Stephanie Miyoko Takaragawa: professor, volunteer, and an advocate for diversity

Photo by: Patti Hirahara. Takaragawa speaks about her connection to the Japanese Internment by introducing a baby photo of her father, Ronald Takaragawa.
Photo by: Patti Hirahara. Takaragawa speaks about her connection to the Japanese Internment by introducing a baby photo of her father, Ronald Takaragawa.

Stephanie Miyoko Takaragawa awakens on Saturday morning and drives four hours up to Owens Valley where she puts on a beige uniform and volunteers for hours at the Manzanar National Historic Site. She then makes a drive through the desert back to Orange County on Monday morning.

The Manzanar National Historic Site is one of  ten camps the Japanese Americans were interned at in 1942 during World War II. It was established to preserve and share the stories of the internment, and be a reminder of the “fragility of American civil liberties,” according to an online description of the site.

Takaragawa’s grandparents on both her mother and father’s side were interned and her father was born during the internment, which led to her interest in her family’s history, the Japanese American culture and culture and diversity in general.

“People ask me, ‘You’re a professor who lives four hours away, who drives up here to volunteer?’” said Takaragawa. “I am really committed, and people are always surprised by that.”

Taking unpaid eight-hour round trips to the desert isn’t everyone’s idea of a good weekend, but Takaragawa has a huge interest in identity, diversity and culture, making these trips worth it.   

At the site Takaragawa primarily helps at the front desk where she greets visitors with diverse backgrounds. She guides the visitors to the viewing rooms, talks to them about their perspectives of the museum, and teaches them a little bit about the history. Takaragawa said the visitors could be out of state individuals who went through the internment or people just stopping by for the restroom, but they are all drawn in to learn about this moment of history.

Takaragawa also happens to be an assistant professor in sociology at Chapman University, who works heavily with diversity and inclusion. She also is an anthropologist who helps construct exhibitions for anthropologists to display their work.

“I’m interested in understanding how people create community and identity, and how they use objects, exhibits, museums, and things they see in the world, like media, to help form what their identity is,” said Takaragawa.

Park ranger and volunteer coordinator at the site, Carrie Andresen, has worked with Takaragawa for almost two years.

“She’s up here every other weekend giving typically 30-40 hours to the site,” said Andresen. “She brings such passion when talking to the visitors and connecting to them, and also brings a unique perspective from being a professor and being related to someone who was incarcerated.”

Andresen said it’s important to have a sincere greeting when connecting with all the visitors.

“Due to her extensive knowledge of the site, she knows there are 120,000 ways to understand the incarceration,” said Andresen. “We had 120,000 people incarcerated at the time. Takaragawa helps us meet our mission and our goals and brings the story back to her community.”

This interest in identity and diversity stems from Takaragawa’s upbringing as a Japanese-American in Los Angeles.

Takaragawa has never visited Japan, nor does she speak the language. Her parents, in fact, visited Japan once about 10 years ago and don’t speak the language either. In Los Angeles, Takaragawa said that while there were other Japanese-Americans around her, there wasn’t a giant cluster.

“As a kid, I sort of gravitated towards the non-Japanese-American kids because I thought the [Japanese-American kids] were nerdy; but of course that’s a social construction issue,” said Takaragawa.

In the early 80s, while Takaragawa was in high school, she learned about the Japanese internment camps, which pushed her to learn more about the experience. During that time, she also realized that World War II was only 40 years ago, meaning that her parents were alive and experienced these conditions.  

Takaragawa went home and asked her parents, Ronald and Irene Takaragawa, about whether their family was in internment camps.

“Yes, but we don’t talk about that and don’t ask your grandparents because it’ll make them upset,” said Irene Takaragawa.  

That was Takaragawa’s initial connection to her family’s internment camp experience. She had gone to the libraries to research the internment and found very little information about it that could help her understand what really happened.

Twelve years ago, the internment camp at Manzanar was turned into a National Historic Site, since many interned Japanese-Americans reside in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Before this, Takaragawa asked herself why nobody spoke about this incident before and why it was silenced in American history.

The museum opened up in 1999 and Takaragawa visited the museum with her parents and grandmother Miyoko Takaragawa, who wanted to go in hopes of seeing photos of people she might know.

Takaragawa said that walking through the exhibition helped her grandmother reminisce and open up about her experience.

“It was the first time they had an open conversation with me about the internment,” said Takaragawa. “The reason they were able to talk about it was because they personalized it and made it about themselves. The discourse around the internment was that you were being interned because you’re bad, and a bad race, and [the interned individuals] internalized that for 50 years and felt that it was their fault that they were interned.”

Before Miyoko died last year, Takaragawa said that Miyoko attended a reunion of her internment camp, which made her realize her importance in history.

In 1988, Takaragawa said that Ronald Regan wrote the Civil Liberties Act, which overturned the internment, and a made a public apology. Both opened up Takaragawa’s eyes to her race and identity.

“[The apology] really changed the discourse,” said Takaragawa. “It also showed how the idea of race and racism is very fluid. You could be the enemy, then you could be in the front.”

This made Takaragawa interested in how national discourse takes place in the United States, which either vilifies or liberates people at different times.

Simply hearing people’s opinions about the past is why Takaragawa volunteers at the museum. She said that the visitors truly appreciate the site, because it reminds them of how far our country has come.

“I think it’s important for people to recognize that race isn’t something that is natural, but is something that we are constantly constructing and deconstructing,” Takaragawa said.

At Chapman, Takaragawa works toward diversity and inclusion, and said that at Chapman, we are in a diversity overhaul. The students are realizing that they don’t have as diverse of a faculty or student body as what would be ideal.

Director of diversity and inclusion, Erin Pullin, said that Takaragawa has made a significant impact on the campus regarding diversity. Takaragawa has been the faculty advisor for student organizations such as QPOCC (Queer People of Color Collective), she has served on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and she has been working with Chapman’s Diversity Project, which is a five-year strategic plan for diversity and inclusion at Chapman.

Pullin said Takaragawa has been recently working on a proposal with the curriculum task force to introduce six new faculty awards, available to professors who want to diversify their teaching strategies.

“This is just one of numerous examples of concrete institutional changes that Dr. Takaragawa has worked on — oftentimes, behind the scenes, trying to encourage greater awareness, inclusion and equity at Chapman in any way that she can,” said Pullin.

Takaragawa also coordinated the “The Legacy of Heart Mountain” film screening and brought back a 1946 Chapman University alumna who went through the Japanese Internment.

With her knowledge and experiences, Takaragawa said she hopes to teach a class one day that could take students up to the Manzanar National Historic Site.

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