Farewell To Manzanar

by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston

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Seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki stands with her mother, Riku Wakatsuki, and sisters-in-law on a wharf in Long Beach, California, waving good-bye to her father as his fishing boat sails out with the sardine fleet. At the farthest point in sight, the boats turn around and sail back to the harbor. Jeanne’s life is about to change irretrievably. The fishermen bring news that Pearl Harbor in Hawaii has been bombed by the Japanese.

That night, Ko Wakatsuki burns his heirloom Japanese flag and the documents he had brought to the United States when he moved from Japan thirty-five years ago. Two weeks later, two federal agents take him away. The family moves several times in subsequent weeks. In April, 1942, they are ordered to report to a Buddhist temple as a pickup point for what they have been told is resettlement. The bus ride that takes them into the California desert takes all day. Jeanne has never been out of the Los Angeles area before, and she finds the trip a grand adventure. Her older brothers and sisters are relieved to be away from the hostility directed at them by whites.

The family arrives at a camp of black barracks, hastily constructed in a desert wasteland north of Los Angeles, in the Owens Valley along the eastern Sierra Nevada. Sand is everywhere in and around the camp, Manzanar. Unlike many other Japanese American “evacuees,” the Wakatsukis have at least managed to stay together as a family. They are assigned two units in Block 16—two 16 by 20 foot spaces to hold twelve people. They immediately partition the rooms with blankets, giving the two young couples some privacy, and try to sleep despite the howling wind that drives sand through every crack. In the morning, Woody, in his father’s absence the de facto family head, puts his brothers to work nailing can lids over holes in the floor and turning waste paper into impromptu weather stripping.

As the youngest child, Jeanne is protected by her older siblings, who care for her as best they can. Jeanne gets to sleep next to her mother. No one can protect her, though, from diarrhea caused by spoiled food, from latrines that do not work, and from many other indignities of forced group life under semiprimitive conditions.

Children, however, are resilient. Despite the initial lack of basic services, such as a school, Jeanne explores the camp, discovering interesting things to do. During her time at Manzanar, she frequents the Maryknoll sisters’ chapel, listening to their stories of saints and martyrs. She joins the recreation program that takes children outside the barbed wire fences for cookouts and hikes. She even samples a lesson from an old geisha in the traditional odori dance, but the performance seems so weird that Jeanne never returns. Her favorite activity is the baton-twirling lessons, which she loves.

As time goes on, life at Manzanar improves in some ways. A hospital and schools open. The worst construction defects are remedied, and barracks become a bit more comfortable and homelike. Jeanne’s father, Ko, returns to his family after nine months spent at Fort Lincoln. The experience has changed and aged him drastically—not so much from physical privation as from the stigma of disloyalty and loss of dignity that it represents. For months after Ko’s arrival he huddles in the family’s unit, making homemade wine in an improvised still and having outbursts of explosive anger.

Halfway through World War II, some restrictions keeping Japanese Americans in the camps are lifted. Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans who are U.S. citizens by birth) are allowed to leave and move...

(This entire section contains 804 words.)

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elsewhere, if they have a job lined up. Nisei men are also declared eligible for the military draft. Jeanne’s brother Woody argues with his father over the draft, but when the time comes, the whole family proudly sees Woody off with his unit.

When the camp closes and Jeanne moves back to Los Angeles with her parents, she wants most of all to be a normal American girl. Things do not quite work out this way, however. She cannot join some groups, like the Girl Scouts, because of her Japanese ancestry. She does have some ego-boosting achievements, though: being a drum majorette for a Boy Scout band, and, in her senior year, being elected by her classmates as carnival queen. Still, she always feels branded by being different, and the shame of the internment years is hidden so deep that she can hardly speak of them.

Many years later, Jeanne begins to recall her Manzanar experiences and starts writing about them. A visit to the site stirs many memories, but it also gives her the ability to deal with them. Now the place that had shaped her life is being reshaped into desert by the inexorable forces of nature.