Much of farewell to manzanar deals with Jeanne’s struggle to discover her identity. How does her Japanese identity conflict with her American identity? How does her experience with prejudice help her to reconcile the two?
In the early part of the work, Jeanne does not define herself much at all, and simply describes what she sees. The way that she describes the world around her, however, makes it clear that she associates herself much more with American culture than with Japanese culture. She has fond memories of her big frame house in the non-Japanese neighborhood of Ocean Park and remembers her kind white schoolteacher who cried when the Wakatsukis left. In fact, when Mama finally moves the family to a Japanese ghetto on Terminal Island, Jeanne reveals that it is the first time she has ever lived among other Japanese people. That Asian faces frighten her and that she thinks of the Japanese community as a foreign country show that she does not really think of herself as Japanese.
Jeanne’s inability to connect with her culture continues at Manzanar, and as she tries to find ways to spend her free time, she almost always gravitates to non-Japanese pursuits such as baton twirling, the Glee Club, and even Catholicism. One of the few Japanese activities she does try, traditional Japanese odori dancing, ends in failure because Jeanne cannot understand the teacher’s old dialect and mysterious ways. Language proves a barrier, but her problems in connecting to her heritage are more the result of her having never visited Japan and thus not understanding Japanese culture. To Jeanne, anything traditionally Japanese looks alien, and no seven-year-old can enjoy something that is frightening and confusing. Jeanne does share certain attitudes with all of the Japanese at Manzanar, such as the revulsion at eating apricots over rice, but she does not connect with them about Japanese culture in any meaningful way.
Jeanne comes to understand Japanese people and customs during her time at Manzanar, but she does not understand how her Japanese ancestry makes her different until she returns to Long Beach after the war. Living in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, she is unable to avoid the fact that she is different, and she begins to see all of the prejudices to which she was earlier blind. Before Manzanar, Jeanne would have been just as perplexed as she is now by Radine’s surprise at her natural English fluency, but she probably would not have interpreted it as prejudice. Now, however, after preparing herself in camp for the hatred she expects to experience outside, Jeanne is sensitive to the unspoken, hidden forms of prejudice that existed even before the war. The discovery of this anti-Japanese prejudice makes Jeanne begin to think about her ancestry. At first she tries to deny her heritage by acting like her white schoolmates, but she eventually realizes that just as her experiences at Manzanar play a crucial role in shaping her life, so her Japanese heritage forms a crucial part of her identity.
What is the role of non-Japanese characters in Wakatsuki’s memoir?
There are very few non-Japanese characters in Farewell to Manzanar, and they play a limited and specific role in the story. Often, these characters serve to make a point about Jeanne or how she sees the world around her. Wakatsuki rarely, if ever, uses them to condemn white society or prejudice in general. Her schoolteachers—before, during, and after her time at Manzanar—are invariably non-Japanese, but Wakatsuki uses the fact that some are nurturing while others are fearful and prejudiced to show that race alone cannot define a person. Not all whites are as small-minded as the teachers at San Jose who try to prevent her from becoming carnival queen, just as not all Japanese were responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although tolerance is an important aspect of the work, the non-Japanese characters often appear faceless and distant in order to clarify the true conflict in the work. Farewell to Manzanar speaks more deeply and effectively about acceptance of self, and Jeanne’s struggle with herself shows us that before one can ever hope to confront prejudice, he or she must come to terms with himself or herself. Throughout much of the memoir, Jeanne has an uncertain, sometimes negative tone about being Japanese, and she is not able to feel whole as a person until the carnival queen ceremony, at which she finally begins to accept herself as neither essentially American nor entirely exotic. The non-Japanese characters do not need to be developed, because even in the cases of Leonard Rodriguez and Radine, they are present in the work only as signposts marking Jeanne’s growing knowledge of herself and her complex identity.
Upon returning from Manzanar, Jeanne finds that the hatred she must face is very different from the “dark cloud” she imagined would descend on her. What are the different forms of hatred depicted in farewell to manzanar, and how do they manifest themselves?
Wakatsuki explores prejudice through her experiences with whites before and after the war as well as through her experiences among Japanese Americans at Manzanar. Early on, even in the description of the relocation itself, Wakatsuki leaves ethnic prejudice largely undeveloped, though she plants the idea of such prejudice through characters such as the unscrupulous secondhand dealer who tries to cheat Mama and the cold teacher in Boyle Heights. Before Manzanar, the prejudice that does surface is undefined and confusing, much as it must have been for young Jeanne. In fact, Wakatsuki does not directly address the idea of hatred until her family’s arrival at Manzanar, where hatred and fighting, suspicions and accusations occur among the Japanese themselves. Wakatsuki uses events such as the beating of Fred Tayama and the ensuing December Riots to show that a group cannot address the greater issue of prejudice until it deals with internal conflicts.
The violent hatred Jeanne fears so much before leaving the camp differs drastically from the deep but subtle prejudice she eventually encounters in Long Beach. She imagines a “dark cloud” of hatred but finds only an ill-defined haze. There are no lynchings, no beatings; much of the prejudice she encounters is indirect, unspoken, or hidden. Her most open encounter is Radine’s innocent surprise at Jeanne’s ability to speak English. But she realizes that Radine is conditioned to think Japanese people cannot speak English and that the comment represents a much wider and more intangible prejudice. Hatred, as Wakatsuki depicts it in the latter half of the memoir, is not an open, direct threat, but a hidden force that pervades everything from the Girl Scouts to the choice of the high school band’s majorette. This is a much more dangerous form of hatred because it is difficult to identify, difficult to prove, and, as Wakatsuki’s experiences testify, almost impossible to fight alone.