When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941 at the climax of World War II, every American of Japanese descent suddenly became suspect. The Franklin Roosevelt government reacted by rounding up all Japanese Americans and carting them off to remote camps, where they were forced to subsist in sub-human conditions. Manzanar was one such camp on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert and in this book a former inmate gives a first person account of her family’s interment in this hellhole. After decades of silent denial, the author relives long forgotten memories and recollects heart-wrenching details to produce this deeply disturbing memoir.
Jeanne’s father (a native of Hiroshima) was interrogated, taken into custody and deported to North Dakota. Ko Wakatsuki had come to Hawaai at the age of 17 in search of work, moved to Idaho and later California, where he married a Japanese girl and had 9 children. His arrest and three year incarceration changed him. He became despondent, alcoholic, abusive, violent and eager to be invisible. In 1945 after the war ended, the family returned to Southern California and in 1952 they moved to San Jose.
Jeanne was seven years old and the youngest of the brood when the tragedy enveloped her family. Manzanar effectively robbed her of the simple joys of childhood. Growing up in this strange new place with minimal facilities, communal toilets and communal kitchens, deeply affected her – and the return to civilization was just as difficult when the camp was disbanded after three years.
Jeanne recounts her father’s behavior during a school visit by her parents: “I was standing at the head of the table shaking the principal’s hand, when papa rose, his face ceremoniously grave, and acknowledged the other parents with his most respectful gesture. He pressed his palms together at his chest and gave them a slow deep Japanese bow from the waist. They received this with a moment of careful, indecisive silence. He was unforgivably a foreigner then, foreign to them, foreign to me, foreign to everyone but Mama, who sat next to him smiling with pleased modesty. Twelve years old at the time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to slide out of sight under the table and dissolve.”
The California born author describes the incredible pain of growing up Japanese in post-war America. “Easy enough as it was to adopt white American values, I still had a Japanese father to frighten my boyfriends and a Japanese face to thwart my social goals.”
Jeanne met James D. Houston while attending San Jose State University and they were married in 1957. Her husband co-authored her autobiographical novel, which was published in 1973 and won many accolades before being adapted into a TV film in 1976. The book has since become a part of many school curricula to inform pupils about the Japanese American experience during WWII. It presents a thought-provoking account of a dark and embarrassing chapter in American history.
Overall Assessment: Must read, especially if you are Japanese American.
Farewell to Manzanar
Authors: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Date of Publication: 1973
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.