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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
The Wakatsuki family begins to break down because of how
Manzanar forces them to live, but the final blow to the family is
the realization that they can no longer depend on Papa’s solid character
for strength. Wakatsuki traces the beginnings of her family’s disintegration
to the mess hall lifestyle and the way in which it disrupted the cherished
Wakatsuki mealtime ritual. When they stop eating together, the Wakatsukis
stop connecting with each other, preferring to spend their daytime
hours working or volunteering rather than cooped up together in
the cramped barracks. This separation leaves Jeanne free to explore,
but it also leaves her without a guide or mentor. She spends much
of her time in camp floating from one activity to the next. Papa’s
return from his arrest as a suspected spy accelerates the erosion
of the Wakatsuki family structure. His experiences at Fort Lincoln
and the accusation of disloyalty leave him a bitter and disillusioned
man. He is no longer the source of strength he was before the war,
and his return kills all hope that the family will rally around
him as patriarch. That most of the older children eventually abandon
Mama and Papa in California and relocate to New Jersey shows the
deep divide that Manzanar creates in the once happy Wakatsuki family.
Wakatsuki blames her family’s disintegration on the camps rather
than on the war because the war has little to do with the overall
experience of Manzanar. The outbreak of war leads directly to the
creation of camps such as Manzanar, but the war itself belongs to
the realm of international politics and is far removed from the daily
reality of the Wakatsukis’ existence. By frequently pointing out
indignities such as the nonpartitioned toilets, Wakatsuki shows how
even the smallest elements of camp life contribute to the changes
in her family. The inconvenience of the lack of privacy and the
overcrowding, among other things, create a physical discomfort that
eventually turns into an emotional discomfort. The frustrations of
camp life shorten tempers and result in outbursts of violence such as
the December Riot and Papa’s attempt to beat Mama with his cane.
These disturbing images show that the divisions that developed within
families and within the Japanese-American community as a whole resulted
more from the conditions of life than from the war in general.
Wakatsuki avoids portraying open ethnic conflict in her
memoir in order to examine more carefully the subtle and often unspoken
prejudices that infect everyday life, which are often the most dangerous. There
are, of course, rumors of Japanese Americans being beaten and abused
after they leave Manzanar, but for the most part the direct, open
hatred for which the camp residents have prepared themselves never
materializes. This imagined hatred shows the rarity of open hatred
compared to deep-seated prejudice. In fact, by imagining that all
of white America will hate them, these Japanese Americans are themselves
subscribing to a kind of prejudice, forgetting that not all Americans
are prowar and anti-Japanese. Many Americans, such as Jeanne’s kind
schoolteachers and the American Friends Service that helps them
find housing, actually help the Japanese. The mistaken
belief that white America has an all-encompassing hatred for them
handicaps the Japanese Americans. They focus so much on what seems
to them an inevitable clash that they are not prepared for the subtler
prejudice of daily life that is racism’s most common face.
The unfortunate result of this everyday nature of prejudice
is that the prejudice becomes so ingrained that one can begin to
forget that it is in fact a prejudice. Radine’s innocent surprise
at Jeanne’s ability to speak English, for example, makes Jeanne
realize that prejudice is not always a conscious choice but that
it can also be a result of conditioning by one’s parents and culture. Radine
judges from Jeanne’s Japanese appearance that she shouldn’t be able
to speak English, because Radine’s family or culture (or both) has
taught her to do so. Similarly, Jeanne begins to see the entire
relocation of Japanese Americans as a function of the government’s
inability to see good behind a Japanese face. She is shocked to
discover that people do not really look to see who she is as a person
but instead instantly judge her as a foreigner and paint her with
the traits they imagine all Japanese people have. Racial stereotyping
was a major part of the U.S. government’s wartime propaganda campaign,
and many people based their views of Japanese people on the government’s
attempt to portray them as vicious and subhuman. This propaganda
was very effective, and at the height of the war, the derogatory
word “Jap” was widely accepted.
The isolated location of Manzanar and the disintegration
of the Wakatsuki family during the internment years give young Jeanne
a lot of personal space in which to develop an understanding of
who she is. The climax of her self-understanding comes much later
in life with her return to Manzanar as an adult, which enables her
to understand just how much the camp changed her. But with her independence
at Manzanar, the young Jeanne begins to learn about the important
components of her identity. Papa occasionally tries to correct what
he sees as unacceptable behavior, such as smiling too much or studying
religion, but ultimately Jeanne does what she wants. Her explorations
of Japanese and American activities are early, unconscious attempts
to define herself. Since she finds herself surrounded by only Japanese
for the first time in her life, she naturally begins to feel the
conflict of being both Japanese and American.
Although Manzanar makes Jeanne look more closely at her
fellow Japanese, she is unable to resolve the confusion she feels
as a Japanese American because the camp isolates her from the American
half of her identity. After she leaves Manzanar, the shock of ethnic
prejudice compels her to try to reclaim her American identity by fitting
in, but her continual attempts to conform to white America’s definition
of social achievement lead her to neglect the Japanese side of herself.
The distance she puts between herself and her Japanese ancestry
mirrors the unhealthy isolation from American culture that she experiences
at Manzanar. The naïve belief that she can escape her Japanese face
and make the world see her as only American leads to her downfall,
for when she realizes that people will never see her as truly American,
she is left with nothing. Only after changing high schools and being
elected carnival queen does she finally see the absurdity of her
attempts to define herself as either Japanese or American.
Neither an exotic sarong nor an all-American prom dress can completely
define her, just as she cannot say she is only Japanese or
only American. In searching to define herself according
to what others expect, she has ignored who she really is: a Japanese
Ace your assignments with our guide to Farewell to Manzanar!