“More than 66% of the Japanese-Americans sent to the internment camps in the spring of 1942 were born in the United States and many had never been to Japan” (“Japanese Internment Camp Facts” 3). During the Second World War, over 127,000 Japanese Americans were taken away from their homes and sent to internment camps as a result of Japan bombing Pearl Harbor. The entire population of Japanese Americans in the United States were seen as threats by the government, as they believed it was possible the Japanese Americans remained loyal to the enemy country.
For this reason, thousands of American citizens that had Japanese heritage were forced into internment camps, to eliminate the possibility that they would be favoring Japan. One of these individuals is Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who wrote a memoir emphasizing her time at Manzanar Internment Camp, and how her family reshaped their lives because of the situation they were in. In the novel, Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston discusses her experiences at the camp as a child, the awful living conditions they were faced with, and the traditions that were a part of her family’s history.
At Manzanar, Jeanne experienced several events that demonstrate what it was like to be a child through this period in time. Children in the internment camp, including Jeanne, were exposed to illness, beginning when they had to receive vaccines. She explains, “I was sick continually, with stomach cramps and diarrhea. At first it was from the shots they gave us for typhoid, in very heavy doses and in assembly-line fashion… That knocked all of us younger kids down at once, with fevers and vomiting” (Wakatsuki Houston 27).
It was common for the young Japanese Americans to get sick due to the conditions they were living in when they first arrived at Manzanar. In Jeanne’s case, she initially got sick over and over at camp because she was not used to the harsh environment. Eventually, Jeane adapted to her surroundings and did not get ill as often. When Papa first returned to his family after being sent away, he was unhappy with their setting which led him to begin drinking. Jeanne says, “Inside my own helplessness I cowered, sure he was going to kill her or hurt her very badly, and the way Mama lay there I believed she was actually ready to be beaten to death. Kiyo must have felt something similar, because at the height of Papa’s tirade he threw his covers back, and in his underwear he jumped out of bed yelling “Stop it, Papa! Stop it!”” (Wakatsuki Houston 63). Unfortunately, Jeanne and her siblings had to witness their Papa perform acts of aggression towards their Mama, since they were all packed inside one small shelter. Although it was a dangerous situation, Kiyo had the courage to stand up for his Mama, protecting her from harm. While Jeanne was lucky enough to stay with her Mama and Papa, there were children at internment camps who were not as fortunate. Informing readers about a former camp internee, one article notes, “Ina was born in an internment camp. Hers was among the families unwillingly torn apart: her father was arrested for protesting conditions at a camp and sent with other protestors to an all-male detention center run by the US Department of Justice, she says” (Purtill 6). Sadly, Ina was split from her father, and from that point on she could not have the comfort of him being around. Above all the stress Japanese American children were put through in their early lives, some were required to encounter the grueling events separated from their parents. Jeanne encountered many punishing experiences growing up at Manzanar.
The living conditions that Japanese Americans were faced with at the internment camps were inhumane. Originally, there were several issues in the barracks they lived in, because they were not structurally sound. Jeanne describes, “Outside the sky was clear, but icy gusts of wind were buffering our barracks every few minutes, sending fresh dust puffs up through the floorboards” (Wakatsuki Houston 23). Since there were gaps in the floorboards, residents in the barracks would have to constantly sweep the sand that entered from the drafts. Of equal importance, people had to bear freezing temperatures all day long while their shelters remained unfinished. Under those circumstances, Japanese Americans experienced conditions that were unimaginable and challenged their lifestyle. Not only were the barracks lacking strong construction, but the lavatory as well. The author states, “It was an open room, over a concrete slab. The sink was a long metal trough against one wall, with a row of spigots for hot and cold water. Down the center of the room twelve toilet bowls were arranged in six pairs, back to back, with no partitions” (Wakatsuki Houston 28). At Manzanar, Japanese Americans were underprivileged because the government supplied them with few resources. For instance, they were not given even a little bit of privacy, even in their restrooms. This was troublesome for most people at the camp because it made them uncomfortable being exposed to the public. Depicting what it was like to be transferred there, Mary Tsukamoto says, “But I will never forget the shocking feeling that human beings were behind this fence like animals [crying]. And we were going to also lose our freedom and walk inside of that gate and find ourselves…cooped up there…when the gates were shut, we knew that we had lost something that was very precious; that we were no longer free” (Bio Staff 6). Tsukamoto and all of those affected by the internment camps were not treated like humans, in the sense that they were locked up inside a protected area and not able to leave. Not to mention, the rights of these American citizens were being taken advantage of, and they were not trusted. Even though they had to alter their lives due to their new surroundings, Jeanne’s family was still able to look back at the traditions that they held close to their hearts.
Throughout the novel, Jeanne mentions traditions that were a part of her family before they began their journey at the internment camp that they carried with them. Remembering the way her family spent mealtime in the past, Jeanne expresses, “Dinners were always noisy, and they were always abundant with great pots of boiled rice, platters of home-grown vegetables, fish Papa caught” (Wakatsuki Houston 31-32). Thus, being forced to dine in mess halls caused Jeanne to recollect what it was like when her whole family used to spend supper together. She does not forget the details of their family dinners in the past because at Manzanar her Mama, Papa, and siblings did not have the capability of eating all together like they had before. There were numerous memories Jeanne had of her family before being taken to the internment camp, and she cherished those moments. Additionally, various religions were practiced by Japanese Americans. However, families demonstrated their faith in all different ways at the internment camps. To illustrate, Jeanne conveys, “We kept a little Buddhist shrine in the house, and we celebrated a few Japanese holidays that were religiously connected-the way christmas is” (Wakatsuki Houston 38). The Wakatsuki family worshipped Buddha by keeping a place in their home dedicated to their beliefs. However, only a few holidays were a part of Jeanne and her family’s culture, such as Christmas. Although her life was changed drastically, Jeanne was still able to keep her trusts from the past. Similar to the Wakatsuki’s, other internment camp prisoners all over America kept their traditions alive through the duration of the camps. To be specific, one Japanese American professess, “Gradually Muramoto began to learn of individuals, many of them women, who had taught and organized performances of koto, biwa (lute), buyo (a dance form), nagauta shamisen (a string instrument accompanied by singing) or other traditional Japanese arts in major relocation camps throughout the American west and Midwest” (Cockrell 10). Japanese art performances were preserved during the years of internment camps along with religions and family rituals. They kept these a part of their lives to enhance their experience at the camps. Ultimately, people were able to use their family history and customs to raise their spirits through the awful times being imprisoned.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston expresses her experiences at Manzanar in her youth, the troubling living conditions she had to deal with, and the traditions her family held from the past throughout the memoir Farewell to Manzanar. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese American loyalty to America was questioned by the government, which is why people of all ages were imprisoned. Internees at the Japanese Internment camps were treated unfairly, especially since most of them were American born citizens. Those affected by the camps were forced to adjust to their new lives, including Jeanne and her family while striving to obtain their morals. Despite all of the barriers Jeanne was faced with, she was able to rise above them and share her story for the benefit of others.