In the tradition of eyewitness accounts, Farewell to Manzanar convinces readers through a sincere, objective recounting of events in the girlhood of Jeanne Wakatsuki. As historically correct as Samuel Pepys' recollections of the London fire and the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, as passionately devoted to righting injustice as Elie Wiesel's Night, as tenderly innocent and family centered as The Diary of Anne Frank, the Houstons' book earns critical acclaim for verisimilitude. Notable critics have placed the book in its own niche; a Los Angeles Times reporter praised Jeanne for serving as a "voice for a heretofore silent segment of society." Others have similar praise.
Writer-critic Wallace Stegner typifies the work as "a wonderful, human, feeling book . . . touching, funny, affectionate, sad, eager, and forgiving. And full of understanding . . . [it] manages to become a scale model of all our lives."
In a vivid personal response for The Nation (November 9, 1974), Dorothy Bryant makes a significant delineation between the book and other autobiographical journeys: "The Houstons are not simply trying to communicate facts as Jeanne knew them, but were themselves on a search to touch the truth of her experience, to examine it, and to understand it wholly. The great strength of the book is the sense it gives the reader of being allowed to accompany Jeanne on this most personal and intimate journey."
Katherine Anderson of Library Journal (January 15, 1974) lauds the way in which Jeanne candidly divulges "the psychological impact of being Japanese in California during World War II," yet avoids self-pity and bitterness.
A terse, unsigned review in the New York Times Book Review (November 5, 1973) notes the devastating effects of Jeanne's "spiritual death" under tense camp conditions. The critique concludes: "Although there are brief re-creations of some of the internal ferment at the camp, the deeper political and social implications of Manzanar are largely ignored . . . [this] book [however] provides an often vivid, impressionistic picture of how the forced isolation affected the internees. All in all, a dramatic, telling account of one of the most reprehensible events in the history of America's treatment of its minorities."
An unsigned review in the New Yorker (January 13, 1974) concurs that "a particularly ignominious chapter in our history is recounted with chilling simplicity by an internee," particularly in its detailed dissection of Ko, who "was too old to bend with the humiliations of the camp. . . . His story is at the heart of this book, and his daughter tells it with great dignity."
Equally impressed by the unenhanced memoir is Helen Rabinowitz in her review for Saturday Review (November 6, 1973): "Mrs. Houston and her husband have recorded a tale of many complexities in a straightforward manner, a tale remarkably lacking in either self-pity or solemnity. It is the record of one woman's maturation during a unique historical moment."
Michael Rogers, reviewing for Rolling Stone (December 6,1973), concludes that the book "avoids sentimentality, however, by remaining true to its intention: to illuminate at once the experience of a people, of a family, and of an individual."
In a more scholarly appraisal, Anthony Friedson delineates the Houstons' reflective book on three levels: first, an overview of war hysteria; second, an episode in American assimilation; third, a coming-of-age narrative focusing on Jeanne's growing-up years. Produced to fill a void, the book, intended as polemic, or aggressive statement of opinion, on a controversial issue, authenticates a significant page in America's history, a confrontation with the bedrock issues of freedoms as old as the Magna Carta and guaranteed in the Constitution. Because no previous work dealt so intimately with the denial of freedoms to Asian Americans, the Houstons' research lays the groundwork for more scholarship and narrative as a means to greater understanding of racism.
Not only does the work illuminate the political maneuverings which cost 120,000 innocent people over three years of unconstitutional incarceration, it also details the social mechanisms by which people cope with arbitrary uprooting, loss, privation, and national embarrassment. Told in readable, accessible form, the book skirts a more academic approach by relying on first-person narration from a child's perspective. Chronologically, the work concludes, not with the closing of the internment camp, but with the marriage of Jeanne to a Caucasian. In a healing, unifying return to Manzanar, the speaker creates a conciliatory tone, a method of ridding herself of lingering regrets and bitterness and of assisting her race and her nation to reflect on an episode as shattering and dismaying as the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Salem witch trials, Nat Turner's rebellion, John Brown's hanging, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Watts, Attica Prison, and Los Angeles riots, the exploitation of coolie labor to build the transcontinental railroad, or the My Lai massacre.
