Good Example Of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell To Manzanar Book Review
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Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar conveys her struggles to discover her identity in the wake of her experiences as a prisoner in Japanese internment camps during World War II. The majority of her struggles stemmed from the alienation she endured upon returning home from internment. As such, prejudices unequivocally influenced her identity and her feelings about her Japanese heritage. Houston slowly developed a sense of belonging and embraced an American identity when she returned to mainstream American culture, forcing her to reconcile her self-identity in adulthood. Although internment camps alienated Japanese and Japanese-American men and women from mainstream society, the setting of the camps nonetheless fundamentally changed both gender and familial relations by dismantling patriarchal strictures, which opened up new opportunities prospects for Nisei, or second-generation, women in both education and work while simultaneously granting Issei, or first-generation, Japanese women more autonomy. As a result, such novel opportunities in the camps to an extent empowered Japanese women and cultivated a sense of independence in both first and second-generation Japanese women by liberating them from the crippling structures embedded in patriarchy and the misogyny that inhered in. Thus, the internment camps provided Japanese women with the tools necessary for the acceptance by and assimilation in mainstream American society in ways that had previously not been available mere because of their race and perceived racial Otherness.
Houston provides a searing coming-of-age story that focuses on how racial prejudices and internment shaped her identity during the formative years of her life. She struggles with generational differences that are so blaring in her family as well as in how she deals with her peers. Houston makes cogent observations that underscore how internment complicated Japanese identity. She states that her mother “would quickly subordinate her own desires to those of the family or communities, because she knew cooperation was the only way to surviveshe placed a high premium on personal privacy, respected it in others and insisted upon it for herself” (Houston 33). Houston continues to note that “Almost everyone at Manzanar had inherited this pair of traits from the generations before them who had learned to live in a small, crowded country like Japan” (33). It is clear that Houston notices her mother’s struggles with reconciling her Japanese identity and living in the camp. Selflessness, privacy, and cooperation are fundamental Japanese values, but Houston and her family had to cooperate but give up their privacy in the cramped corridors of the camp settings. While life at the Manzanar camp was tolerable, it forced the sojourners to grapple with their own dignity and preoccupation with privacy.
Wakatsuki points to several times a breakdown in the traditional patriarchy taking place within the internment camps. Japanese patriarchs lost power not only over their wives but also over their children, who refused to listen to or acquiesce to their patriarchal commands. This dissolution of masculine power within the family structure is evident in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir Farewell to Manzanar in which she recounts a lurid moment during her time spent at the Manzanar camp when her father, in a futile attempt to reassert his patriarchal authority over his wife, almost physical beat her to a pulp with his cane while she laid on the ground, defenseless, passive, prostrate, and bleeding profusely. To stop his father’s unmerited abuse against his mother, Kiyo, Jeanne’s brother, yells at his father and commands him to stop before striking him in the face. Houston articulates her shock when she opines that “no one had ever seen such a thing before” (Houston 50).This chilling retelling of her father’s seemingly senseless abuse conveys how he responded to the impotent and emasculation Issei men endured amidst the internment camp experience. Kiyo stood up to and defied his father’s authority because he unequivocally no longer perceived of his father as an authoritative patriarch. Houston further underscores the psychological ramifications wrought by the internment camp experiences on gender norms and gender relations. As a young girl, Houston opined that “[Papa] didn’t die [at Manzanar], but things finished for him there, whereas for me it was like a birthplace” (Houston 34).
This devolution of patriarchal authority and control in collusion with the military set-up and prison-like settings evident in the camps altered traditional marriage patterns and customs because Nisei girls preferred an Americanized notion of marriage based on romance and love rather than economic advantage, which reveals how profoundly the internment camps indeed altered cultural expectations and perceptions as well as catalyzed the assimilation of young Japanese women into mainstream America. Jeanne records in her personal memoir vivid descriptions of their transient home, noting that, “the cubicles we had were too small for anything you might call ‘living’we slept there and spent most of our waking hours elsewhere” (Houston 28). Young Japanese girls spent the majority of their time school, participating in recreational activities that the schools put together, working to earn meager wages, or playing in and/or attending sports functions that did not require parental supervision. Issei parents no longer had the capacity to supervise their children as a result of restructuring of the Japanese family households at Manzanar. This reality is evident through Houston’s recollections of her father’s declining role in her own life as well as her observations of her peers who married out of love rather than necessity. Indeed, fathers no longer retained the ability to arrange their daughter’s marriage as they had embraced the American perceptions of marriage as a companionate relationship rather than one forged out of utility. Japanese men lamented over their daughter “romances,” according to Houston, especially when they talked about love and romantic relations, a western view of romance, which starkly contrasts traditional mores in Japanese society that viewed marriage as more of an economic partnership rather than romantic relationships. The closed and confining nature of the internment camps combined with the dissolution of parental supervision and authority over their progeny thereby allowed for romantic relationships to bloom and develop. Japanese men could no long control the romances that their daughters engaged in, as they spent their time socializing with their peers rather than spending time with their family in the close corridors of the barracks they resided in. Such patterns cultivated a desire in them to marry out of love rather than utility or economic practicality.
