“Like so many of the women there, Mama never did get used to the latrines. It was a humiliation she just learned to endure: shikata ga nai, this cannot be helped. She would quickly subordinate her own desires to those of the family or the community, because she knew that cooperation was the only way to survive. At the same time she placed a high premium on personal privacy, respected it in others and insisted upon it for herself. 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. Because of the first they were able to take a desolate stretch of wasteland and gradually make it livable. But the entire situation there, especially in the beginning – the packed sleeping quarters, the communal mess halls, the open toilets – all this was an open insult to that other, private self, a slap in the face you were powerless to challenge.”
The passage above comes from a remarkable memoir, Farewell to Manzanar. The author, Jeanne Wakatsuki, was seven years old in 1942 when she and her family were uprooted from their home and sent to live at Manzanar internment camp – with ten thousand other Japanese Americans. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans, the majority of them U.S. citizens, were interned in various camps, by order of President Roosevelt. Manzanar was located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California; though very little of the camp remains today, there is an excellent visitors' center, with displays that tell the story of the people who lived there.
“He also painted watercolors. Until this time I had not known he (the author's father) could paint. He loved to sketch the mountains. If anything made that country habitable it was the mountains themselves, purple when the sun dropped and so sharply etched in the morning light the granite dazzled almost more than the bright snow lacing it. The nearest peaks rose ten thousand feet higher than the valley floor, with Whitney, the highest, just off to the south. They were important for all of us, but especially for the Issei (the first generation, those born in Japan before the war).Whitney reminded Papa of Fujiyama, that is, it gave him the same kind of spiritual sustenance. The tremendous beauty of those peaks was inspirational, as so many natural forms are for the Japanese (the rocks outside our door could be the mountains in miniature). They also represented those forces in nature, those powerful and inevitable forces that cannot be resisted, reminding a man that sometimes he must simply endure that which cannot be changed.”
Farewell to Manzanar is the true story of one Japanese American family's attempt to survive the indignities of forced detention, and of a native-born American child who discovered what it was like to grow up behind barded wire in the United States. Be sure to read all about it.
Copyright © 2005, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.