Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston Biography

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Jeanne Toyo Wakatsuki Houston’s literary reputation rests primarily on her sensitive account of the incarceration of Japanese people at the Manzanar internment camp during World War II. The story is told with humor through the eyes of a child at the beginning and segues gracefully to her final “farewell” to the now deserted campsite thirty years after the family’s release.{$S[A]Wakatsuki Houston, Jeanne;Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki}

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, setting up ten “relocation” camps to which 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were evacuated. These enforced dislocations tore the fabric of many lives. However, to seven-year-old Jeanne, moving to Manzanar seemed at first an adventure. Her father, Ko, did not accompany the family to the camp, because as an Issei (native-born Japanese) he had been taken for interrogation to Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, and was not released for nine months. Ko had lived in the United States for thirty-five years; his wife and ten children were all Nisei (native-born Americans). The only reason he had not become naturalized was the immigration law of 1911, which prohibited Asians from applying for citizenship.

With several adult sons in the group, the Wakatsuki family managed to overcome some of the hardships of camp life, and things were not too unbearable until Jeanne’s father returned to claim his place as head of the family. A proud man, descendant of Samurais, Ko had made his way, finally achieving status as the owner-operator of a large fishing boat, when the war broke out. Always somewhat dictatorial in regard to his wife and children, Ko was suddenly in a position in which he had no power over his own life or the lives of his family. The result was tragic.

For one thing, Ko was outraged at the implication of disloyalty to the American government. At the same time, his early release from Fort Lincoln, plus his overbearing and unfriendly behavior toward other inmates in the camp, gave rise to his being branded an inu, or “collaborator.” He became an alcoholic, frequently behaving like a frenzied, caged animal, turning his fury on members of his own family.

Almost exactly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came the December Riot, described by Houston as the culmination of all the frustrations suffered by individuals such as her father, plus group demands for such things as better food and higher wages for those who worked in the camp. Finally the Internal Security Force could no longer handle the situation; military police were called in, and shooting began. Ten internees were injured, and two were killed. Following this, the government devised a loyalty oath intended to “weed out” those who presented a danger. Meanwhile, families were gradually relocated if they could prove they had employment out of the area. Houston’s oldest brother, Woody, was drafted into the Army.

The War Relocation Authority provided schools for the children, recreation activities, and classes of every kind, from choral singing to oil painting and baton twirling, Jeanne’s choice. As life settled into a pattern, it began to seem as though the community inside the barbed wire was more comfortable than the potentially hostile world outside. Therefore, the remaining members of the Wakatsuki family delayed their departure until there was no choice about leaving; Manzanar was being closed.

Returning to Los Angeles, the family was dependent on Wakatsuki’s employment in the fish cannery, since the boat Ko had used before internment had “disappeared.” His plans for cooperative housing for returning Japanese never got beyond the blueprint stage, and Ko started drinking heavily again. Only when he decided to lease some land in the Santa Clara Valley and return to farming did he return to sobriety.

Houston finished high school in San Jose, still very insecure about her position with Caucasians, even after she was elected carnival queen. She secretly harbored a feeling that what had happened to her people was somehow deserved, and even within the family the Manzanar experience was a taboo subject. Houston went on to the university at Santa Cruz, married a Caucasian (a “blond Samurai”), and became the mother of three.

By the end of Farewell to Manzanar, she has come to terms with the past, as she, her husband, and their children visit what remains of the camp site. She remembers her father’s final show of defiance—his refusal to join others in the bus to the world outside. She sees the little cemetery, notices the piles of stones artistically arranged to mark the doorways of barrack buildings, and hears ten thousand voices in the wind. At last she feels ready to say a final farewell.

Later, in Beyond Manzanar, Houston cites the subtle differences between Asian and American views of women and explains how these differences have played themselves out in her own marriage to a Caucasian. She also devotes an entire chapter to the making of the film based on Farewell to Manzanar. At Tule Lake (another camp site), Bob Konoshita re-creates Manzanar precisely, using former inmates from all the camps and Asian actors to represent the incarcerated families. Again Houston painfully relives three and a half years of her childhood, especially in regard to the tragic effect the relocation had on her beloved father.

Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Byrkit, James W. Review of Beyond Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Western American Literature 21 (August, 1986). Some useful background is presented. Comments on the myth and reality of various views of Asian American women.

Cahill, Susan Neunzig, ed. Writing Women’s Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth Century American Women Writers. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Houston’s memoirs are addressed.

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment. New York: Houghton, 1973. Houston’s own memoir is the best source for information about her childhood.

“Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston.” In Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Hal May and James G. Lesniak. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. An overview.