Jeanne W. Houston and James D. Houston Biography



In a straightforward, nonfiction memoir, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her husband, James D. Houston, recount the Wakatsuki family's internment at Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of ten concentration camps devised by President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To some readers, the book is an introduction to a thorny era in their country's history, a time of deprivation of rights without due process for 120,000 Japanese Americans. Jeanne's reliving of intimate, painful details provides what no historical account can — a view of life for 30,000 Asian Americans in a stark, concentration-camp atmosphere on the rim of California's Mojave Desert. The factual narrative follows her through three decades of silent denial to adulthood, when she is, at last, able to reveal the misery, the degradation of her family and race, and exorcise Manzanar with an act of public enlightenment.

Jeanne's Early Years

For Jeanne Toyo Wakatsuki, childhood security flowed naturally from the loving, accepting kin who made up her household. Born in Inglewood, California, on September 26, 1934, to native Japanese parents, Ko and Riku Sugai Wakatsuki, Jeanne, the youngest of four boys and six girls, moved with her family to Ocean Park in 1936. In an interview, she recalled the pier as a magical place, "my nursery school, the amusement attendants my sitters." She grew up admiring the strutting self-confidence of her father, a farmer and commercial fisherman, and her pragmatic, low-key mother, who worked in a Long Beach fish cannery. Prophetic of Jeanne's individualism, the Wakatsukis had met in Spokane, Washington, eloped, and married for love, defying an arranged engagement between Riku and a farmer.

Jeanne's female role models, evolved from two previous generations, helped develop a sense of self, a concept deeply rooted in the Japanese separation of male and female roles. Her maternal grandmother, although restricted by blindness and speaking no English, served as a link with Japan, as demonstrated by old country treasures she handled delicately — the lacquered tables and fragile blue and white porcelain tea service, reminiscent of a genteel culture incompatible with her new home in the United States. Jeanne's mother understood and accepted her place in a patriarchal marriage. With less time to devote to the niceties of serving tea than her aged mother enjoyed, she resigned herself to the thankless jobs of scrubbing floors, washing clothes, cooking, waiting on Ko, and tending her ten children. When Jeanne expressed terror that her Oka-San might drop dead from overwork, Riku soothed, "I'm not a washerwoman. This is just a chore, something I must do because I'm a woman, but foremost, I'm your mother."

Jeanne was seven years old when the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II. The Wakatsukis, their lives interrupted during a post-Depression upsurge in family finances, were among the first to be questioned and detained. FBI agents confronted Ko with photos of barrels of fish bait and accused him of supplying oil to enemy submarines. Although the charge was unfounded in a court of law, he spent nine months apart from his clan in a Bismarck, North Dakota, prison. During his imprisonment, in April 1942 his wife and son Woody assumed responsibility for resettling the family in Block 16 of Manzanar, an austere, barbed-wire enclosed, mile-square internment camp near Lone Pine, California, 4,000 feet above sea level in the shadow of Mount Whitney.

From her early memories of Mama, Papa, Woody, brother Kiyo, sister May, sister-in-law Chizu, and others came the book Farewell to Manzanar (1973), a retelling of Jeanne's girlhood traumas and dreams in the milieu of an artificial Japanese-American city, the largest metropolis (10,000 Japanese Americans) between Reno and Los Angeles. She recalls the experience as a yellow blur of "stinging whirlwinds and fierce duststorms that pricked the skin like needles and coated everything, including our lips and eyelashes, with thick ochre powder."

Amid rows of dreary barracks, functional mess halls and latrines, and intimidating gatehouses and fences, she and her peers lived out a semblance of normality, singing in the glee club, acting in school plays, enjoying the taste of her first snowflake, and wondering how the inflamed white populace would accept them when Japanese Americans were finally released from custody. She recalled later a major source of comfort: she discovered an abandoned box of books in a firebreak and escaped camp misery through Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew mysteries, James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking series, and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

In September 1942, Ko, an embittered ex-con, was transferred to Manzanar from a North Dakota prison. His reclusive habits and escapism through home-distilled rice wine ignited explosive domestic violence — threats, shoving, and screaming. Jeanne and her youngest brother hid as far under the covers as possible, but the limited quarters afforded no privacy or respite from daily turmoil. To distance herself from home, Jeanne stayed outdoors, twirled her baton, and studied traditional Japanese dancing. For a time, she flirted with Catholicism by losing herself in the melodrama of saints' and martyrs' lives and the dogma of catechism. Ko's refusal to allow her to be converted and baptized, however, narrowed her outlets to school and dance.

