Farewell to Manzanar

By Jeanne Wakatasuki

The story is about Jeanne Watatsuki and her family, which are her mother, father and nine siblings. Her parents are first generation Japanese immigrants, called Issei. The children are called Nisei because they are all natural born citizens and second generation Japanese. The story begins on a weekend in December 1941, where the Wakatsuki women stand waving good-bye to their husbands, whom are fishermen heading out to sea. All of a sudden, the men return to shore, and a cannery worker announces that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. The news that their native country has bombed their new country comes as a great shock to Mama and Papa Wakatsuki. They go home to destroy relics from Japan, so the Americans would not suspect any connection between them and the Japanese bombing.

After America becomes involved in World War II, Ko Wakatsuki, Jeanne’s father is arrested on false charges of treason for selling oil to the Japanese. The family is forced to move from their home to Terminal Island, where the oldest son Woody lives. Eventually, Roosevelt issues an Executive Order authorizing the detainment of Japanese-Americans in concentration-style camps on February 19, 1942. After relocating many times, Mama Wakatsuki and her children are sent to one of these camps, called Manzanar. They are given a barrack to share among the large family of twelve. The floor is made of planks with large knotholes. The accommodations are shabby and unclean, and armed guards surround the camps.

Papa Wakatsuki soon joins them, but his false imprisonment has left him bitter and defeated. He has always been a very proud man, a descendant of a once-noble family of Samurai. Thus, Ko turns to alcohol to forget the dishonor. He was a very talented man, even with the flaws and arrogance. Having come to the United States in search of the American Dream, he is horrified to be imprisoned in a concentration camp. The situation nearly destroys him.

The atmosphere of the camp slowly erodes the family unit. Papa drinks too much and often abuses Mama. The older siblings take jobs and move to other places in and outside the camp. The younger children amuse themselves by running around the barracks without supervision. Slowly, however, all of the Wakatsukis become accustomed to their lives in Manzanar. Then in February of 1943, the captured Japanese are ordered to sign a Loyalty Oath to America or be sent back to Japan. The oath swears allegiance to the United States and a willingness to fight Japan in the war if necessary. After several arguments with his father, Woody fills out the form. Later, Papa realizes he too must sign. He feels he is no longer Japanese, for his life in his native country is only a distant memory.

In the spring, the Wakatsukis are moved to a new barracks, Block 28m where they have more space. They then are able to make their accommodations more livable. Manzanar itself becomes a comfortable, almost “normal” society for them. There are recreational programs for the children, dance classes and baton twirling lessons for the girls and field trips for all. The Wakatsuki children also participate in clubs and theater performances. Manzanar becomes an acceptable world of its own than before.

Just as the Wakatsukis begin the feel settled and comfortable, the war ends on August 14, 1945. The government then closes down the Japanese detention camps on November 21, 1945, leaving the captured Japanese-Americans homeless and poor. They are forced to return to a society that does not trust them or want them around. To make matters worse, they lost everything when they were taken away to the camp. They now have nothing of their own.

Woody decides to travel back to Japan to visit his surviving relatives in Hiroshima. The trip is cathartic for him, for he comes to understand his relationship to his past and to accept his present identity. Jeanne’s life, however, is not so easy. Confusion over the desire to act American and the obvious Japanese heritage that separates her from her peers overwhelm her adolescence. She is exposed to racial prejudice against Japanese, and she internalizes them, blaming herself.

The memoir ends thirty years later, with Jeanne as