Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Justice and Judgment

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Justice and Judgment

He was not only an alien; he held a commercial fishing license, and in the early days of the war the FBI was picking up all such men, for fear they were somehow making contact with enemy ships off the coast. (I.1.15)

Hmm… sounds a little extreme… all Japanese American fishermen? That's a lot of fishermen…

They [The FBI] got him two weeks later, when we were staying overnight at Woody's place, on Terminal Island. Five hundred Japanese families lived there then, and FBI deputies had been questioning everyone, ransacking houses for anything that could conceivably be used for signaling planes or ships or that indicated loyalty to the Emperor. (I.1.16)

Can you say illegal search and seizure?

To the FBI every radio owner was a potential saboteur. The confiscators were often deputies sworn in hastily during the turbulent days right after Pearl Harbor, and these men seemed to be acting out the general panic, seeing sinister possibilities in the most ordinary household items: flashlights, kitchen knives, cameras, lanterns, toy swords. (I.1.16)

If a few words—like witch hunt, paranoia, injustice—are coming to your mind, don't block them out. Here's the clue: when things are done out of "general panic," you can be pretty sure that they aren't smart or good things.

Mama had to sell this china. One of the dealers offered her fifteen dollars for it. She said it was a full setting for twelve and worth at least two hundred. He said fifteen was his top price. Mama started to quiver. Her eyes blazed up at him….He watched her for a moment and said he was sure he couldn't pay more than seventeen fifty for that china. She reached into the red velvet case, took out a dinner plate and hurled it at the floor right in front of his feet. The man leaped back shouting, "Hey! Hey, don't do that! Those are valuable dishes!" Mama took out another dinner plate and hurled it on the floor, then another and another, never moving, never opening her mouth, just quivering and glaring at the retreating dealer, with tears streaming down her cheeks. (1.2.8-12)

How do you deal with someone who's trying to cheat you? Show him what his offer is worth — nothing — by dramatically breaking all the china. We've got to say: Mama comes off really fierce here. Not a bad idea for a Beyonce video.

"I will fight well, Papa."

"In this war? How is it possible?"

"I am an American citizen. America is at war."

"But look where they have put us!" (1.11.9-12)

Papa's arguing with Woody about answering yes to the Loyalty Oath questions, especially the one that asks if he'd be willing to fight for the U.S. army. Woody wants to volunteer for the war effort because—as he says—he's an American citizen. So here's the crux of the problem: How can anyone Japanese-American even think of fighting for the U.S. after being so hugely mistreated by the U.S.? But it makes sense even if there's no justice in the situation: Woody wants to prove his American-ness, to prove how wrong the government is about Japanese-Americans, and the only way to do that is to give himself up to the army.

They split into two groups, one heading for the police station to free the cook, the other heading for the hospital to finish off Tayama, who had been concealed under a hospital bed. A vigilante party searched the corridors. When they failed to find their man, this half of the crowd moved off in search of others on their "death list." (1.9.13)

This just goes to show that bad judgment and injustice anre't just something the U.S. government is guilty of. The internees are rioting and part of that riot is about bringing Fred Tayama (a supposed friend of the administration) to "justice"—by killing him. That's mob mentality for you.

Later in December the administration gave each family a Christmas tree hauled in from the Sierras. A new director had been appointed and this was his gesture of apology for all the difficulties that led up to the riot, a promise of better treatment and better times to come. (1.11.3)

We doubt a Christmas tree comforted that many internees after the December Riot, but… well… maybe it's a start. And it is true that in the second year camp life improves. But how do you apologize for the greater injustice of mass internment? What would be a proper apology exactly?

In the first, Gordon Hirabayashi, a Nisei student from the University of Washington, challenged the evacuation order. He had also violated the army's curfew, imposed early in 1942 on all west-coast Japanese. He challenged the racial bias of these actions and the abuse of his civil rights. The court avoided the issue of the evacuation itself by ruling on the curfew. It upheld the army's decision to limit the movements of a racially select group of citizens. The reasoning: wartime necessity. (2.16.2)

The court here is the Supreme Court case Hirabayashi v. United States (1943). As for "wartime necessity," does that judicial reasoning sound familiar? (Hint: think post-9/11.)

In the second case, the issue was the exclusion orders that removed us from our homes and sent us inland. Fred Korematsu, a young Nisei living in Oakland, had ignored the evacuation to stay with his Caucasian girlfriend. He had plastic surgery done on his face, he changed his name, and was posing as a Spanish Hawaiian when the FBI caught up with him. In court, the racial bias was challenged again. Why were no German Americans evacuated, it was asked, or Americans of Italian descent? Weren't these nations our enemies too? Due process had been violated, Korematsu claimed, along with other constitutional rights. But the army's decision to evacuate was also upheld by the Supreme Court. (2.16.3)

If this case makes you a little angry, you're not alone. Korematsu's case ought to have been a slam dunk, but what can you do when the country is bent on seeing Japanese-Americans as fundamentally non-American and therefore undeserving of their constitutional rights? The bright side: the Court was split on this decision, with a dissenting judge noting the racism of the evacuation order.

Yet now the government was saying we not only were free to go; like the move out of Terminal Island, and the move to Owens Valley, we had to go. Definite dates were being fixed for the closing of the camp. (2.16.9)

This passage kind of shows how everything could become a lose-lose situation, especially for Isseis who are too old to start over. Why was it a lose-lose situation? Most of the internees have nothing to return to—no job and no home. Plus they were going back to a society that rejected them for being Japanese. Who knew what kind of racism might still be out there?