Farewell to Manzanar | Study Guide

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

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Farewell to Manzanar | Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Summary

Chapters 1–5

The first five chapters describe how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor affected Jeanne and her family and their subsequent internment in Manzanar.

On December 7, 1941, Jeanne's father, a fisherman, heads out to sea in the morning as normal, but suddenly he turns back along with the other fishing boats. On the radio, the family hears Japan has attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor. They have no idea what "Pearl Harbor" is or what the news might mean. Jeanne's Papa, a Japanese immigrant, burns his Japanese flag that night. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, he is arrested by the FBI. At first, the family do not know why, and only later do they learn he has been accused of delivering oil to Japanese submarines.

Papa's arrest leaves the family unsure what to do. They move to Terminal Island in a hurry, but they are forced to relocate again to Los Angeles after selling many of the family's possessions. Then, Executive Order 9066, which authorized forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans, is signed by President Roosevelt. Jeanne experiences anti-Asian racism for the first time and the family is picked up and transported by bus to the camp at Manzanar. There, living conditions are spartan and cramped. The family must deal with a lack of privacy, few comforts, bad food, poor equipment, and constant disease, especially diarrhea. Camp inhabitants learn to cope by assuming an attitude of resigned forbearance, summed up in the Japanese phrase shikata ga nai, or "this can't be helped."

In September 1942, Papa is released from his separate imprisonment and reunited with the family at Manzanar, but he is in a poor state. He is malnourished, and because of a case of frostbite, he must walk with a cane.

Chapters 6–8

In these chapters, Jeanne focuses on her father. She describes her father's walking stick, which he made himself while imprisoned in North Dakota. She describes Papa's family and his youth in Japan. Having decided to leave Japan, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1904. He worked a long series of odd jobs, including as a legal clerk, farm laborer, dentist, and fisherman. He moved from Hawaii to Oregon and then to California, marrying Jeanne's mother in the process. The couple have 10 children in all. During Papa's imprisonment at Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, he worked as an interviewer helping the Justice Department interview other detainees. He also developed a heavy drinking habit and suffered the case of frostbite that caused his limp.

A prison interview with Wakatsuki Ko (Jeanne's father) is reproduced. Ko describes why he left military school in Japan and establishes that he has had no contact with his Japanese family. He explains he was not supplying oil to Japanese submarines; the barrels on his boat were not filled with oil but with chum for fishing. He describes his two nations—Japan and the United States—as if they were his parents and expresses his wish for the war to end.

Jeanne recounts how the other internees refer to her father by the Japanese term inu. She did not fully understand the meaning as a child but later came to realize he was considered a collaborator with the American authorities. Jeanne describes how Papa terrorized and threatened her mother on multiple occasions. Once his rampage was only stopped by a blow from Jeanne's older brother, Kiyo. Papa's oppressive, brooding presence was inescapable.

Chapters 9–11

In the next three chapters, Jeanne describes the bitter, angry atmosphere in the camp, which culminated in the December Riot of 1942. The atmosphere results from multiple factors: wages are low, living conditions are poor, and conflicts develop over people's feelings about Japan and the United States. One man, Fred Tayama (1905–66), is beaten up for his pro-American sentiments and hospitalized. The arrest of three men for this act ignites the atmosphere, leading to rioting. Jeanne is young and does not see the riots herself. Her main memory of the event is the ringing of the camp bells. However, she relates, the chaos, when it finally subsided, left two men dead.

Jeanne's brother-in-law, Kaz, works on a reservoir maintenance crew, the only group of people allowed to leave the camp during the riot. One night, Kaz and his crew are sleeping in the shack at the reservoir when they are awakened by military policemen (MPs). The MPs hold them at gunpoint and call them saboteurs, assuming that this is the case because of their ethnicity. Kaz and his friends explain their situation and are let go, but the experience leaves them shaken.

