Jeanne Jeanne, the youngest of ten children and the speaker of the book, undergoes the trauma of internment along with the normal ambivalence of children toward traditional parents. A tentative, fearful seven year old at the outset of the family's resettlement, Jeanne, born in Inglewood and raised in Ocean Park and Terminal Island, adapts to camp life by satisfying intellectual curiosity and staying active. A daddy's girl, she suffers a love-hate relationship with Ko and must cope with his alcoholism and his outrageous macho behavior. In adulthood, she patterns her own individuality after his rebellion and establishes herself as a majorette and beauty queen.
Ko (Papa) Wakatsuki A six-footer with a military school background, Ko, a former cook, laborer, lumberjack, and government translator, is possessed of dignity and pride in his Samurai background, his ten children, and a thriving fishing business. He precedes the agents who arrest him and returns from prison with a swagger stick and self-satisfied air, yet suffers his whole life from an inability to complete what he begins. When freedom comes to Manzanar, Ko is reluctant to return to predominantly Caucasian society, and so declines to join those of his children who settle in New Jersey. In Los Angeles, he pursues a pipe dream of building a housing project with Japanese labor and allows his wife to support the family on factory wages.
Mama A stereotypical partridge-shaped mother figure, Mrs. Wakatsuki, a Hawaiian-born beauty in her youth, attempts to hide wartime concerns from her children, but her temper explodes when a secondhand dealer tries to buy her china for $15, prior to the departure for Boyle Heights. Her decision to smash the twelve place settings indicates her doughty courage. At Manzanar, she puts to use her skill as a dietician. Returned to freedom, she locates a cannery job like the one she held at Long Beach before the war and takes Jeanne's side in family arguments about how young girls should behave.
Woody One of the two Wakatsuki sons who assist Papa on The Nereid, twenty-four-year-old Woody, Ko's second oldest child, serves as a cheerful, pragmatic surrogate father during the evacuation of Terminal Island and takes a job as a carpenter. The family bulwark in Ko's absence, Woody remains determined to prove his loyalty by serving in the military in 1944. His pilgrimage to the remnants of the Wakatsuki family still in Japan, conducted while he performs peacetime duty as provisions manager and deterrent to the black market, discloses an aspect of Ko's former life that Woody had been unable to appreciate in California.
Granny Mrs. Wakatsuki's mother, a sixty-five-year-old Japanese native who is nearly blind and too feeble to hustle for food in the mess hall, receives her food in the barracks. She never learns English and prizes the lacquerware and porcelain that came from her native land.
Chizu Woody's wife, who comes to the pier on Sunday, December 7, 1941, to announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later at Manzanar, Chizu, mother of a daughter and a camp-born son named George, is a faithful daughter-in-law and peacemaker who serves the extended family as an extra mother for Jeanne and the younger Wakatsukis.
Kaz The husband of Jeanne's sister Martha, Kaz, who is a foreman of a reservoir maintenance team at Manzanar, leads his crew on a routine inspection the night of the riot. MPs burst in on the chlorine shed and hold the men at gunpoint until they can determine why Kaz's crew would be occupying a building on the camp periphery and arming themselves with ax handles.
May Jeanne's eleven-year-old sister who carries meals to Granny in the barracks.
Ray At thirteen, Ray makes a game of eating in multiple mess halls. His normal behavior reflects a child's need to play, even if the playground is an internment camp.
Kiyo Eleven-year-old Kiyo attempts to halt Ko's spouse abuse and intimidation of the family by punching his father in the face. For his courage, Kiyo earns his father's respect.
Toyo Ko's sprightly, dignified eighty-year-old aunt, who rejoices in 1946 to learn that Ko did not die in 1913; she presents Woody a valuable silk coverlet, even though her home displays mostly bare rooms and humble woven mats. Woody learns that Toyo was the favorite aunt who provided Ko, her favorite nephew, the money to emigrate to Hawaii. Toyo sits by Woody as he sleeps and weeps at his resemblance to the Wakatsukis.
Fred Tayama Leader of the Japanese-American Citizens League, he is badly mauled by six hostile pro-Japanese on December 5, 1942.
Joe Kurihara A Hawaiian-born World War I veteran and riot leader who wants to renounce his citizenship and emigrate to Japan.
Sister Bernadette An adamant Canadian-Japanese Maryknoll nun who comes to Block 28 to discuss with Ko Jeanne's wish to convert to Catholicism. Sister Bernadette is insistent enough to face down the testy father and debate the matter one on one.
Radine A pretty blond in Jeanne's sixth grade class, she, like her classmates, is surprised to learn that Japanese Americans can speak English. It is Radine who delivers the painful news that Jeanne is not welcome in Girl Scouts and forms a pre-teen friendship which survives some of Jeanne's encounters with racism. For Jeanne, Radine epitomizes the sexual appeal of the American girl.
Leonard Rodriguez A savvy Hispanic schoolmate, Leonard discloses the teachers' plot to alter the ballots so that Lois Carson, instead of Jeanne, will be crowned carnival queen. His loyalty to Jeanne enables her to win the title.