Historical Perspective: The War Years
The bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in an early morning surprise attack did irreparable harm to ostensibly friendly Japanese-American relations, which had been proceeding on a basis of candor and mutual respect. At 6 A.M. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo led six carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, and a fleet of destroyers and tanks from the Kuril Islands toward Pearl Harbor, a major American naval headquarters on the southern coast of Oahu in the territory of Hawaii. By 7:50 A.M., the first wave of Japanese bombers had struck battleships and airfields. At 10:00 A.M., a second wave had completed its mission and was jubilantly returning to base. Of the eighteen U.S. ships hit, the Arizona, West Virginia, California, and Nevada sustained the most damage. Over 200 planes were crippled or wrecked, 2,400 people died, 1,300 were wounded, and more than 1,000 were missing. With enemy losses of only 29 planes, 5 submarines, and 100 soldiers, the Japanese had reason to cheer about their advantageous strike. They had seriously crippled naval preparedness by blocking the harbor so that U.S. ships could not retaliate and overtake the Japanese fleet.
The day after the raid, President Franklin Roosevelt read to Congress his proclamation that December 7, 1941, was "a date which will live in infamy." Smarting under critical attack that he had left Pearl Harbor unprotected in order to provoke an attack, Roosevelt overrode Secretary of State Cordell Hull's role and assumed total command of the war effort. Following Roosevelt's impassioned declaration of war against Japan, a Caucasian backlash in racially mixed communities along the western U.S. coastline provoked incidents of name-calling, minor scuffles and rock-throwing, graffiti, hate crimes, boycotting of Asian-owned businesses, and signs saying "Japs, don't let the sun set on you here," "Hiring whites only," and "Buy bonds. Bye-bye Japs."
On February 19, 1942, the issuance of Executive Order 9066 followed the FBI's arrest of more than 700 Japanese-American males, partly in retribution for the Pearl Harbor attack. The American Civil Liberties Union, outraged at Roosevelt's racism, later labeled the detention "the greatest deprivation of civil liberties by government in this country since slavery." In their recent interview for Mother Jones, the Houstons listed reasons for the U.S. government's unprecedented suspension of citizens' rights:
- anti-Asian agitation on the U.S. West Coast,
- reaction to economic competition between Caucasians and Japanese Americans, and
- wartime hysteria, which threatened Asians with outbreaks of violence.
Californians, fearing collusion which might lead to a landing of enemy forces or the sabotage of dams or power plants, conspired to violate Japanese-American freedoms. Mayors, governors, legislators, and the American Legion joined with the media to force removal of Japanese Americans, although no evidence of either espionage or sabotage was ever found.
Eventually, more than 3,000 Japanese-American men were imprisoned — not interned, but imprisoned — even though they remained overwhelmingly pro-American. Many of these were Issei [ee' say], like Ko Wakatsuki — native-born Japanese immigrants who had survived the Depression and were just beginning to realize dreams of financial prosperity when internment snatched away the fruits of their labors. The only area in which this pattern did not prevail was Hawaii, where the population depended too heavily on Japanese labor to confine or idle valuable workers.
On March 24, 1942, the first load of civilian evacuees, carrying small amounts of personal belongings, were transported to camps. Two-thirds of the internees were Nisei [nee' say], American citizens born to Japanese immigrant parents, whose rights were spelled out in the U.S. Constitution as it is for citizens of all races. The press sugarcoated the primitive camps as having "all the comforts of home" and reminded the evacuees that they entered camps "not as prisoners but free to work." Analysts believe that white entrepreneurs, envious of the Japanese-American success in farming, fishing, and manufacturing, pressed for this militaristic incarceration of their competitors and profited by their absence. Whatever the thinking of authorities, the government's attitude was made obvious by one overriding fact — camp guns were aimed inward at internees rather than outward at potential attackers.
Internment wrenched apart Asian communities and herded people from farms, ranches, and homes into ten hastily constructed internment camps in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and California. Left behind were homes and cars, businesses and personal belongings, most of which were never recovered from last-minute storage, bank repossession, or abandonment. Ahead lay barbed wire compounds with guardhouses constructed at frequent intervals and cramped accommodations for eight to sixteen thousand detainees. Resembling army bases with barracks arranged in blocks, the ten camps began as an army project but were eventually placed under the War Relocation Authority.