In February 1943, the U.S. government issues a Loyalty Oath for Japanese Americans over 17 to fill out. The document calls on them to make themselves available for service in the U.S. military and to pledge allegiance to the United States. Arguments erupt in the camp over whether people should accept the call. Papa argues with Woody, his son, who wishes to do both. Those who do not answer "YES" to both questions are expected to be taken to another camp for the disloyal and eventually deported to Japan. Despite his argument with his son, Papa appears at a public meeting to defend the YES YES position. Someone accuses Papa in public of being an inu (collaborator), and Papa attacks him. After the fight, Papa and the rest of the family bond by singing the Japanese national anthem.

Chapters 12–15

Jeanne goes on to describe how, as time passes, the internees adjust to life in Manzanar. In spring 1943, her family moves to a new residential block near a pear orchard. Jeanne says this marks the point at which their lives grow tolerable. It is closer to the camp hospital, where Mama works as a dietician. The new block also doubles the family's living space.

The camp authorities relax some rules, allowing the internees to take walks along the wire fence. Papa begins to paint watercolors, and internees plant gardens. Jeanne notes most of the resentment in the camp burned out after the riot and the Loyalty Oath episodes. In the months since then, life in the camp has taken on its own logic. Manzanar has become a "totally equipped American small town" with churches, schools, movies, and softball.

As the regulations become more and more relaxed, Jeanne finds she is subject to fewer travel restrictions. At first she could travel "to Camp Three with a Caucasian," then to Camp Three alone, and so on. Jeanne and her brother Kiyo are finally able to attend school. Previously they were taught by volunteers in makeshift classrooms. Jeanne joins a Glee Club, which is her sharpest memory of school. She also describes additional classes in subjects like singing, tap dancing, and judo. Jeanne gravitates toward baton twirling, hoping it will lead to her being accepted as American. She also wishes to be baptized Catholic, but Papa forbids it.

Jeanne's oldest sister, Eleanor, has a baby in the camp. She and her husband, Shig, previously relocated to Reno, Nevada, but Shig was drafted into the army. Without money to support herself and a baby, Eleanor returned to Manzanar. Jeanne's Mama and Papa bond over the birth of their first grandchild.

Gradually people are able to relocate. By the end of 1944, 6,000 people remain in the camp. Woody is drafted in August 1944. He joins the 442nd Combat Regiment, a unit consisting of Japanese Americans that has become famous and full of heroes.

However, the war is further dividing families, and people are uncertain about what will happen after it ends.

Chapters 16–18

Jeanne next describes the approaching end of internment. She begins by explaining three U.S. Supreme Court cases relating to the practice. The first involves a second-generation (Nisei) student named Gordon Hirabayashi (1918–2012). The decision upholds internment on the grounds of wartime necessity. The second is the case of Fred Korematsu (1919–2005). Korematsu changed his name and had surgery so that he could pose as a Spanish Hawaiian to avoid internment. Once again, the Supreme Court upholds internment. It is the third case that finally brings change. In Ex Parte Endo, Mitsuye Endo (1920–2006), a young Nisei woman, successfully argued the government could not detain loyal citizens. In anticipation of this result, the camps are ordered closed by the end of 1945.

The thought of leaving Manzanar is unsettling. The internees fear that wartime propaganda has twisted perceptions of Japanese Americans and promoted racism. Rumors spread in the camps about racist attacks on those who have left. Jeanne recalls her own fear of the future and in particular "the foretaste of being hated." Papa does not know what to do now that he can leave the camp.

In June 1945 the camp schools are closed for the last time, along with the farms. Papa does not know what he will do because California has made it illegal for first-generation Japanese Americans (Issei) to hold commercial fishing licenses. What's more, he has lost his boats. This reflects the experience of the majority of the detainees, many of whom lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of internment. Papa conceives an idea to form a cooperative housing project for Japanese Americans.

The internees left in Manzanar suffer through a brutally hot summer. They are shocked when they hear the news that an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6th, 1945. They do not know the true horror of what has happened, but they know the war is over.

Woody visits his father's family in Japan. He learns the family held a burial for Papa in 1913 because Papa had never sent word back to his family. Woody is amazed by the family's generosity toward him despite their wartime losses. He climbs a hill his father used to climb as a way to connect with his father's past.

