Sue Kunitomi Embrey
|Sue Kunitomi Embrey
|Los Angeles, CA
Sueko Sue Kunitomi Embrey (1923–2006) was an activist, educator, writer and longtime chair of the Manzanar Committee , which helped to establish the former World War II campsite into a National Historic Site and institutionalized an annual pilgrimage. 
Embrey was the sixth of eight children born to Gonhichi and Komika Kunitomi from Okayama Prefecture. Because the Kunitomis came from a village in Okayama where the Kunitomi last name was common, Embrey's mother's maiden name is also Kunitomi. Like most Nisei of her generation, Embrey was delivered by a sanba-san (midwife) at the family home on Central Avenue and First Street, around the area where the current Go For Broke veterans' monument is situated in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo . Embrey's parents named her Sueko, which in Japanese translates to "youngest child," thinking that she would be the last child, but her parents would have two more children after her.
Embrey attended Amelia Street School and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1941. She also attended the Dai-ichi Gakuen Japanese language school every day after regular school. Embrey's father ran a business transporting people and products from one place to another, but when Embrey was fourteen years old, her father got into a truck accident and passed away in 1937. He was sixty-one years old. Once Embrey's mother became a single parent, her mother went around the neighborhood and collected her husband's outstanding debt. Then she took out a loan and purchased a small grocery store from another Japanese family in early 1941.
When Embrey graduated from high school, she wanted to pursue a college education but her mother asked her to help out at the family store full-time. Her mother promised Embrey that once her younger sister graduated from high school, Embrey could enroll in college. Embrey was working at the store when she heard over the radio that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Wartime Incarceration and Resettlement
In preparation for entering camp, the family sold the grocery store at a loss to a Mexican American family.
Soon after, the government asked for volunteers to help construct Manzanar , which at that time was considered an assembly center and under the jurisdiction of the army. Embrey's brother Hideo ventured out, reasoning that if the government was going to imprison them, he wanted to make sure life for their family would be as comfortable as possible. The Kunitomi family was initially supposed to go to the Santa Anita Assembly Center , which upset the mother who feared she would not see her son Hideo again. Days before the departure, the family found out that families with volunteers at Manzanar could go directly there.
Embrey first found work at Manzanar's camouflage net factory in an effort to help the war effort. From there, she found a job as a reporter for the camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press . Later, she wrote a newspaper column titled, "Purely Personal," and eventually became the newspaper's managing editor.
When the government issued the so-called loyalty questionnaire in 1943, the Kunitomi family answered "yes-yes" to the two most controversial questions, but the mother, at one point, considered answering "no" due to the pressures exerted by others. That fall, Embrey was given leave clearance and left by herself for Madison, Wisconsin, despite her mother's misgivings. She had previously considered joining the Women's Auxiliary Army Corp but was dissuaded by her mother. The War Relocation Authority office in Madison found Embrey a job with a mail order cheese company.
In early 1944, she moved to Chicago where her two older brothers were living. There, the American Friends Services Committee helped Embrey find a job with the Newberry Library, which, to Embrey's surprise, had a multiethnic staff.
Postwar Life and Activism
Embrey returned to Los Angeles in 1948 to look after her mother. She found work with the Los Angeles County Department of Education but shortly transferred to the Health Department due to a difficult boss.
In 1950, Embrey married Texan Garland Embrey at a time when interracial marriages were not widely accepted. The marriage created a rift between Embrey and her mother, which was eventually healed when Embrey had her first child.
The camp experience had politicized Embrey, and she joined a variety of political groups, including the Democratic Club and the Nisei for Wallace group, which supported Henry Wallace for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. This group later evolved into the Nisei Progressives , which helped elect Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council. During the Joseph McCarthy Red Scare era of the 1950s, the Embreys had frequent visits by the FBI due to Garland's leftist activities, but he was eventually able to hold down a job as an educator at West Los Angeles College where he taught for two decades.
Embrey received support from her husband to pursue her dream of a college education. The two divided the responsibilities of raising their two children, and Embrey enrolled as a part-time student at the California State University, Los Angeles where she earned a bachelor's of art degree in English in 1969. She went on to earn a master's degree in education from the University of Southern California in 1972. From there, she found work as a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She also became active in the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, United Farm Workers and UCLA's Labor Center.
During Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's administration, she was appointed to the Los Angeles City Status of Women Commission, where she served for 10 years. In 1980, she was selected as a delegate to the National Women's Commission Conference in New York. She was also one of 35 U.S. delegates to the United Nations Second World Conference on Women in Copenhagen.
The Manzanar Committee
In December 1969, Embrey returned to Manzanar for the first time. Yonsei activist Warren Furutani had invited Embrey to attend the 1969 pilgrimage , which had been organized mainly by Sansei activists, who were swept up in the larger movement of racial consciousness raising that started with the civil rights movement in the African American community. At the 1969 pilgrimage, Embrey talked publicly about her camp experiences with news reporters and was criticized by many in the Japanese American community for bringing up what many felt was best forgotten.
From there, what started as the Manzanar Project Committee became the Manzanar Committee, co-chaired by Embrey and Furutani. Embrey would go on to chair and spearhead the annual pilgrimage for the next thirty-six years, spearheading efforts to get the site established as the Manzanar National Historic Site in 1992. Embrey served as the inaugural chair of the Manzanar National Historic Site Advisory Commission, which was authorized by Congress. She worked closely with the National Park Service staff to develop the camp site, and was the key note speaker at the grand opening of the Manzanar National Historic Site's Interpretive Center in 2004.
In addition to her activities, she authored The Lost Years, 1942-46 (Los Angeles: Moonlight Publications, 1972); and co-authored with Arthur A. Hansen and Betty Kulberg Mitson, Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno' (Fullerton: Oral History Program, California State University, Fullerton, 1986).
For More Information
Bahr, Diana Meyers. The Unquiet Nisei: An Oral History of the Life of Sue Kunitomi Embrey . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Discover Nikkei. "Sue Embrey." http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/interviews/profiles/102/ .
Embrey, Sue Kunitomi. The Lost Years, 1942-1946 . Los Angeles: Moonlight Publications, 1972.
"From Manzanar to the Present: A Personal Journey." In Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans , edited by Erica Harth, 167–85. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Nakaoka, Susan. "'Typical' Nisei: An Intersectional Approach to Interpreting the Lives of Five Japanese American Women Activists." Pan-Japan 7.1–2 (Spring/Fall 2011): 77–147.
- Sources for this article include interviews with Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Jack Kunitomi and Rose Matsui Ochi ; e-mail correspondence with Bruce Embrey; and literature from the Manzanar Committee in the possession of the author.
Last updated Oct. 16, 2020, 3:57 p.m..