Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Setting

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

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Los Angeles, 1942—Ocean Park House (Santa Monica) Versus Terminal Island

Kickin' it at the Beach, Family-Style

If you're thinking, "Wow, the Wakatsukis had it made, living in Santa Monica," then yes—you're absolutely correct.

Santa Monica in any decade of the twentieth century isn't a bad place to be, especially if you live on Ocean Park, which—just so you know—places Jeanne's family "a block back from the beach" (1.2.1). Can't you just smell the sea breeze now? And you better believe that Jeanne (young or old) knows what a good deal she had.

And Jeanne's family didn't just have beaches near them. No, they also had a big house with nice furniture:

In camp, and afterward, I would often recall with deep yearning the old round wooden table in our dining room in Ocean Park, the biggest piece of furniture we owned, large enough to seat twelve or thirteen of us at once. (1.5.2)

It's a pretty sweet spot to grow-up all around.

White Versus Japanese

A nice house and a short walk to the beach aren't everything, though, and while Jeanne's old house in Santa Monica may sound great, her neighborhood is almost exclusively white:

We were the only Japanese family in the neighborhood. Papa liked it that way. He didn't want to be labeled or grouped by anyone. (1.2.2)

The thing about being the only Japanese family in the neighborhood is that Jeanne's childhood in Santa Monica really doesn't prepare her for Terminal Island or Manzanar. In fact, Terminal Island, near Long Beach Harbor, is "the first time [Jeanne lives] among other Japanese, or [goes] to school with them" (1.2.2).

That's because Terminal Island is basically a little Japan town, full of "Oriental faces" (1.2.3)—which is basically Jeanne's biggest nightmare come to life. She even tells us that she "was terrified all the time" (1.2.2) living next to all the other Japanese people.

Jeanne's fears are totally based on an irrational prejudice against "Oriental faces." Ironically, though, her fears end up being realized—but not because the Japanese-Americans around her are actual bogeymen. It's because the feds share the same irrational fear as Jeanne about Japanese-Americans, especially when they're all in one place (like on Terminal Island).

Even though all Japanese-American people are eventually rounded up and sent to the camps, Terminal Island—because of its Japanese population—was immediately targeted, and its population was quickly dissolved. (If you feel like a more complete history, take a gander here.)

So people who lived on Terminal Island had no time to prepare themselves for upheaval. What impact do you think the targeting of the Terminal Island community by the U.S. government had on Jeanne's understanding of her own Japanese-American identity?

Owens Valley, CA: Manzanar, 1942-1945

The Bad

It's easy to say that Manzanar and internment in general sucked. And they did.

Manzanar in its beginning stages "was no more ready for us [Japanese-Americans] when we got there than we were ready for it" (1.4.3). That meant barracks weren't all built, supplies weren't prepared, meals weren't organized, and sewage systems weren't ready.

Plus, there are sandstorms: "We woke early, shivering and coated with dust that had blown up through the knotholes and in through the slits around the doorway" (1.3.1).

And then there was the lack of privacy from the crowded conditions. Jeanne's sister and brother-in-law actually moved out to Idaho to harvest beets rather than share a room with other people: "They knew they'd have, if nothing else, a room, perhaps a cabin of their own [in Idaho]" (1.2.27). It's grim at pretty much every turn.

But what's really damaging about Manzanar is how it splits families apart because of the small quarters:

But there is no escaping the fact that our internment accelerated the process [of splitting], made it happen so suddenly it was almost tangible. Not only did we stop eating at home, there was no longer a home to eat in. The cubicles we had were too small for anything you might call 'living.' Mama couldn't cook meals there. It was impossible to find any privacy there. We slept there and spent most of our waking hours elsewhere. (1.2.10-11)

And remember: Plenty of other families didn't even live alone together in the barracks.

The Good

Things aren't all bad though, and by the second year, life in Manzanar starts to improve. Camp becomes better organized, there's a school and all sorts of clubs, and people are permitted to go outside of camp to hike around.