Chapters 19–21

Jeanne's account of internment draws to a close in these three chapters. Papa decides to buy a car so the family can leave the camp in style, on their own terms. It takes three trips to drive the family and their possessions to Long Beach, and the car keeps breaking down. Jeanne fears being attacked or being confronted with anti-Japanese sentiment in the form of roadside billboards. She is relieved not to witness any actual hatred directed at Japanese Americans. Much has changed, however, and the family has trouble finding somewhere to live because of a statewide housing shortage. What's more, her father's status has been reduced to the position he was in when he first arrived in America in 1904.

Jeanne attends school outside the camp for the first time since internment. She begins to experience a fuller understanding of what her internment meant and feels shame as a result. She feels two contradictory impulses: to be invisible and to be accepted as part of the mainstream. She finds her choice of friends is limited by the attitudes of other children's parents toward Japanese Americans. Because of her heritage, she is excluded from the Girl Scouts. She becomes a majorette instead. This leads to an argument with Papa, who is annoyed by Jeanne's adopting American styles of dress and behavior. Mama is pleased, though, viewing this as something that will help Jeanne survive.

Jeanne finds it easy to adopt white values but also acknowledges the value of having a Japanese father to frighten her boyfriends. Although her Japanese face often frustrates her social goals, she is elected carnival queen, which causes another argument with her father.

Chapter 22–Afterword

At the end of the book, Jeanne looks back on her childhood experiences. She notes that, as she became aware of what Manzanar meant, she felt ashamed and believed she deserved her treatment. As an adult, she has difficulty facing her experiences. In April 1972 she is finally able to take a trip to visit the ruins of the camp, which she describes. She sees a Japanese grave marker raised as a tribute to the people who died in the camp. Seeing her 11-year-old daughter walking through the ruins, Jeanne compares her daughter's life to her own. She realizes she has lived with a Manzanar mentality for about 25 years and has only now almost outgrown the shame and the guilt.

Jeanne vividly recalls the day Papa bought a car to take the family away from the camp.

In the afterword, coauthor James D. Houston relates how the book came into being. His wife, Jeanne, was finally ready to speak about her experiences in Manzanar. Initially the project began as a recording of her reminiscences for the family. However, he is pleased the project grew because he feels it is important for new generations to understand what the camps meant. Writing just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States, he feels awareness of Japanese American internment is more important than ever. A new era of ethnic prejudice and mistrust is dawning in America. It is clear the lessons of Manzanar and the other wartime camps have to be learned again and again.

Analysis

Chapters 1–5

This first chapter introduces the narrator, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and establishes several crucial facts about the Wakatsuki family. One of the most important is how Americanized they are. Jeanne and her siblings all have English names—for example, Jeanne, Bill, and Woody. Another, Eleanor, is introduced later. Jeanne's parents appear to wish for their children to be integrated into American society. Jeanne's family consider themselves American and have no real connection to Japan aside from their ancestry and their membership in the wider Japanese American fishing community.

This contrasts starkly with how Jeanne and her family are treated. An atmosphere of panic and paranoia follows the surprise attack of December 7th, 1941, and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan. Jeanne and her family are treated as intrinsically suspicious and disloyal. As she wryly notes, the FBI thought anyone with a radio was a potential spy. Her father is arrested without any reason being given. (It is likely that fisherman such as Jeanne's father were considered suspicious due to their knowledge of the coast and strategic installations located there.) Jeanne contextualizes her father's treatment by stating he was legally prohibited from achieving citizenship, despite his 35 years of residence in America. First-generation immigrants like him (the Issei) were always held at a legal remove and treated with suspicion.

In subsequent chapters, Jeanne emphasizes the impact on her family of the arrest of her father, the family's patriarch and breadwinner. The effect is catastrophic even before their internment. The separation and subsequent damage to their family dynamic recurs as a theme in the book, and it is traumatic for each of them.

