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 eitherJapanese or American. Neither an exotic sarong nor an all-American prom dress can completely define her, just as she cannot say she is onlyJapanese or only American. In searching to define herself according to what others expect, she has ignored who she really is: a Japanese American.