Jeanne Wakatsuki was born on September 26, 1934, in Inglewood, California, to George Ko Wakatsuki and Riku Sugai Wakatsuki. She spent her early childhood in Ocean Park, California, where her father was a fisherman. She spent her teenage years in Long Beach, California, and San Jose, California. After a brief period in Long Beach after World War II, her family finally settled in San Jose, where her father took up berry farming. Wakatsuki received a degree in journalism from San Jose State University in 1956 and a year later married her classmate and fellow writer John D. Houston. John Houston’s tour in the United States Air Force took them to England, and eventually to France, where Jeanne studied French civilization at the Sorbonne, a prestigious university in Paris. She has been honored with many awards and prizes, including the 1979 Woman of Achievement Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus and a 1976 Humanitas Prize for her television adaptation of Farewell to Manzanar. Her other works include Beyond Manzanar: Views of Asian American Womanhood; Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder, co-authored with Paul Hensler; and numerous essays and articles. Farewell to Manzanar, her most famous work, recounts the three years she and her family spent as prisoners at Manzanar Relocation Center in the desert of southeastern California.
Farewell to Manzanar begins with the U.S. entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, three years after war had begun raging in Europe. Despite Europe’s calls for American aid, U.S. public opinion was divided between isolationists, who did not see the German dictator Adolf Hitler as a threat to the United States, and the interventionists, who, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saw fascism as a global menace. The compromise reached by these two groups was a policy called Lend-Lease, which allowed the United States to aid the Allied forces with military supplies and food in exchange for military bases in British and French territories in the Caribbean and Pacific. The United States was generally more concerned with protecting itself than with curbing the combined Axis powers of Germany and Italy. When Japan joined the Axis, the United States continued to refrain from intervening and chose to respond with what President Roosevelt called “measures short of war,” this time in the form of an embargo on scrap iron and steel shipments to Japan. Japanese military leader General Hideki Tojo sent representatives to Washington, D.C., to negotiate. But on December 7, 1941, while negotiations were in progress, the Japanese attacked the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing over 2,500 people and severely crippling the U.S. fleet. President Roosevelt called the attack on Pearl Harbor “a date which will live in infamy.” Three days later the United States declared war on Japan. The declaration of war made many Americans view Japanese not just as unwanted aliens but as enemies to be feared. This irrational fear was the most direct cause of the internment of people of Japanese descent, which Wakatsuki describes in Farewell to Manzanar.
Jeanne Wakatsuki’s father was part of the first group of Japanese people who immigrated to the United States, Hawaii, Latin America, and Europe, who were called Issei, which literally means “first generation” in Japanese. Those who immigrated to the United States worked mainly as farmers, fisherman, servants, and other unskilled laborers, but many eventually went to school and became professional workers. A series of laws passed in the early twentieth century tried to stop immigration from Japan by preventing Issei from applying for naturalization and owning land in California. In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed an Immigration Act that ended all Japanese immigration. The children of the Issei were called Nisei, which means “second generation” in Japanese. Unlike their Issei parents, the Nisei were Americans by virtue of being born in the United States, and they adopted American language and customs more easily. Wakatsuki was herself among the Nisei, who were educated primarily in the United States, spoke little or no Japanese, and knew very little about Japan.
Although hatred of Asians and Asian Americans has existed in the United States since the first arrival of Chinese miners and railroad workers in the mid-nineteenth century, the attack on Pearl Harbor sparked a new period of overt racial fear. This hysteria culminated in the U.S. War Department’s adoption of the Japanese-American relocation program recounted in Farewell to Manzanar. Manzanar, the camp in which the Wakatsuki family was imprisoned for three years during the war, opened in 1942 and was the first of ten identical camps scattered throughout the western states. For three years, Manzanar was home to over 11,000 people and consisted of close to 800 buildings. On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court finally ruled that imprisonment of Nisei constituted the illegal imprisonment of loyal U.S. citizens. But though the high court ordered the camps to be shut down, it still took a full year for all of them to close officially. For years the camps’ survivors fought for compensation for the relocation policy, and in 1988 President Ronald Reagan finally signed a bill guaranteeing $20,000 to every living survivor of the camps. In 1990 President George Bush made a public apology to Japanese Americans imprisoned during the war and in 1992 declared Manzanar a National Historic Site.