The camps offered no play areas for children, who often scrounged seashells at Manzanar from a valley that was once an ocean. Although inmates lacked autonomy, life was made bearable at the dust-drenched Manzanar camp by a spirit of unity, which encouraged people to go on with learning, singing, gardening, exercise, visiting, and friendships. The Manzanar High School yearbooks record plays, chorus and orchestra performances, and musicals. Camp records list births as well as deaths.
Out of 120,000, only three Japanese-Americans refused to be badgered or to surrender their rights — Quaker pacifist Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, a former Eagle Scout and honor student; Minoru Yasui, a Portland, Oregon, lawyer; and Fred Korematsu, a welder in the San Leandro, California, shipyards. The most adamant, Hirabayashi, remained true to his ideal that rights belong to all Americans, regardless of race or national heritage. Acting on the advice of a Quaker lawyer, Hirabayashi disobeyed curfews for Asians, then turned himself over to the FBI for refusing internment and breaking curfew. Hirabayashi drew a jail term. Other Japanese Americans ostracized him for rebelling.
On October 20, 1942, Hirabayashi went to trial, where the judge refused him due process on the issue of violation of civil rights and found him guilty of breaking the law. Hirabayashi, assured that an appeal to the Supreme Court would end mass internment, opted to go to prison. On June 21, 1943, he discovered that his supposition was faulty — the Supreme Court upheld internment as a necessary emergency measure in the interest of national security. Only Justice Frank Murphy dissented from the majority opinion by comparing internment to the Nazi oppression of Jews.
Justice Murphy's most famous civil rights stand came in 1944 with Korematsu v. United States, a case in which he labeled as racist the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. However, his support for Constitutional rights did not spare Hirabayashi from the injustice of internment, compounded by having to pay his own way to Camp Tule. It was only after Roosevelt's third election that pressure to release Japanese Americans brought about a rescinding of Executive Order 9066 and the release of internees who passed the loyalty tests.
The Japanese-American Warrior
While less flexible civilian Issei fought internal battles over family rights and loyalty oaths, 1,000 Nisei males signed up for military service. Young and inexperienced, Japanese-American soldiers, particularly those fluent in Japanese, proved vital to the war effort and earned more medals than any other unit. Although not advanced to ranks higher than sergeant, they served as teachers to intelligence officers and prepared plans so that a smooth occupation of Japan might end the war with a negligible loss of life to both the American military and civilian Japanese. The most valued of the Nisei were the Kibei [kee' bay], Japanese Americans who had trained in Japan and who knew the terrain, language, and customs well enough to pass for natives. The Kibei deciphered Japanese code and eavesdropped on Japanese radio transmissions. They translated intercepted documents, which detailed troop and convoy movements, ship locations, reinforcement strength, and direction of supply lines. Like Tokyo Rose, the Kibei established their own radio propaganda to weaken Japanese morale and expedite surrender.
For all their worth to the war effort, the Nisei, caught in the U.S. dilemma of need for expertise but doubts concerning loyalty, remained in limbo. They rebelled at their families' incarceration and protested the army's refusal to recognize Buddhism as a religion. When President Roosevelt visited a Kansas boot camp, the Nisei were held on the periphery at gunpoint until the president was safely out of harm's way. On the battlefield, the Nisei over-achieved because of a need to prove manhood, loyalty, and racial dignity. Officers kept Nisei soldiers together lest they be shot, accidentally or intentionally, by American fire. General Douglas MacArthur, who depended on Japanese-American aides during his negotiations with the Japanese high command, also kept Nisei intelligence officers close at hand during the tense days of disarmament.
At the end of the war, Nisei accomplishments went unsung. As demonstrated by a shameful incident in Hood River, Oregon, their names were censored from reports, honor rolls, public monuments, and recommendations for medals. They received no credit for shortening the war and saving lives. Although they were constantly in danger of being captured and tortured by the enemy, the Nisei proved to be superior linguists, sensitive interrogators, dependable leaders, and cunning improvisers. Without their humane intervention on Saipan, many civilians would have committed suicide to escape what they envisioned to be a dangerous insurgency of vengeful all-white American soldiers.
