election.

In search of lost marbles

At Mitsuru, Matsuoka tells a younger Japanese American social justice activist and multimedia artist, Kyoko Nakamaru, of his life at the camp, one of many across the country – and of his lost marbles.

“At first, they were taking all my marbles. I was getting cleaned out,” he explains of his marble-playing game at the internment camp. But Matsuoka was never one to be defeated. “I got pretty good,” he says.

“You were a marble hustler,” laughs 36-year-old Nakamaru.

Matsuoka is now a spoken-word poet and a potter at an east LA kiln. Nakamaru is one of many in the Japanese American community in Los Angeles who have been demonstrating against Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations and his advisers’ calls to register Muslim Americans that harken back to the events leading to her ancestors’ unconstitutional incarceration.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued decrees ordering that Japanese Americans – considered “enemy aliens” in their own country, the US – register. About 120,000 US residents of Japanese origin were interned during the war. Trump has cited Roosevelt’s action on Japanese Americans as precedent for his own policy on Muslims.

Matsuoka has returned to Manzanar several times. February 19 marks the Day of Remembrance that commemorates the internment – this year is its 75th anniversary. Matsuoka would like to go to Manzanar for it, but explains: “The mind is willing, but the body isn’t.”

It’s a four-hour drive to brave the bitter February cold of a region of California nestled between a snow-capped mountain range and a desert, beset by sandstorms – too much for many among the ageing community of survivors.

But Nakamaru will go. And Matsuoka entreats her, with a chuckle, to find his lost marbles.

RELATED: A lesson from America’s Japanese internment camps

“When it was time to go, I couldn’t bring my marbles. I couldn’t take them with me, so I dug a hole,” he says. “I had two gallon cans full of Victory marbles. Now, they are artefacts of children in Manzanar,” he adds, joking that Nakamaru could split the sale of the marbles with him, half-half, if she were able to unearth them.

It is a federal offence for civilians to dig on Manzanar, now a federally protected historical site. Nakamaru knows and respects this, but she plays along. “Where did you bury them?” she asks, as though planning a heist.

And then, as though it were yesterday, Matsuoka explains that he buried them beside the cots where he and his family slept: “Block 11, Barrack 6, Apartment 2.”

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