Jeanne also introduces the camp itself. The numerous deprivations of camp life are made clear. The family's living quarters are small and sparse, privacy is a distant dream, the food is bad (and culturally inappropriate), sanitation is poor, and disease is rampant. The equipment they are given is mostly World War I surplus. In addition to robbing people of their liberty, internment subjects thousands of people to conditions that, at their best, amount to neglect. All the rest of the book's descriptions of camp life should be read with this background information in mind.

Chapters 6–8

Papa is back with the family, having returned from a separate imprisonment. His return allows Jeanne to discuss her father's past, his treatment, and the effect internment had on her family life. Jeanne was only a child while in Manzanar, so her memory of life there is intimately tied to her memory of her early family life.

Her father's story is typical enough of immigrants to America. He moved to America to escape a stagnant family life in Japan, feeling he had few other choices. To make his way in the new country, he threw himself into working any job he could find. He never made much money but picked up a number of skills. He worked hard and started a family. What differentiates her father's story from that of many thousands of migrants to America from other countries is Pearl Harbor and his Japanese ancestry. Internment, as Jeanne observes several times, effectively ends her father's life.

The interview with Ko, Jeanne's father, takes place during his time in the North Dakota prison. Ko, quite reasonably, feels an affinity for his country of origin and his adopted home alike, and he simply wishes the war to end. Because of the war, his loyalty is constantly questioned, and he is pulled in multiple directions. The Americans imprison him and demand his loyalty. Upon his arrival in Manzanar, his loyalty is questioned by the ethnic Japanese, who are suspicious of his early release and his work as an interviewer. Ko's treatment at the North Dakota prison, it should be noted, was worse than it is in the Manzanar camp. It is not surprising he fell into a deep depression from which he never really emerges.

Chapters 9–11

Conditions in the camp lead to the December Riot of 1942. Jeanne does not have many direct memories of the December Riot. As a child at the time, she is kept well away from the dangers. Most of what she recounts here is probably pieced together from her later, adult knowledge. The December Riot episode reveals a number of dynamics at work in the camp:

  • division between pro-Japanese and more conciliatory elements,
  • persistent poor conditions,
  • the drive for more rights among those who work in critical roles in the camp.

Because of her youth, though, Jeanne is mostly only aware of sights and sounds like the ringing of bells.

Because Jeanne does not remember much, she tells about her brother-in-law, Kaz, to explore the drama of the riot and the threat of violence that faced internees. The Military Police (MPs) do not seem to know much about what is going on in the running of the camp. (They do not know about the reservoir maintenance detail, for instance.) The impact on their perceptions of wartime propaganda can be seen in their use of the term Japs. But the MPs are not harsh authoritarians so much as they are scared and jumpy young men. One of the points Jeanne makes throughout is internment rested mostly on an atmosphere of fear and misunderstanding.

The Loyalty Oath episode shows how, after the initial panic following Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government tries to address Japanese Americans in a different way. Exacting a pledge of loyalty to the United States to be followed by potential release serves two purposes. First, it allows the government to reduce the camps' population. Second, it introduces a real legal instrument with which to punish anyone who does betray the United States. None of those interned, it should be remembered, had done anything illegal. At the same time, Japanese Americans are encouraged to sign up for military service. A special unit of the U.S. Army, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was formed specifically for Japanese American soldiers. The observer may note these measures actually reinforced the notion that the U.S. government considered internees guilty of disloyalty by default. People had to prove their loyalty by signing an oath and making themselves available for military service.

Chapters 12–15

The height of unease in the camp ends after the December Riot and the arguments over the Loyalty Oath. After these episodes, life seems to settle into a pattern Jeanne calls "tolerable." This coincides with the family's move to slightly more spacious living quarters. At the same time, the gradual relaxation of camp regulations allows a little more freedom of movement and activity. This may in part have been due to the success of U.S. military campaigns in the Pacific—optimism about the outcome of the war might have helped to lessen tensions in camp operations. Moreover, by this point (1943) the camp has been in operation for over a year, and infrastructure has developed along with familiarity with camp life. This is another major factor in easing the troubles of camp life. The camp takes on a slightly surreal air, described as if it were a normal small town. It is still, of course, a place the inhabitants cannot freely leave. This is why Jeanne is careful to note life became "tolerable" rather than "good."

