Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Community

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Community

In typical Japanese fashion, they all wanted to be independent commercial fishermen, yet they almost always fished together. They would take off from Terminal Island, help each other find the schools of sardine, share nets and radio equipment—competing and cooperating at the same time. (1.1.3)

If this is the spirit of competition in a Japanese immigrant community, then no wonder the Japanese-American communities in pre-war California were able to flourish. We're looking at a co-operative more than anything else…

The people around us were hardworking, boisterous, a little proud of their nickname, yo-go-re, which meant literally uncouth one, or roughneck, or dead-end kid. They not only spoke Japanese exclusively, they spoke a dialect peculiar to Kyushu, where their families had come from in Japan, a rough, fisherman's language, full of oaths and insults. Instead of saying ba-ka-ta-re, a common insult meaning stupid, Terminal Islanders would say ba-ka-ya-ro, a coarser and exclusively masculine use of the word, which implies gross stupidity. They would swagger and pick on outsiders and persecute anyone who didn't speak as they did. (1.2.5)

Not all Japanese communities are alike, that's for sure—or for that matter, Japanese people. Here we get a sense of the role language plays in establishing and maintaining communities.

Like so many of the women there, Mama never did get used to the latrines. It was a humiliation she just learned to endure: shikata ga nai, this cannot be helped. She would quickly subordinate her own desires to those of the family or the community, because she knew cooperation was the only way to survive. At the same time she placed a high premium on personal privacy, respected it in others and insisted upon it for herself. Almost everyone at Manzanar had inherited this pair of traits from the generations before them who had learned to live in a small, crowded country like Japan. (1.4.19)

It can't be easy to put your own needs aside for the greater good and insist on privacy for yourself. How does that even work? That's probably why Jeanne goes on and tells us that going to the latrines is like being continually slapped by yourself—you have to share things like cardboard boxes (as privacy screens), but all you really want to do is not wait and grab one for yourself. So much angst over something as mundane as going to the bathroom…

Camp authorities frowned on mess hall hopping and tried to stop it, but the good cooks liked it. They liked to see long lines outside their kitchens and would work overtime to attract a crowd. Younger boys, like Ray, would make a game of seeing how many mess halls they could hit in one meal period - be the first in line at Block 16, gobble down your food, run to 17 by the middle of the dinner hour, gulp another helping, and hurry to 18 to make the end of that chow line and stuff in the third meal of the evening. They didn't need to do that. No matter how bad the food might be, you could always eat till you were full. (1.5.4-5)

No wonder meals with the family couldn't compete at camp… especially if you're a kid (like Jeanne's brothers) with depressed, anxious, traumatized parents. Mess hall hopping sounds like a bit more fun.

He followed the arrow from the sign to the back of the building, where he found a yard full of half-dressed Chinese and Japanese field hands waiting in line to apply for work in the sugar cane. His disdain for them was met with laughter. They looked at him as if he were a maniac, pointing with derision at his dandy's outfit. He rushed back to the street, cursing, dismayed, humiliated, heading for the safety of his cousin's. (1.6.7)

Ethnicity doesn't guarantee acceptance into a group, and Papa's learning that the hard way here. He's just gotten to the sugar cane plantation from Japan, so he's got his samurai class and status. But on the plantation, this doesn't fly—what bonds the men together isn't shared ethnicity because the Chinese and Japanese are able to hang together, but their shared experience in Hawai'i as second-class citizens. This excludes Papa.

As soon as the word got around that so-and-so had been cleared to leave, there would be a kid of tribal restlessness, a nervous rise in the level of neighborhood gossip as wives jockeyed for position to see who would get the empty cubicles. (2.12.4)

Just because the community tries to be cooperative doesn't mean everyone isn't out for his or her own family. Family life may be disintegrating at camp, but the core tribe is still the family—at least for the wives.

In the months before the riot the bells rang often at our mess halls, sending out the calls for public meetings. They rang for higher wages, they rang for better food, they rang for open revolt, for patriotism, for common sense, and for a wholesale return to Japan. Some meetings turned into shouting sessions. Some led to beatings. One group tried to burn down the general store. Assassination threats were commonplace. (1.9.3)

Don't get fooled by all those stories of the pretty rock gardens, farms, plants that the internees built. Yeah there was a peaceful and productive side to camp life, but there was also some serious, explosive anger. That's what happens you put a bunch of people into crowded, crappy conditions against their will. People will revolt.

All the class pictures are in there, from the seventh grade through twelfth, with individual head shots of seniors, their names followed by the names of the high schools they would have graduated from on the outside: Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, Sacred Heart. (2.12.16)

We've got this completely normal thing—a school yearbook that's supposed to bind this community of kids at camp. And then there's this reality check printed right into the yearbook: these kids had other schools they once belonged to or should have belonged to. Camp becomes more like a parallel or alternate universe.

The fact that America had accused us, or excluded us, or imprisoned us, or whatever it might be called, did not change the kind of world we wanted. Most of us were born in this country; we had no other models. Those parks and gardens lent it an oriental character, but in most ways it was a totally equipped American small town, complete with schools, churches, Boy Scouts, beauty parlors, neighborhood gossip, fire and police departments, glee clubs, softball leagues, Abbot and Costello movies, tennis courts, and traveling shows. (2.12.12)

It just goes to show, people will make (or remake) a home wherever they are and that home is much more than just a house. It is all of those places and activities that turn a place into a community, especially one that can survive all the bad stuff.

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 had ended up close to being social equals. (2.21.2)

This is kind of like that Hawaiian sugar cane plantation Papa first steps on to when he arrives in America—the Cabrillo Housing Project may be a terrible place to live in many ways, but it offers Jeanne a place where kids of different races and ethnicities can come together despite their cultural differences. They're all "social equals" because they're all poor. Class becomes the thing that unites them more.