In the true story “Farewell to Manzanar” we learn of a young girl’s life
as she grows up during World War II in a Japanese internment camp. Along with
her family and ten thousand other Japanese we see how, as a child, these
conditions forced to shape and mold her life. This book does not directly place
blame or hatred onto those persons or conditions which had forced her to endure
hardship, but rather shows us through her eyes how these experiences have held
value she has been able to grow from.
Jeanne Wakatsuki was just a seven year growing up in Ocean Park,
California when her whole life was about to change. Everything seemed to be
going fine, her father owning two fishing boats, and they lived in a large house
with a large dining table which was located in an entirely non-Japanese
neighborhood. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese was the
moment Jeanne’s life was critically altered. This started WWII and all Japanese
were seen as possible threats to the nations safety. It is not difficult to see,
but difficult to justify this view, and therefore Jeanne Wakatsuki, just a child,
was now seen as a monster. Her father was immediately arrested and taken away,
being accused with furnishing oil to Japanese subs off the coast. And now,
Jeanne left without a father, her mother was trapped with the burden of Jeanne’s
rapidly aging grandmother and her nine brothers and sisters. Too young to
understand, Jeanne did not know why or where her father had been taken. But she
did know that one very important part of her was gone.
Jeanne’s father was a very strong, military-like, proud, arrogant, and
dignified man. He was the one who was always in control, and made all the
decisions for the family. He grew up in Japan, but left at the age of seventeen,
headed for work in Hawaii, and never again went back. Leaving his own family
behind and never contacting them ever again. But now it was time for Jeanne’s
family to do something. They found refuge at Terminal Island, a place where
many Japanese families live either in some transition stage or for permanent
residents. Jeanne was terrified. ” It was the first time I had lived among
other Japanese, or gone to school with them, and I was terrified all the time.”
Her father, as a way of keeping his children in line, told them, “I’m going to
sell you to the Chinaman.” So when Jeanne saw all these Japanese kids she
assumed she was being sold. They were soon given 48 hrs. to find a new place to
stay. Again they found refuge in a minority ghetto in Boyle Heights, Los
Angeles. But then the government issued Executive Order 9066 which gave the War
Dept. power to define military areas in the western states. Anyone who could
possibly threaten the war effort (Japanese) were going to be transported to
internment camps. As Jeanne boarded the Greyhound bus someone tied a number tag
to her collar and one to her duffel bag. So, for now on all families had
numbers to which they could be identified. No longer people, but animals
hearded off to some unknown place. This was to be their destiny for the rest of
the war, and long after.
Being a child, Jeanne was too young to comprehend what all this really
meant. She knew that her dad was away and her family was moving a lot. At
first, for Jeanne this seemed exciting, like an adventure, since she had never
been outside of L.A. before. Jeanne is a Nissei, a natural born citizen of the
United States. But, again this really didn’t mean much to her. What could she
do, and what could she know? Up to this point her life had been relatively
simple. As a 7-yr. old one doesn’t really no much of life anyway! This was
soon to change for her, as she is now being forced into a world guarded behind
Manzanar, located near Lone Pine, California was the camp Jeanne’s
family, kept together only by an effort made by Jeanne’s mother, was assigned to.
The conditions were raw, cold, windy and unfriendly. In a sense a metaphor for
Jeanne, their treatment, and the unstable condition of her family and life.
10,000 Japanese shoved into a quarter mile piece of dust-land surrounded with
barbed wire, and guard towers. The living quarters were shabbily constructed
wooden barracks which didn’t provide any shelter from the blistering cold wind
and the dry dust. Not quite a concentration camp, but not quite adequate either.
At first Jeanne actually didn’t mind the situation that much. She
referred to as like camping. But for the adults and her older brothers and
sisters, including one newlywed couple sharing a barrack with a family with two
young kids, it was hell. 6-8 people sharing a 15 by 20 foot space with a cot,
two army blankets, and a stove which didn’t work very good. “Animals don’t even
live like this,” was a comment made by Jeanne’s mother after her oldest brother
Woody tried to ease their mama’s pain. As months rolled by and their father
still imprisoned at Fort Lincoln, Montana Jeanne began to notice her life
changing. Japanese families had always been very tight units and this was
beginning to break down. As a family they would always eat together, but the
conditions of the mess halls to eat at and Jeanne’s Grandmother unable to make
the walk to dinner, this tradition ended. Adults ate seperately from the
children, and this in itself begins to break down the structure and unity of the
family. The parents lost control over their children. The barracks were too
small for any in-home activity and the children were forced, not like they
objected, to be outside all the time. The housing units were strictly for
coming home at night to sleep in. This break down of family structure forced
the kids to find alternate ways of occupying themselves, rather than having
parental guidance or some type of authority to watch over them.
