Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Wakatsuki family’s frequent moves emphasize the difficulty they and other Japanese have in settling down permanently and reflect their deeper struggle to connect themselves to either Japanese or American culture. The Wakatsukis are comfortably settled in their Ocean Park home, but when they must leave this home behind, they become disoriented and lost, and remain so for the rest of the memoir. In a series of forced and often sudden moves, the Wakatsukis must pack up or sell their belongings and set out for ghettos—Terminal Island, Boyle Heights, and Cabrillo Homes—or for the relocation camp at Manzanar. The overall sense is that the Japanese are being shifted between temporary situations, all the while reaching out for a place to establish a permanent foothold. Ironically, Manzanar, originally a prison to the Japanese, becomes this foothold, and the Japanese are reluctant to let it go after the war. The dark undertone to the motif of displacement is that even if the Japanese do establish more permanent roots somewhere, another war or outbreak of prejudice against them could uproot them just as quickly as before.
The Japanese Americans at Manzanar latch onto typical elements of American culture in order to show that they are not foreigners or enemies but rather loyal citizens whose only world is America. Even the Issei immigrants had made a conscious choice to come to the United States, and many, like Papa, adopt American ways of life in order to make up for what they lack in legal citizenship. The residents at Manzanar recreate many of the aspects of American life that they like most, such as glee clubs, block associations, high school yearbooks, touch football teams, and even dance bands. For those born in America or long since departed from Japan, America is their only reference point, and they hold on to American culture as something they can share without fueling the anti-Japanese suspicions of government officials. Ironically, the all-Japanese Manzanar is where the Japanese can enjoy the simple pleasures of American culture. The ethnic prejudice of the society outside Manzanar spoils the Japanese people’s enjoyment of American culture, as when Jeanne’s high school teachers plot to prevent her from winning the carnival queen election.