Farewell to Manzanar follows the resettlement of Jeanne Wakatsuki and her family to a Japanese-American internment camp in the Owens Valley bordering the eastern Sierra Nevada. These "evacuees" are being kept imprisoned in the barracks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the American involvement in World War II.
The expression "shikata ga nai" means "it can't be helped," or "nothing can be done about it." This phrase was deeply ingrained as a cultural value for many Japanese people; it discouraged anger or any other strong emotional reaction to what cannot be controlled. By maintaining one's dignity in the face of already-existing suffering, a person may avoid the even greater suffering that comes with resisting what cannot be changed.
In holding true to this ideal, many Japanese-Americans swallowed the deep shame of the years they spent sequestered away in internment camps. Enduring poor conditions and the loss of their homes and livelihoods required tremendous resilience and endurance. Without this emotional and mental fortitude, many may not have been able to survive their unjust captivity.
The Japanese saying "shikata ga nai" expresses an attitude of resigned acceptance. It loosely translates to "what else can we do", or "it can't be helped". The attitude of "shikata ga nai" is deeply embedded in old Japanese culture.
During World War II, when the West Coast Japanese Americans were "relocated" to remote camps like Manzanar, there was comparatively little resistance from the victimized group itself against an order that disrupted the lives of the over 100,000 individuals. Part of the reason was due to this cultural element which required facing and bearing up under whatever situations might occur in life without complaint. Much of the older generation of Japanese Americans in particular responded from this ingrained perspective, dutifully leaving everything they had worked for behind, to submit with quiet dignity to the unprecedented directive issued against them.