Such a reformed view of marriage is further evident in photographs and articles about how young Japanese women were preoccupied with sartorial girls in order to impress young Japanese bachelors in the camp. Many newspapers run inside of the camps, such as The Daily Tulean Dispatch’s “Strictly Feminine,” proffered young Japanese female readers suggestions for the ways in which they could impress their male counterparts by using certain hair products or donning certain sartorial fashions. Such a preoccupation with aesthetics and appearance underscores shifting marriage patterns that illuminate how the experiences of young Nisei girls such as Houston were profoundly shaped by the camp experience the psychological impacts they spawned. It implicates not only the increasing independence the camps gave Nisei girls by bestowing them the freedom to choose their own spouses but also their desire to replace the traditional arranged marriage with the practice of marriage based on love. This reformed view of marriage reflects a gradual embracing of marriage in the American tradition, thereby demonstrating that internment camps instilled American values and beliefs in the Nisei women and thus facilitated in their assimilation into mainstream American society.
Furthermore, first-generation Japanese women wielded more economic power than they had in traditional societal patterns, which is also evident in Houston’s memoir. She recalls that her mother worked as soon as they arrived at Manzanar because “she had a monthly fee to pay the warehouse in Los Angeles where she had stored what remained of our furnitureshe worried about this constantly” (Houston 28). Houston’s observations about her mother’s concerns and preoccupations underscore the economic responsibilities Japanese women suddenly had during internment because men’s means of livelihood were effectively shut off indefinitely as a result of the American government’s increasing suspicion towards Japanese males. As a result, women’s economic contributions became equally necessary in order for Japanese families to survive both during and after the war. The structure of the camps further promoted gender equality to an extent vis-a-vis the economic sector through the parity of wages, which empowered Japanese because they became major contributors to the family income. Internment camps offered various different jobs, as they were run by departments with government administrators who desperately needed help both in respectable sectors such as accounting, pedagogy, agriculture, and medical care along with other forms of blue-collar work (Houston 21). Houston further states that upon arriving at Manzanar, all competent and able-bodied individuals who were dexterous in needed labor sectors were expected to “offer their [work] services” both skilled and unskilled in order to physically prove their patriotism towards the United States (Houston 28). Regardless of gender, labor shortages created a vacuum for both men and women to work and receive equal wages, although meager, to one another. Nonetheless, women felt empowered because now they earned as much money if not more than their husbands and sons did.
While the camps did open up new opportunities for young Japanese women, Houston underscores how racism and prejudice indeed shaped her identity both during and after internment. Houston recounts an instant when Radine, one of her classmates, conveys her shock that Houston is capable of speaking English. Houston recalls: “I smiled and sat down, suddenly aware of what being of Japanese ancestry was going to be like. I wouldn’t be faced withovert shows of hatred. Rather, I would be seen as someone foreign, or as someone other than American” (Houston 158). Prior to World War II and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Houston never cogitated about racial prejudice, as she struggled with even fully comprehending what being Japanese actually meant. The reaction of her classmate to her English-speaking ability, however, forced her to realize prejudice and aversion cannot soley be viewed as physical harm and/or malicious. Often, prejudice manifested itself in the quotidian and the undertones in statements people make. While Radine did not intend to maliciously harm Houston but rather pay her a compliment, it is nonetheless unequivocal that racism is inherited rather than innate. Radine’s mother is overtly racist, which manifests itself when she refuses to allow Jeanne to participate in Girl Scout activities. Houston thus comes to the realization that such a perception of the Japanese as inassimilable racial Others. Houston connects Japanese internment with the inability of white America as embodied by Radine and her mother to perceive of Japanese bodies as actual human beings. This realization marks a shift in Houston’s view o the world from a naïve perspective to a more matured and adult view of a world marred by discrimination and cruelty.
As mentioned previously, Jeanne stated that her father’s life had ended at Manzanar due to the breakdown of traditional Japanese patriarchy, but her own life began there. Internment became a seminal event in her life because it tore asunder not only her community but also her family. Houston confronted bigotry on a macro scale and propelled young Japanese women such as herself to completely reconstruct their lives from scratch, colloquially speaking. American prejudices toward the Japanese persisted in the postwar era, and internment had unfortunately cultivated amnesia in Houston regarding the idyllic life she and her family had been a part of prior to the war. Despite opening up new avenues for young Japanese women such as Jeanne Wakatsuki, it is unequivocal that her personal stories about the harrowing experience of Japanese internment during World War II underscores the failures of American democracy. The crisis of internment spawned a variety of responses in both public discourses and amongst the Japanese-American population. FDR’s Executive Order 9066 forced the Japanese living on the West Coast to cooperate with their forced relocation. Despite the coercive nature of their relocation, Japanese and Japanese Americans in the camps rebuilt their communities through the formation of churches, temples, schools, and community organizations and groups. Nonetheless, internment was unequivocally a traumatic experience that greatly strained families and underscored the hypocrisy of American rhetoric about democracy and freedom. Once internment was terminated, Japanese Americans were immensely pressured into assimilating and acculturating into the cultural norms and practices in mainstream society. Such expectations fomented generational strains between the second-generation youth and their parents who so vigilantly tried to keep and sustain their cultural traditions.
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar; a True Story of Japanese American Experience during and after the World War II Internment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Print.
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