Summary—Whatever He Did Had Flourish
Papa continues to use his cane even after he recovers. Sometimes he uses it as a sword to swat at his family, and Jeanne imagines it as a makeshift version of the samurai sword of his great-great-grandfather from Hiroshima. Jeanne sees the camp as the place where her father’s life ends and her own life begins.
Papa is the oldest son of a samurai family that was stripped of its warrior status when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan. Papa’s uncle was a general and persuaded him to enter military school, but he dropped out at seventeen and sailed for the Hawaiian Islands with money borrowed from an aunt. In Hawaii, Papa saw an advertisement for a job. He bought a new suit and went to find out about the job, but on arriving he found that the ad was for work in the sugar cane fields. He soon found a job as a houseboy in Idaho for an American lawyer. After spending five years with the lawyer, he enrolled at the University of Idaho and began preparing for a law degree. He changed his plans, however, when he met Jeanne’s mother.
Mama was born in Hawaii to a sugar cane worker from Niigata, Japan. Her family moved to Spokane, Washington, after her birth. When Mama was seventeen, she had already been promised to the son of a well-to-do farmer. She met Papa one morning when he was unloading vegetables at a market. Her family did not like him because he lived a fast-paced life, but the two eloped and got married in Salem, Oregon. They moved frequently over the next eighteen years and had ten children. Papa did not finish law school and worked many odd jobs. A few years before Jeanne was born he started farming near Watsonville, California. During the Great Depression he moved to Inglewood, but he then turned to fishing in Santa Monica, where he acquired two boats, a house, and a Studebaker.
Jeanne sees her parents’ golden wedding anniversary as the climax of her family’s happiness at Ocean Park. She recalls that her father stood looking elegant in his double-breasted suit and demonstrated how to carve a pig with a few swift strokes of a cleaver. Jeanne says that her father was not a great man but that he held on to his self-respect and dreams, and whatever he did, he did with flourish. She adds that the other men at the detention camp at Fort Lincoln remember him because he helped the government conduct interviews, taught other inmates English, and gave comic readings of the news every morning.
Papa is unique in the memoir both because he is an Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrant, and because of the status that his family’s samurai heritage confers upon him. The U.S. government’s disregard for the historical importance of the samurai class reflects the extent to which its actions degrade Papa. For centuries Japan was a feudal society ruled by samurai warlords, but when Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its ports to the West in 1853, the feudal structure crumbled. However, the social significance of having samurai heritage remained powerful. But Papa’s high social status in Japan contrasts sharply with the working class status he must assume in America, where he does not own land or automatically earn respect from others. Rather, he must move frequently in order to catch odd jobs, repeatedly starting his life from scratch.
Papa’s identification with his samurai heritage explains the high value he places on honor and his concern about being disgraced. The samurai were long important and greatly respected members of Japanese society. Papa feels shame about his father’s cabaret business, because the working-class nature of such an enterprise has reduced his father from a noble individual to an average worker. The extent of Papa’s shame is manifest in his cutting himself off from his family; he does not want his father’s disgrace to taint him. His abandonment of his family constitutes a figurative version of the suicide that disgraced samurai are expected to commit. Papa’s continued efforts in America to cultivate himself as a strong figure reflect his pride in his samurai heritage. His family is so used to this pride that his withered appearance when he returns from being interrogated shocks them immeasurably.