After nine months Jeanne’s father finally returned. Jeanne admitted
that she really didn’t think about him that often. When he arrived no one
rushed to greet or hug him, only after a brief hesitation did Jeanne approach
and serve as the entire family’s welcome home party. They Were silent because
he seemed to be a changed man. He was again using the cane he had carved years
back which he used to extend a type of military authority over everyone. Before
being imprisoned, as I said, he had great dignity, but now seemed to have lost
that. He had lost it because all his loyalty and honor was repeatedly
questioned there. Drinking began to take control of him and he never would
leave the barracks. He brewed his own rice wine and brandy, and became a
drunken tyrant. Jeanne was never aware that her mother and father used to fight
the way they did there. Because she always had a room to escape to. She began
to despise her father and his authority.
Jeanne was discovering new things, and before her father’s return
became seriously interested in Catholicism. She loved all the women martyr
stories, and possibly could relate to them or to some aspect in them. But
before she could get baptized her father had come back and exercised his control
over it, and wouldn’t allow it. He told her that their family was Buddhist and
that she was to young to even understand what Catholicism was. Even though they
never practiced the religion only celebrated a few holidays. She was confused
and wanted acceptance in any way she could find it. She took up the baton and
became very skilled at it. But her father criticized this activity, saying she
should not try to become American, but rather take up some traditional Japanese
activity, like Odori dancing. Even though he himself left that life behind him
in Japan to move to America. He could not expect his children growing up in
America to only do Japanese things, even though this place they were trapped in
wasn’t what America should be for them. She began to desire the outside world.
It was where everything was, but couldn’t be reached. She would see things in
the Sears Roebuck catalogue and dream of that place out there that has all these
things. She even referred to this catalogue as the same as God. She was now
aware that this place she was in was not where she should be.
Manzanar became to her and her family their home. They had food,
clothes, and shelter. It had become their world all rolled up within a quarter
mile, with baton lessons, dance, schools, religion, and even a band. But the
war was ending and the camps due to close in December, 1945. Where were they
to go and what were they to do? These questions frightened her and her parents.
There were no answers. How could a government take everything away, put us in
camps, then let us loose with nothing? And how were they to be treated once
they were out there. Fearing the stories they heard that earlier released
internees had been beating or even killed. But when they finally left it was
different. They expected people lining the streets with guns, or billboards
reading “go home you dirty Japs” on them.
They were put up in a housing compound in Cabrillo. It was small but
her mom now could cook and the cold winds didn’t get in. Jeanne enrolled in Jr.
high school, and her mother got a job at a cannery. Her father refusing to
stoop that low didn’t find a job for a long time. Her first experience on the
outside of Manzanar had the lurking of all her fears of not being accepted.
When asked to read in class as the new student, she stood up and read well.
Then a girl said something that haunts her to this day. “Gee I didn’t know you
could speak English.” This remark made by a white girl, whom she became friends
with later, made her realize that this is how things were going to be. They
weren’t going to beat or injure her, they were going to see she has slanted eyes
and assume that she is different. She only wanted acceptance. And realized
that it was going to happen unless she proved something to them. She did.
Since she had taken baton at Manzanar she made the marching band as majorette.
The first Japanese majorette ever at her school. Then on to win beauty queen in
high school. These things made her feel accepted, one of the others. But she
was denying the fact that she was doing this for them not completely for herself.
She realized this when she was walking down the isle to receive her carnival
queen award. A kind of revelation hit her that none of this really mattered any
more, and wished she had taken Odori classes like her father wanted her to. I
think this revealed that she had finally found herself among all these other
people and didn’t have to be the same as them, she could now be her, for herself.
Nearly 30 yrs. Later when she herself was married and had 3 children of
her own was she able to accept that part that over the years she tried to forget.
She said that she was always putting off trips to Manzanar because she was
afraid it might have the same effect on her as it did when she was young. That
feeling of inferiority and nothingness in this world she had always been a part
of. She used to hate herself for the way white people would get to her with one
little comment like “Oh! You speak English,” that she would feel completely
foreign in her world. When she finally visited the ruins of Manzanar she “no
longer wanted to lose or have those years erased. Having found it, I could say
what you can really say when you’ve truly come to know a place: Farewell.”
This says it all. She had finally been able to see that Manzanar was one giant
stepping stone she had climbed, and that gave her worth, so she could feel at
peace with herself. Her life had really begun at Manzanar, but she isn’t about
to let it end there.
In conclusion, this story was well written and I could sympathize with
every trial and tribulation she encountered. Some may say she didn’t value her
Japanese heritage enough or was pitying herself for being Japanese. But she, in
my view is a hero because she took everything that was imposed on her and
endured through it. She was able to accept herself through a kind of spiritual
growth, which was both revelational, and inspirational. I only hope that one
day I can make some sense of the things gone wrong in my life, or at least grow
from them. Jeanne is a woman now, who as a child was thrown around in a racial
roller coaster, and can accept herself as an important part of society and life,
rather than needing others to accept it for her.
Note: I really enjoyed this book and the next time I head out to Mammoth Lakes
I will definitely try and find Manzanar.