The internment problem did not end with camp closures or the armistice with Japan, which was signed aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on August 15, 1945. Japanese Americans encountered a struggle in the marketplace as well as on the street. Returning without homes, businesses, or cash, many were destitute. They were also confronted by a Caucasian mindset that anyone with stereotypically Oriental features and a Japanese surname was suspect and therefore open game for prejudicial actions and harassment. In addition to the internees' fears and disillusion, families also faced the return of veterans, who reunited with their families at internment camps as though they were visiting prison inmates. Officially expunged September 4, 1975, as a gesture to outcries from internees, their children, Asian-American legislators, and other victims of racist injustice, Executive Order 9066 appeared to be a dead issue thirty-three years after the fact.
It was not until 1981 that Attorney Peter Irons began a rectifying process. Following disclosure of government documents attesting to the fact that Roosevelt's cabinet and the FBI were well aware that Japanese Americans had posed no threat, Irons pressed for national acknowledgement that the internment camps were a blatant denial of civil rights. The suppression of evidence exonerating internees from suspicion of disloyalty, espionage, or sabotage brought Gordon Hirabayashi back to the same courtroom, only this time flanked by sixty lawyers and Japanese-American supporters. Charging the U.S. government with misconduct and proclaiming that "ancestry is not a crime," Hirabayashi held firm to his rights until February 10, 1986, when he was cleared of guilt for refusing curfew and internment.
Chronology of Farewell to Manzanar
1904 Ko Wakatsuki immigrates from Japan to Honolulu, then accepts passage to Idaho to work as a houseboy.
1906 Mama and Granny immigrate from Hawaii to Spokane, Washington.
April 18, 1906 San Francisco suffers a cataclysmic earthquake and fire the day before Mama and Granny arrive.
1909 Ko enters the University of Idaho to study law.
1915 Ko elopes with Mama.
1934 Jeanne Wakatsuki, the youngest of ten children, is born in Inglewood, California.
December 21, 1941 Ko Wakatsuki is arrested by FBI agents following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Winter 1941-42 Ko suffers from alcohol abuse and frostbite in both feet during imprisonment at Fort Lincoln, North Dakota.
February 25, 1942 The fatherless Wakatsukis are ordered to vacate Terminal Island because the government fears that Japanese Americans threaten the naval base.
April 1942 Twelve Wakatsukis move from Boyle Heights in Los Angeles to Manzanar and settle in Block 16 of the barracks. Mitsue Endo challenges her detention at Topaz Camp, Utah.
June 10, 1942 Wada and crew dedicate Manzanar's flagpole circle.
September 1942 Chizu gives birth to George, Ko's first grandson, the day before Ko returns from prison. Ko is labeled an inu, or collaborator.
December 1942 Militant pro-Japanese dissidents organize a camp riot. Camp officials provide families with Christmas trees.
February 1943 Internees are forced to sign a loyalty oath to honor the U.S. and serve in the military if called to do so.
Spring 1943 The Wakatsukis move to more bearable quarters in Block 28. Ko takes up gardening and prunes pear trees. Eleanor gives birth to a son while her husband, Shig, serves in the military.
August 1944 Woody is drafted.
November 1944 Woody is called up for active duty in Germany.
Winter 1944 Only 6,000 internees remain at Manzanar.
January 1945 Internees begin returning to homes and farms.
June 1945 The Manzanar high school publishes a second yearbook, Valediction 1945. The camp's schools close.
August 6, 1945 The war ends following the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
Early October, 1945 The Wakatsukis depart Manzanar, leaving 2,000 internees behind. They settle in Cabrillo Homes in Long Beach.
December 1, 1945 Internment camps close.
1951 Ko moves his family to a strawberry farm in San Jose.
1957 Ko dies.
1965 Mama Wakatsuki dies.
1966 Jeanne Houston, still emotionally affected by internment, cannot make herself speak to a Caucasian woman who worked as a Manzanar photographer.
April 1972 Jeanne and James Houston drive their three children from Santa Cruz to Manzanar.