Summary: Chatper 2: Shikata Ga Nai

Soon after Papa’s arrest, Mama relocates the family to the Japanese immigrant ghetto on Terminal Island. Mama feels more comfortable in the company of other Japanese, but the new environment of Terminal Island frightens Jeanne. It is the first time she has lived among other Japanese, and she traces her fear to an earlier time, when Papa threatened to sell her to the “Chinaman” if she behaved badly. Mama and Chizu go to work for the canneries that own the island, and the family takes up residence in a barracks alongside the other migrant workers. Jeanne feels uncomfortable around the rough youth who proudly call themselves yogore (“uncouth ones”) and pick on outsiders and people who do not speak their language. The other second-graders tease Jeanne for not speaking Japanese, and both she and her ten-year-old brother, Kiyo, must avoid the children’s ambushes after school.

The family lives on Terminal Island for two months, and on February 25, 1942 the government decides to move the Japanese farther away from the Long Beach Naval Station. The family, including Granny, Jeanne’s sixty-five-year-old maternal grandmother, is given forty-eight hours to leave. Mama has to sell her china because it will not fit in Woody’s car. When a secondhand dealer insults her by offering only fifteen dollars for the china, she angrily smashes the entire set in front of him.

The family settles in the minority ghetto of Boyle Heights in downtown Los Angeles. President Roosevelt has signed Executive Order 9066, which authorizes the War Department to remove persons considered threats to national security from military areas on the West Coast, and rumors begin to circulate about relocation. Mama finally receives a letter from Papa, who is being held at Fort Lincoln, a camp for enemy aliens in North Dakota. The Japanese both comfort themselves and excuse the U.S. government’s actions with the phrase “shikata ga nai,” which means both “it cannot be helped” and “it must be done.” Kiyo and Jeanne enroll in school, but Jeanne does not like the cold, distant teacher, who is the first Caucasian from whom she has felt hostility.

The public attitude toward the Japanese soon turns to fear, and a month after the Wakatsuki family settles in Boyle Heights, the government orders the Japanese to move again, this time to the relocation camp at Manzanar, California. Many Japanese accept the move because they are afraid of Caucasian aggression, but some simply see it as an adventure. A bus picks up the Wakatsukis at a Buddhist temple, and each family receives an identification number and tags to put on their collars. Jeanne falls asleep on the bus, nearly half of which is filled with her relatives, and wakes up to the setting sun and the yellow, billowing dust of Owens Valley. As they enter the camp, the new arrivals stare silently at the families already waiting in the wind and sand.

The bus arrives in time for dinner, but the Japanese are horrified to learn that the cooks have poured canned apricots over the rice, a staple the Japanese do not eat with sweet foods. After dinner, the Wakatsukis are taken to a wooden barracks in Block 16, where they receive two sixteen-by-twenty-foot rooms for the twelve members of the family. They divide the space with blankets and sleep on mattress covers stuffed with straw. The younger couples have a hard time adjusting to the lack of privacy, and six months later Jeanne’s sister and her husband leave to help harvest beets in Idaho. Jeanne does not mind the tight quarters, because it means she gets to sleep with Mama.

Analysis: Chatper 2:  Shikata Ga Nai

Jeanne’s instant sense of alienation among other Japanese creates an initial picture of her as more American than Japanese. As a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American born to immigrant parents, Jeanne is a U.S. citizen by birth. She has grown up in a Caucasian neighborhood, and she feels awkward now when plunged into the immigrant community of Terminal Island. Her description of the rough and tumble immigrant community as “a country as foreign as India or Arabia would have been” shows her inability to relate to other native Japanese. Her western name and fear of Asian faces do not help her fit in, but her greatest obstacle is her inability to speak Japanese, which the tough Terminal Island kids insist on speaking. Her comment that the Japanese children despised her for speaking English establishes the theme of ethnic prejudice that runs throughout the memoir. This harsh treatment at the hands of her own people contrasts with the pleasantness of her earlier life—her family’s big, American-style frame house in the non-Japanese neighborhood of Ocean Park, for example, and her grandmotherly non-Japanese teacher who cried the day Jeanne had to leave. This kind America is all Jeanne has ever known, and she presents herself here not as a Japanese thrown into solidarity with her people but as an American forced to live among an alien race.

The U.S. government’s increased manipulation of the Japanese people strengthens the Japanese community. This sense of community is largely a response to the tension that develops between Japanese and Americans as American soldiers impose their will upon the Japanese. The contrast between the family’s initial move to Terminal Island, which Mama initiates, and their relocation to Boyle Heights, which the United States government requires, shows how fighting against oppression unites the Japanese. Upon arriving at Terminal Island, the family does not immediately befriend the other Japanese people. However, when the government orders a relocation, the Japanese band together in their fear and uncertainty as they wait for the inevitable order to move from Terminal Island. Wakatsuki describes a communal sentiment with the Japanese phrase “shikata ga nai,” the sense that there is nothing one can do. Even Jeanne, who thinks of herself as American and of the Japanese as an alien people, experiences this feeling of resignation when her new white teacher treats her coldly. In a critical time, Jeanne, like other Japanese Americans, finds her people a source of comfort.

Wakatsuki sees pride as a defining characteristic of the Japanese people and explores it as both a liability and a strength. The rough Japanese kids of Terminal Island are proud of their derogatory nickname, “yogore,” and of their ethnicity and culture, even to the point of excluding one of their own who does not speak their language. While Wakatsuki initially casts this pride in a negative light, she also shows how it can become a powerful tool when the Japanese are faced with prejudice and the prospect of relocation. Jeanne’s mother’s decision to smash her china rather that sell it to the scheming secondhand dealer demonstrates that money is not as important to her as her integrity. Similarly, the Japanese people’s refusal to eat apricots with their rice is their small, dignified way of signaling to the American government that while they cannot resist forced relocation, they will not accept a slap in the face. These small, pride-won victories keep the Japanese grounded in their culture, which helps keep them unified as a people.