The close-knit Wakatsukis began breaking up as older siblings moved to job opportunities on nearby farms and through military service. In November 1944, Woody entered active service and was shipped to Germany. That winter, occupancy at Manzanar dropped to twenty percent. Ko, fearful of West Coast anti-Japanese hysteria, resisted departure until October 1945, when his name came up for forced expulsion. His crazy, drunken departure in a new car forms the ebullient conclusion to Jeanne's memoir.

Back to Normal Life

In Cabrillo Homes, a cheerless multicultural housing project in Long Beach, Jeanne maintained her new, all-American attitude, twirling her baton, singing the country-western tunes of Roy Acuff and Red Foley, and learning Spanish tunes as well. She coped with overt racism in the form of taunts, exclusion from Girl Scouts, and outright ignorance of locals who considered her a foreigner. To compensate for a free-floating belief that she somehow deserved exclusion, she excelled at school, discovered a knack for writing while working as editor of the school paper, the Chatterbox, and achieved two youthful goals: she became a majorette and a beauty queen. In Beyond Manzanar, Jeanne admits that during the teen period of assimilative behavior, she was "trying to be as American as Doris Day."

Ko disapproved of Jeanne's bold, sweater-girl look and rebuked her for immodestly strutting, a quality she no doubt acquired from him. Although he resisted the Americanization of his youngest child, Jeanne's mother accepted the fact that Jeanne was behaving normally, including falling in love with a soft-spoken neighbor boy from North Carolina, who taught her to kiss, then parted without leaving a forwarding address. In 1952, the Wakatsukis themselves moved from Cabrillo Homes to a rural, more amenable setting in San Jose, where Ko grew strawberries for Driscoll, Inc.

Jeanne, the Wakatsukis' iconoclast, brought two firsts to the family — a college diploma and the first non-Asian dates. She was attracted to Caucasian males, yet longed to meet a combination of American sensitivity and Japanese potency — in her words, "I wanted a blond Samurai." In her sophomore year, she contemplated a career in journalism, but faced the fact that writing jobs were usually reserved for male reporters. Like other Asians, she opted for an "invisible field" and pursued a sociology degree from the University of San Jose, enrolled in San Francisco State, attended the Sorbonne in Paris, and worked from 1955 to 1957 as a social worker at a juvenile detention hall and probation officer in San Mateo, California.

Jeanne and James

While living in San Jose, Jeanne met teacher James D. Houston. Born November 10, 1933, in San Francisco, the son of Texas blacksmith and sharecropper Albert Dudley Houston (a distant kin of Texas hero Sam Houston) and Alice Loretta Wilson Houston, James grew up in a fundamentalist southern milieu. He graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco, earned degrees from San Jose State College and Stanford University, and achieved the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

James courted Jeanne long distance from Hawaii with a valentine and proposal inscribed on a ti leaf, which withered to brown by the time it traversed the ocean in a mail pouch. She responded by flying to Hawaii to marry her Caucasian sweetheart. The flower-decked couple had a romantic barefoot wedding at sunset on Waikiki Beach.

Jeanne lived a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence — sometimes being engagingly subservient like her mother; at other times, being independent like American wives. That fall, James was transferred to an ROTC post in England and Jeanne got her first taste of bone-chilling English winters, living in a ten-room townhouse reminiscent of scenes from Dickens. In 1962, the year after the birth of daughter Corinne, nicknamed Cori, the family was back in the U.S., where James taught English at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California.

In 1967, James published Gig, earning the Joseph Henry Jackson award from the San Francisco Foundation, and accepted the Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford; that same year, Jeanne gave birth to twins, Joshua and Gabrielle. Following the publication of his novel Between Battles, James advanced to the University of California in 1969.

Manzanar, repressed in Jeanne's memory, resurfaced in 1971 when one of her nephews, her oldest sister Eleanor's son Gary Nishikawa, asked her to share her memories, since other clan members hedged on details. Gary had been born in Manzanar, and his insistence on full disclosure brought Jeanne to the brink of hysteria. Her subsequent attempts to compose a memoir forced a confession of her longing to relieve traumatic childhood insecurity through writing. James, who had known her for twenty years, had no idea of her secret shame. He proposed that she write "a story everyone in America should read."

The next year, while James enjoyed a University of California faculty research grant, the Houston family traveled to Manzanar, where Jeanne confronted the persistent memories that plagued her subconscious. As her children frolicked on the desert, she strolled through decaying relics of the abandoned windswept internment camp. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she admitted feeling "sullied, like when you are a rape victim. . . . You feel you must have done something. You feel you are a part of the act." The return to Manzanar prompted a catharsis as she extracted herself from internment and viewed it objectively as a moment in history.

