On Sunday, December 7, 1941, seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki watches from the Long Beach, California, wharf as a fleet of sardine boats prepares to leave the harbor. Her father, whom she calls “Papa,” yells more than the other men. He barks orders at his two eldest sons, Bill and Woody, who act as his crew. Papa is aboard the larger of his two boats, the Nereid, which he pays for by giving percentages of his catch to the large canneries on Terminal Island, near Long Beach. Many other fishermen have similar arrangements with the canneries, and they often fish together. Jeanne and her family stand on the wharf and wave goodbye until the boats have nearly disappeared. Suddenly the fleet stops and floats on the horizon like white gulls. Jeanne’s mother, whom she calls “Mama,” and Woody’s wife, Chizu, begin to worry when the fleet turns back toward the port. The other women wonder whether there has been an accident. When the boats are still a half mile offshore, a cannery worker runs along the docks reporting that Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor. Chizu asks Mama what Pearl Harbor is. Mama does not know and shouts after the man, but he is already gone.
That night Papa burns the Japanese flag he brought with him from Hiroshima thirty-five years earlier. He also burns any documents that might connect him with Japan. He is worried because he is a non-U.S. citizen with a fishing license, and the FBI has begun arresting such people as potential spies. The family goes to stay on Terminal Island with Woody, but two weeks later, two FBI men arrest Papa. Jeanne thinks the FBI men look like characters from a 1930s movie. Papa does not resist arrest, but walks out tall and dignified ahead of the two men. The FBI interrogates many Japanese and begins searching Terminal Island for material that could be used for spying, such as short-wave radio antennae, flashlights, cameras, and even toy swords. The family learns that Papa has been taken into custody, but the sons are unable to find out where he has been taken. An article in the next day’s paper reports that Papa has been arrested for supplying oil to a Japanese submarine. Mama cries for days, but Jeanne does not cry at all. She does not fully understand Mama’s grief until she finally sees Papa again a year later.
Wakatsuki begins her memoir with an idyllic portrait of prewar American life in order to foreshadow the suddenness of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. In 1941, the war had been raging in Europe for over two years, but the United States had remained neutral, and Wakatsuki’s writing reflects the carefree point of view of the youngest child of a middle-class American family far removed from concerns of politics and war. Her father, who has just purchased his own fishing boat, is living the American dream: he has his own business, grown sons to help him, and a family of ten children who come down to the docks to see him off. Wakatsuki’s many references to the warm December weather, her father’s cooperative colleagues, and an ideal environment where the water is clean and the California air is smog-free leave us as unprepared for war as Jeanne and her family are at the beginning of the memoir. In Jeanne’s eyes, all is well with the world, and nothing seems to threaten her family’s harmonious existence.
In one of Farewell to Manzanar’s most dramatic passages, Wakatsuki recounts the news of the Pearl Harbor attack not through direct narration but through an image. The striking picture of the entire fleet of departing boats stopping suddenly and silently on the horizon creates an immediate sense that something has gone wrong. With her description of the slow, silent return of the boats and the worried questions of the family members, Wakatsuki creates a dramatic tension that is released, at least partially, when the cannery worker relays the news of the attack. This kind of tension is called dramatic irony, a literary technique in which the audience knows something that the characters do not. Wakatsuki combines our knowledge of the events at Pearl Harbor with the fact that Mama and Chizu do not even know what Pearl Harbor is to underscore the Japanese Americans’ innocence and sense of bewilderment upon hearing of Japan’s attack on what they consider to be their home. The naïveté of this bewilderment is touching, and it is sad that a place they have never heard of will soon be the cause of their unhappiness.
Wakatsuki establishes Papa as a dynamic and ultimately likeable character early on in order to show us how greatly the anti-Japanese prejudice in the United States destroys him. The picture she paints of Papa as a tall and brash “skipper” with rough manners and an independent spirit shows Papa in a very American light. His struggle to reconcile these adopted customs and characteristics with his true Japanese ancestry becomes one of the main threads of Wakatsuki’s story. She sets up this struggle in the first chapter by establishing Papa as both the most American and the most Japanese of all the characters. He is an alien without citizenship, but he seems to believe firmly in the American dream, and after learning of the Pearl Harbor attack, he even goes so far as to burn his Japanese flag and documents in order to distance himself from Japan. The tragedy of Papa’s story is that his sacrifice is for nothing: the very United States that he calls home and for which he has forsaken his homeland accuses him of spying and betrayal. The last image of him in this chapter is of a dignified prisoner striding confidently ahead of his accusers, enduring his fate with the same quiet patience with which his family and people endure theirs. It is his last moment of real dignity in the memoir and marks the beginning of bad times for both the Wakatsuki family and the Japanese Americans in general.