Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193
Born in America, Yuki and Ken are U.S. citizens, but their parents, born in Japan, are not. This makes Mr. Sakane particularly suspect in the eyes of the war-time American authorities. Although he is an innocent businessperson, he is arrested and taken away from his family soon after the U.S....
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Born in America, Yuki and Ken are U.S. citizens, but their parents, born in Japan, are not. This makes Mr. Sakane particularly suspect in the eyes of the war-time American authorities. Although he is an innocent businessperson, he is arrested and taken away from his family soon after the U.S. declares war on Japan. Yuki, Ken, and their mother must make the move from Berkeley to Tanforan and from Tanforan to Topaz.
Their non-Japanese neighbors are mostly sympathetic but powerless to help Yuki's family. Mrs. Jamieson, Yuki's best friend Mimi Nelson, and others can offer only sympathy and some help with food and other necessities. After they move, Yuki and her family find these good friends to be sources of distant support, receiving from them letters and supplies. Others merely exploit Yuki's family. One neighbor even digs up part of Mr. Sakane's garden because she wants some of his carefully cultivated flowers.
At the beginning of Journey to Topaz, Yuki, a bright, introspective eleven-year-old, is excited about the coming of Christmas and the holiday season. She has had little occasion for thinking about the outside world, even though her parents are from another country. During the novel, she discovers resources in herself that she never knew she had. The terrible experience of losing their homes and belongings embitters many of those taken to Topaz. Mr. Kurihara, Emiko's grandfather, for instance, yearns to leave America because of his mistreatment. But Yuki fights the urge toward bitterness and finds in herself the strength to help others survive the internment. She grows rapidly toward adulthood and develops the courage necessary to face not only the deaths of her pet dog and Mr. Kurihara but to encourage Emiko to fight against potentially deadly illness. Likable and engaging, Yuki tries to make the best of her unpleasant circumstances.
None of the other characters develop as thoroughly as Yuki, but her brother Ken also matures under the stress of internment. Forced to interrupt his college education and angered by the abuse of his family, he seems for a time to be growing bitter and hateful, but he eventually chooses responsibility over impotent rage. In so doing, Ken (short for Kenichi) helps both family and friends better endure their hardships.
Although Mimi is Yuki's best friend at the beginning of Journey to Topaz, Emiko, called Emi, becomes Yuki's most important friend in the novel. Emi's parents have died, and her grandparents, the Kuriharas, take care of her. She meets Yuki at Tanforan, and they quickly become friends, playing and exploring together. Emi is so full of life that her eventual collapse from tuberculosis is a shock. Like Yuki, she is resilient enough to fight her disease, helped by the true friendship of the rapidly maturing Yuki.
Uchida treats her main theme, injustice, in depth, blurring distinctions between good and evil characters. Part of what makes Journey to Topaz such a disturbing book is that few characters seem to want to harm the Japanese- Americans. The FBI agents, the soldiers in charge of relocating the internees, or those who observe the injustices heaped on their former neighbors may be insensitive and selfish at times, but Uchida portrays them as ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives; they are simply doing their jobs. That their jobs involve destroying the lives of thousands of innocent Americans rarely disturbs them. Uchida's frightening depiction of complacent Americans shows that those who could have resisted the illegal internment of American citizens did not; the people who actually carry out the forced removal of the Japanese- Americans do so because they are told to. Uchida shows that a terrible injustice occurred in a free society with constitutionally guaranteed civil rights for all citizens because the citizens let it happen.
Uchida further enriches the theme of injustice by making the victims fully rounded characters with both good and bad traits. For instance, although Yuki likes to play and loves her pets, she is impatient and does not always get along with her brother. In many ways an ordinary young girl, Yuki must find in herself enormous reserves of courage and tenacity in order to endure hardship and injustice. The diverse group of Japanese-Americans also enriches the theme of injustice. Mr. Kurihara submits to bitterness, while Mr. Toda wavers between despair and determination. Some of the internees, such as Mr. Sakane, try to make something good out of the unpleasant circumstances of their lives. Still others become thugs who terrorize their fellow internees, making everybody's life worse.
The other themes of Journey to Topaz—God and religion, racism, the refugee, bitterness, despair, and death—help to show the full complexity of the lives of the characters, adding to the realism of the story, and clarifying the historical setting. The Sakanes, for example, take their Christian faith seriously and try to maintain worship services even while enduring the many hardships of the concentration camps. For them, God is everywhere, and their religious beliefs constitute an essential part of their identities.
Racism, a significant factor in the internment of Japanese-Americans, underlies events throughout the novel. One of Yuki's classmates calls her a "dirty Jap," and, though Yuki's teacher tries to explain that the Nisei are loyal Americans, racial hatred persists among the foolish and ignorant.
The refugee image is also a significant part of the novel. Like refugees, the Sakanes must pack up only what they can carry, leaving the rest behind as they haul their few remaining belongings with them from one place to the next. Although they resemble victims of military aggression fleeing a war zone, they are instead victims of their fellow Americans. The striking similarity between refugees and the internees underscores the appalling injustice of the internment.
Yuki hears her mother tell Mr. Kurihara, "Fear has made this country do something she will one day regret, Mr. Kurihara, but we cannot let this terrible mistake poison our hearts. If we do, then we will be the ones to destroy ourselves and our children as well." Throughout the internment, Yuki sees that people who give in to anger and frustration poison their own lives with their hatred. By resisting the hatred, Yuki makes new friends who help her survive the misery of Topaz. Uchida offers no pat answers for resisting the self-destructiveness of a hateful heart, but suggests that during great hardships, bitterness must be resisted constantly.
Despair and death are united during most of the novel. When Yuki learns of her beloved dog's death, she nearly despairs of ever recovering the security and hope of the past. She has borne terrific stress, losing her home, school, and friends, but Pepper's death symbolizes the loss of her entire past; Yuki's loss seems utterly complete. Later in the novel, a concentration camp guard shoots Mr. Kurihara dead—an event based on Uchida's personal experience at Topaz. Yuki finds Mr. Kurihara's bitterness unpleasant; his poisoned heart makes him seem already dead. As Yuki matures, she comes to understand Mr. Kurihara, even though she does not like his attitude. When he dies, great sorrow and indignation fill the camp, but Yuki has grown enough to be sad without despairing.