The internees even get around to prettifying the camp with rock gardens. Years later, these are what Jeanne finds among the camp ruins:

These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep. (1.22.15)

Neat, right?

It makes perfect sense that, by the end of it all, the Isseis like Papa and Mama didn't really want to leave camp. Camp has become—for better or worse—home. There is no house or jobs waiting for them outside of camp; plus there are all these reports of anti-Japanese attacks for returning internees. Who'd want to leave a camp with rock gardens, fruit trees (they gardened too), and familiar people?

Even adult Jeanne admits that, "I would have stayed inside the camp forever rather than step outside and face such a moment [of racial humiliation]" (2.16.14).

Despite the obvious awfulness of internment, sometimes people would rather stick with the enemy they know than face an unknown one.

Long Beach, CA: Cabrillo Housing Project and Long Beach Polytechnic High, Post-War

"Social Equals"

You know camp had to be pretty bad if a public housing project feels awesome afterward. As Jeanne points out:

At the time it seemed to be a big step up in the world. There would be no more standing in chow lines; now Mama had a stove to cook on. We had three bedrooms. And we had an inside toilet. (2.19.10)

But the luster fades pretty quickly, especially once Jeanne enters high school and notices how "half-finished and undermaintained" the "long, two-story stucco buildings… in rows like barracks" appear (2.19.11). Hmm… she's comparing her school to an internment camp, right? It must be a pretty depressing sight then.

The place is, however, racially mixed—in fact, Jeanne's best friend is a white girl named Radine. The racial integration makes Long Beach seem not so bad:

After three years at our junior high school, in a ghetto neighborhood that included many Asians, Blacks, Mexicans, and other white migrants from the south, we [Radine and Jeanne] had ended up close to being social equals. (2.21.2)

This must've felt extra good for Jeanne after growing up in a primarily white neighborhood and then being interned for being Japanese.

Ugh… School

All that good will between Jeanne and Radine doesn't transfer over to high school though.

Racism is a definite thing that separates Jeanne and Radine into different social classes. Jeanne can't get a date with the (white) guys she likes or become a song girl like Radine can. In fact, Jeanne can barely hold on to her majorette position:

[The band teacher] had to go speak to the board about it, and to some of the parents, to see if it was allowable for an Oriental to represent the high school in such a visible way. (2.21.4)

No wonder Jeanne's hanging out on the streets and about ready to drop out of high school by her senior year. Who wants to spend time in a place where they get treated as a second-class citizen?

San Jose, CA, Post-War

San Jose is practically paradise compared to Long Beach. Papa is able to go back to farming over there, so he's finally able to support the family again, but the real change is at Jeanne's high school. Because San Jose's still kind of a hick town when the Wakatsukis move there, Jeanne—"coming from a big high school in southern California"—carries "some kind of shine" (2.21.10). So much so, in fact, that she even gets crowned carnival queen, which is pretty much the same thing as being prom queen.

Dream come true right? Well… not exactly.

San Jose may offer her family a more stable place to start over, but it's not an escape from the mental damage of Manzanar.

Case in point, the mental meltdown Jeanne suffers right before she's about to get crowned at the carnival dance:

What was I doing out there anyway, trying to be a carnival queen? The teachers who'd counted the votes certainly didn't think it was such a good idea. Neither did the trustees… It wasn't the girl in this old-fashioned dress [the students] had voted for. But if not her, who had they voted for? Somebody I wanted to be. And wasn't. Who was I then? (2.21.50)

Sure part of her meltdown is your classic teenaged identity crisis, but we're guessing it really doesn't help to know that the teachers actively stuffed the ballot box with another (blond, white) girl's name so that Jeanne wouldn't win (2.21.13). Granted, her classmate comes to her rescue and stands up to the teachers, but it can't feel good to know people actively are working against you because of your race.

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