[Mama] 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.”
These lines from Chapter 4, “A Common Master Plan,” describe Mama’s reluctance to use the partitionless toilets and connect her to the issues of Japanese identity traced in the stories of Papa, Woody, and Jeanne. Mama was born in Hawaii and does not struggle as much as Papa or Jeanne, who as noncitizen and citizen respectively, approach the Japanese-American identity problem from opposite circumstances. Yet Wakatsuki makes statements throughout the book that remind us how much Mama also struggles to reconcile camp living with being Japanese. Two of the essentially Japanese values that Jeanne sees in Mama’s selfless but proud character are cooperation and respect for privacy. The need to survive requires Mama to cooperate, but cooperating also means living in cramped quarters with blankets for walls and cardboard boxes for toilet partitions, which impinge on her privacy. Mama’s frustration, especially with the toilets, underscores the incompatibility of these two traits in the context of camp life. Japanese cooperation went far in making life at Manzanar tolerable, but camp life itself was a constant insult to the inhabitants’ concerns for privacy and dignity.
“When your mother and your father are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting?”
Papa’s final question to the interrogator in Chapter 7, “Fort Lincoln: An Interview,” is a striking metaphor for the difficult situation into which the war between the United States and Japan threw Japanese-American Issei. Most of the Issei, who left Japan for the greater opportunities offered in other countries, still had strong ties to their Japanese ancestry and saw Japan as their motherland. On the other hand, the United States was their adopted home, and even though they were not American citizens, they valued the opportunities that citizenship brought for their Nisei children. The war put the Issei in an impossible situation, for they could not declare loyalty to one country without jeopardizing their relationship to the other. Papa’s question illustrates the difficulty that such things as the Loyalty Oath and the accusations of a military interrogator presented to him and other Issei.
I smiled and sat down, suddenly aware of what being of Japanese ancestry was going to be like. I wouldn’t be faced with physical attack, or with overt shows of hatred. Rather, I would be seen as someone foreign, or as someone other than American, or perhaps not be seen at all.
Jeanne comes to this realization about the true nature of prejudice in Chapter 20, “A Double Impulse,” after her classmate Radine expresses surprise at Jeanne’s ability to speak English. Before the war Jeanne rarely thinks about prejudice and does not even completely understand what it meant to be Japanese. Radine’s reaction, however, forces her to recognize that hatred is not the dark force she imagined would be waiting for her when she left the camp, but rather a quiet undertone in everyday interactions. Radine’s innocent comment is both a compliment and an insult, which makes Jeanne realize that prejudice is not the same as hatred and is not always malicious. Radine intends no harm, but her comment reflects prejudiced beliefs unwittingly inherited from her prejudiced mother, who later refuses to allow Jeanne to join the Girl Scout troop. While Jeanne does not hate Radine for viewing her as “someone other than American,” she finds this perception of herself troubling and later connects the relocation of Japanese Americans with white America’s inability to see the Japanese Americans as individual human beings. The discovery that this kind of prejudice can lie deeply hidden behind even innocent comments strips Jeanne of her naïveté and marks the beginning of her transition from child to adult.
I feel no malice toward this girl. I don’t even envy her. Watching, I am simply emptied, and in the dream I want to cry out, because she is something I can never be, some possibility in my life that can never be fulfilled.
In Chapter 21, “The Girl of my Dreams,” Jeanne explains the recurring dream she has had ever since witnessing Radine’s sudden rise in popularity in high school. The girl in the dream is beautiful and blonde, admired by all, and represents Jeanne’s desire for acceptance. Jeanne too wants to be admired, but she does not envy or hate the dream girl, just as she does not hate Radine for her successes. Jeanne’s lack of envy and hate shows a remarkable maturity but also reflects the resignation and sadness of realizing that her dreams can never come true. She says her inability to achieve her goals makes her want to scream, but she does not cry out, which shows the extent to which she has accepted prejudice against those of Japanese ancestry as a simple fact of life. Even though she is hurt when her friends’ parents exclude her, she never speaks out in protest; instead she blames herself for being different. As a teenager, she is less troubled by being treated differently than by having to watch others achieve what she cannot. It is not the dream girl herself that she resents, but the window that lets her look but not touch. This frustration leads to resignation, and the collective weight of five years of resignation eventually turns the image of her dream girl into a grim reminder that leaves her “emptied” of hope that things will ever change.
Papa’s life ended at Manzanar.… Until this trip I had not been able to admit that my own life really began there.
Jeanne makes this observation when she sees her eleven-year-old daughter walking through the ruins of Manzanar in Chapter 22, “Ten Thousand Voices.” Manzanar was the most important event of Jeanne’s life, and by tearing her family apart and forcing her to face up to prejudice, it made her start her life from scratch. Manzanar wiped out her fondest memories of prewar family life and made her look at herself in the light of postwar American prejudice. Yet, until now, Jeanne never accepted the important role Manzanar played in shaping her identity and had begun to erase the camp from her memory. Going back to the site brings her experiences back to life; she realizes that despite the difficulties she faced there, her time in Manzanar made her stronger as a person, both during and after the war.
Jeanne contrasts her own experience at Manzanar with Papa’s, whose life, she says, ended there. After Manzanar, Papa’s life becomes such a struggle and is so unfulfilling that it can hardly be called a life, and Jeanne hints that it was Manzanar that weakened him and left him unable to cope with returning. Upon leaving the camp, Papa continues to drink himself to death, remains dependent on Mama and Woody because he is too proud to take a menial job, and desperately clings to empty hopes such as his doomed housing project. He drives a permanent wedge between himself and Jeanne, and ceases to be an important part of Jeanne’s story. Jeanne grows up looking up to Papa, but with the virtual ending of his life in Manzanar, she must begin a new life with a new outlook.