From Jeanne's confrontation of this undeserved humiliation grew Farewell to Manzanar, a husband-and-wife collaboration recreating Jeanne's childhood memories and adult acceptance of one of democracy's most blatant injustices. The Houstons' working method blended Jeanne's tape recorded dialogue with library research, three field excursions to Manzanar, and interviews with family and other internees. The outcome, more than a publishable manuscript, brought Jeanne a combination of becalmed spirit and will to write. She described her emergent self this way: "I realized I could no longer hide in the country of my husband's shadow."

Dual Careers

Jeanne Houston's self-directed psychotherapy initiated a full career. She and James joined with producer-director John Korty to script the TV screenplay "Farewell to Manzanar" for Universal and MCA-TV. The film version premiered as the NBC "Thursday Night at the Movies" feature on March 11,1976, the year that James earned a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing grant. Well received for its historical accuracy, the film featured the Houston twins, actor Lou Frizell in one of the few Caucasian speaking parts, and Japanese-American employees and internees of Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Minidoka, and Topaz internment camps. Most of the Asian-American cast, including Jimmy Nakamura, Akemi Kikumura, Nobu McCarthy as Mama, and Yuki Shimoda as Ko Wakatsuki, brought to their jobs a sincere interest in an historical event which impinged on their race. Shimoda remarked, "I felt that the role of Ko was the role I have been preparing for all these years. . . . The feeling on the set is like no other picture I have worked in."

Designer Robert Kinoshita recreated Manzanar 400 miles northwest of its location at Tule Lake, California, at the only extant internment facility, where he used tarpaper and lath over pine planking to emulate temporary, substandard quarters. In the scene in which Ko enters Manzanar, Nobu McCarthy, unable to separate herself from the character she portrayed, grasped Shimoda and sobbed into his chest. He comforted her with an understanding embrace. Jeanne was so moved by the scene that she wept for "the pride of my father — the humiliation, the stubbornness, the shattered dignity."

The movie won a Humanitas Prize, a Christopher Award, and an Emmy nomination for best dramatic script adapted from another medium. Judith Crist, critic for TV Guide, lauded the movie as a "deeply moving examination of family relations under stress and of the scars that remain." Time's Richard Schickel, in his March 15, 1976, review, described the movie as "modest and touching and refreshingly free of melodrama." More philosophical was Newsweek's comment that same week: "The cruelties that men visit on one another can, at least in retrospect, help them to perceive their common humanity."

The Houston duo continued their probe of multicultural themes with back-to-back books, Beyond Manzanar and Other Views of Asian-American Womanhood and One Can Think About Life After the Fish Is in the Canoe and Other Coastal Stories (1985), and Barrio, an eight-part miniseries for NBC. On their own, the Houstons function as solo writers and lecturers. Jeanne fills her days with writing articles for Mother Jones, California, West, California Living, Reader's Digest, and the New England Review and by speaking at West Coast, Hawaiian, and Asian campuses. James has produced a composition text, biography, essays, novels, and stories in Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Yardbird Reader, Unknown California, Bennington Review, Honolulu, Manoa, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones, as well as articles for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. His best-received nonfiction, Californians: Searching for the Golden State (1982), earned a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award.

Jeanne's contribution to the reclamation of the Asian-American past has netted her recognition from the National Women's Political Caucus. In 1984, after meriting Warner Communications' Wonder Woman award for "the pursuit of truth and positive social change," she and James, on a tour of Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, visited refugee camps. More recent honors include the East-West Center award from the 1989 Hawaii International Film Festival and a U.S.-Japan Cultural Exchange fellowship in 1991, during which the Houstons spent six months in Japan. Although close enough to visit Hiroshima, Jeanne chose not to view the place where members of the Wakatsuki family were incinerated by an atomic bomb.

Actively pursuing their trade, Jeanne and James Houston, their children grown, still live in their Victorian house in Santa Cruz and work out of separate office spaces. An upbeat, positive woman, petite and graceful next to Jim's tall, lanky good looks, Jeanne, despite her family's sufferings, rejects a hostile, anti-American stance in favor of a humanistic embrace of democracy. Like Jim, she defines herself as a "philosophic Buddhist," attuned to peace, harmony, and nonviolence.

In a recent interview, she acknowledged that it took years for her to forgive her father for his pomposity and the violent episodes which allowed him to submerge his shame in alcohol and inappropriate outbursts. Fortunately for the family, he quit drinking after physical symptoms indicated that he was shortening his life. He died in 1957. Jeanne, along with her surviving six siblings, treasures the positive images of Ko Wakatsuki, particularly his faith in the American dream. In her lectures, she emphasizes "how far, as a country, we have come in our understanding and practice of human rights. My discussion neither lays guilt nor attacks. In the final analysis, it is an affirmation of what America really is."

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