Farewell to Manzanar | Study Guide

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

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Farewell to Manzanar | Main Ideas

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Life in the Camps

Farewell to Manzanar recounts the experience of people of Japanese descent (most of whom were American citizens) detained by the U.S. government during World War II. Manzanar was one of several internment camps established in the United States as a result of Executive Order 9066 (1942), signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945). The text shows that life in the internment camps was harsh and difficult. People sent to the camps were deprived of their liberty. In some cases, as with Jeanne's father, individuals were arrested and imprisoned separately from their families. Food and conditions, especially before the internees had been able to establish patterns of life and infrastructure, were poor. Insufficient sanitation contributed to disease. Beyond these basic factors, the social atmosphere in the camps was fractious. People from all walks of life were thrust together in difficult surroundings with little privacy. By and large, from Jeanne's perspective, people in the camps found a way to make do, persevere, and survive. Still, riots, arguments, and violence periodically occurred.

Over time, some level of normality was established in the Manzanar camp, as schools, clubs, theaters, and other elements of outside life were set up. But camp life was always camp life—at best a pale version of life as it was outside. The internees' experience influenced people's lives long after they had left the camps.

Unlike the camps in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, Japanese American internment did not involve torture or extermination. Nevertheless, the Japanese Americans were victims of harsh treatment inflicted as a result of fear and distrust.

Culture, Belonging, and Loyalty

Japanese Americans in the camps had different relationships to the United States and to Japan, depending on their generation. The first generation of Japanese immigrants, the Issei, had arrived from Japan before immigration was suspended in 1924. They, like Jeanne's father, were prohibited by law from becoming American citizens. Their children, the Nisei, were American citizens by birth. Many, like Jeanne, had never visited Japan. They were Americans and thought of themselves as such. Nevertheless, all generations were considered suspicious, and all who resided on the West Coast were sent to the camps. Even though the Nisei thought of themselves as Americans, the American government considered them potentially dangerous outsiders.

Many of those interned had never even thought about their loyalty to one or the other country. The war between Japan and the United States was the first event to make it an issue. It was an issue the American government created by interning them without trial as potential Japanese saboteurs and then insisting on loyalty oaths. Within the camps, arguments arose between two groups. On the one hand were those who resented their treatment or promoted Japanese interests. On the other were those who felt no attachment to Japan or wished to support the authorities. In December 1942, such arguments ended in a riot in Manzanar.

When they left the camps, the experience of internment colored how Japanese Americans viewed their position in U.S. society. They had to cope with life in a country that had subjected them to such hostile treatment.

Anti-Japanese Racism

Internment did not happen in a vacuum. The U.S. government did not suddenly decide to intern all Japanese Americans. It was one in a series of policies that sought to define, confine, and exclude Japanese immigrants. On the West Coast, anti-Asian racism had persisted for over a hundred years before internment. This history of racism fed into the panic internment was meant to allay. Internment was a policy that could only be carried out if Japanese Americans were not seen as real individuals and legitimate citizens. War propaganda only heightened this attitude of hostility toward the Japanese, which even Jeanne herself internalized as a young woman.

Hostility to Japanese Americans worked on two levels. On the level of law and policy, internment is the most obvious example. But there are other examples. Jeanne's father, a fisherman, was not allowed to become a citizen. While he was interned, California made it illegal for Japanese Americans to hold fishing licenses, depriving him of his livelihood. He was also arrested and held separately, without formal charge, on the mere suspicion of aiding Japanese submarines. When it came to the war, it turned out the Wakatsuki family, in practice, had few rights.

On a social level, anti-Japanese sentiment worked to hold back Jeanne's pursuit of a normal social life. Her peers' parents excluded her from clubs like the Girl Scouts. She became aware of how her Japanese face and family could be used to frighten others or impede her social progress. When the war began, these attitudes, which defined the Japanese Americans as suspicious outsiders, had already been prevalent for generations. After the war ended and the camps closed, these attitudes persisted.

It is worth noting that American-Japanese relations did improve significantly after World War II. This development is particularly noteworthy considering the United States's use of the atomic bomb on Japan. These improved relations were supported in part by legislation passed in 1948 allowing those who had been detained to sue the government. In 1988, the U.S. government also gave an official apology for the internment policy and provided a reparations payment of $20,000 to each survivor of the internment camps. While racism and xenophobia aimed at Japanese and Japanese Americans by no means were eliminated, these policies suggest a change in the practices and attitudes of the U.S. government in the postwar era.

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