The narrative from this point switches a little more to dealing with Jeanne's memories of her own childhood as she begins to make sense of herself as a young woman. She becomes aware of being caught between two different cultures, which forms the crux of her arguments with her father. These arguments—over whether Jeanne can be baptized a Catholic and pursue baton twirling—reflect the wider anxieties of the detainees. All of them find themselves similarly trapped between the Japanese and the American culture.

As 1943 moves into 1944, the camp's population begins to dwindle. People secure release (of sorts) through military service and signing the oath. This reflects wider events in the war. Japanese attacks on the American mainland have become very unlikely, and the general air of paranoia about Japanese Americans has receded. Moreover, as Jeanne notes, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is useful as propaganda to demonstrate the loyalty and bravery of Japanese Americans.

Still, the inhabitants of the camp now face a new problem—what to do when they have left the camp. Jeanne's niece is born in the camp because Jeanne's sister, Eleanor, cannot support herself while her husband is at war. Their release from the camp was only temporary. Jeanne also illustrates the effect of lost possessions, wealth, and opportunities on the internees. Leaving the camp, for many, was the beginning of a struggle to rebuild their lives.

Chapters 16–18

Jeanne's review of the Supreme Court cases surrounding internment is a product of her later research. It is important to remember the highest courts in the land upheld internment as legal roughly until it was no longer justified by necessity. This is why the camps were ordered closed before the third ruling was issued.

With the camps closing, Jeanne's recollections turn toward her own family's struggle to come to terms with having to leave. Camp life had become their everyday life. It was difficult to conceive of what they would do outside. Moreover, they had been separated from the war and wider society. They did not know how they would be treated by American society. After all, U.S. society had gone along with their mass imprisonment without being charged with any crime. Fears of violent racism were not unreasonable. Prejudicial treatment through the legal system was certainly a reality, as exemplified by Papa having had his fishing license rescinded by California law.

Chapters 19–21

The family is finally able to leave the camp and face the outside world. Jeanne's father's decision to buy a car is characterized as an assertion of his independence, and it is a recognizably "American" step to take. The car figures heavily in Jeanne's memory of leaving the camp. It seems indelibly tied to her feelings of hope and fear at being able to finally leave and resume her life.

Jeanne contrasts her fears with the reality she encounters. Before leaving Manzanar, she imagines lurid and dreamlike scenes: racist billboards on highways or a burst of gunfire directed at her. What confronts her is a very real atmosphere of difference and exclusion. Most of this is shown through descriptions of her attempts to integrate into the mainstream activities of girls her age. It is primarily the prejudices of her peers' parents that exclude her. Those parents have been conditioned to see her Japanese face as something shameful and disgusting. Jeanne is keen, throughout her narrative, to describe how deeply entrenched anti-Japanese feelings were in American society even before the war. This is the context in which internment took place, after all, and it was only heightened by anti-Japanese war propaganda. She notes all of this served to make people view Japanese Americans as less than human and not see them as individuals. She may have left Manzanar, but she still has to learn to survive in the society that created the camp and allowed it to exist.

Chapter 22–Afterword

It is striking how much Jeanne internalizes the shame of being interned and the guilt over being Japanese. Although interned as a child who had done nothing wrong, she came to believe such treatment could not have been inflicted on someone who was completely innocent. The idea one is innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of American values. This notion became twisted in Jeanne's mind to suggest she must, therefore, have been guilty of something.

The trauma of the camp travels with Jeanne for a long time. It is made plain in the Afterword that it took her decades to even speak about it—a common experience among survivors of internment. This is partly because of a desire to get along and avoid further attention. Partly, though, it is an artifact of how camp life derailed and damaged people's lives and ways of thinking. Many never really escaped the "camp mentality" even long after leaving.

In the final lines of the Afterword, coauthor James D. Houston connects the policy of internment directly to the anti-Muslim sentiments immediately following September 11th, 2001. His hopes and fears in that moment are keenly felt. They are informed by his knowledge of the treatment his wife and thousands of others experienced after another shocking attack 70 years earlier.

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