The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4
David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Farewell To Manzanar. By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. $5.95.
Reviewed by David Dufault, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University.
In recent years several different books have appeared about the experiences of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. These volumes have each portrayed a particular aspect of the unhappy years of Japanese Americans during their evacuation from the West Coast and relocation into concentration camps. Roger Daniels, an historian, presented in Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II a careful analysis of the reasons for the evacuation. And Maisie and Richard Conrat in Executive Order 9066, The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans compiled a great number of photographs that show the starkness of the camps. Finally, Dillon S. Myer, the former director of the War Relocation Authority, in Uprooted Americans; the Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority During World War II told the story from the point of view of the agency charged with supervision of the relocation camps.
What has been missing in recent years from the history of the Japanese Americans are accounts of camp life by the participants. With the publication of Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, and The Kikuchi Diary edited by John Modell, this lack has been admirably corrected. Of course, there have been other published accounts by Japanese Americans of their experiences. One thinks of Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter, Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660, and the brief, personal narratives in Dorothy Swaine Thomas, The Salvage. These books, however, appeared some twenty years ago. So the works by Jeanne Houston and Charles Kikuchi are especially welcome to a new generation of readers.
Although both authors deal with similar subjects, their approach is quite different. Kikuchi’s work is a diary which the author kept during those turbulent months from December 7, 1941 to August 31, 1942. Most of the diary entries have to do with Kikuchi’s stay at Tanforan Race Track, an assembly center for Japanese Americans in the San Francisco area. In contrast, Jeanne Houston consciously attempts to fathom the meaning of growing up a Japanese in America.
Charles Kikuchi, a Nisei (second-generation Japanese born in the United States, was twenty-six years old when the federal government ordered him to Tanforan. His childhood and young adulthood had been turbulent but rewarding. Due to difficulty at home in Vallejo, his family had placed him in a Salvation Army orphanage at age eight. Thus he grew up in a non-Japanese atmosphere. By 1935 he was working as a houseboy and was attending San Francisco State College. In 1940 he enrolled as a graduate student at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley. There he met the sociologist Dorothy Swaine Thomas for whom he was to work in the Japanese Evacuation and Relocation Study during the war.
Kikuchi’s diary is a fascinating historical document. The reader can follow the reactions of an intelligent and engaged observer to the government’s round-up of an entire ethnic group. As Professor Modell points out in his informative introduction, Kikuchi’s diary gives us a classic portrait of “ethnic ambivalence” and “marginality.” Kikuchi accepted many of the values of the dominant white ethnic group in America, but he also recognized his Japanese-ness. He belonged to both groups, but felt unaccepted by either. As he began his stay at Tanforan he wrote such things as “God, what a prospect to look forward to living among all those Japs!”, and “I just can’t help identifying myself with America, I feel so much a part of it and I won’t be rejected.” Yet he could not “stand kow-towing to a person just because he has a white face.” Kikuchi also recognized that his family, which he had now rejoined, was a “stabilizing influence” and “an asset.” It is no wonder that Kikuchi was “a very confused young man.”
The diary is also valuable for the detailed descriptions of life at Tanforan. For four months the government confined thousands of Japanese Americans in the stables at the former race track. Kikuchi carefully recorded the many tensions and few rewards of such a life. Although other Japanese Americans and scholars have described the camps, few have done so as vividly as Kikuchi. One learns about the political rivalries between the Japanese American Citizens League and other more progressive groups, and about the paternalism of the government’s camp directors. For example, the government censored movies and restricted visitors who came to the camp.
Kikuchi also describes the growing independence of the Japanese American children from their parents and the consequent weakening of the traditional role of fathers. Children often ate together, made decisions for themselves, and associated more with their peer group than they had before. In the meantime, the fathers were no longer the chief breadwinners of their families. Kikuchi tells us this in a most personal way. We discover what young people did at the camp; we learn of their social life, their work life, and their sexual life. All this makes the Japanese Americans very human in their reactions to imprisonment by a government to which they remained loyal.
The author’s stay at Tanforan was a “psychic turning point,” as Modell expresses it. Kikuchi arrived at camp convinced that he wanted little to do with other Japanese. Yet the night before his family and he left for the Gila Relocation Center in Arizona, he wrote,”..The chief value I got out of this forced evacuation was the strengthening of the family bonds. . . . There is something wholesome about it. . . . one does not feel alone.” He had come a long way from his former uncompromising individualism.
In 1943 Kikuchi went from Gila to Chicago, and then some months later the army drafted him. After the war, he became a clinical social worker in New York. Today, according to Professor Modell, Kikuchi’s feelings are still “both optimistic and ambivalent.”
Modell’s work as editor has increased the availability of the diary to readers. Modell has “somewhat altered” the diary from “social reportage” to a personal record of a talented young man. To do this the editor omitted sections in the diary on administration of the camp and various extended studies of individual Japanese Americans. Kikuchi continued to keep his diary while at Gila, and the complete document will be placed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. It will remain a valuable document for scholars and students.
Having learned much about Charles Kikuchi and his family during their stay at Tanforan one cannot help wondering what has become of them. Indeed this lack of information is the only disappointing feature of the book. One’s curiosity has been aroused about the lives of these people who struggled so humanly against a hostile government and society. The photographs in the book do much to make personal the people Charles Kikuchi so intelligently describes.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, also a Nisei, found herself at age seven in the Manzanar Relocation Center. With her husband, the novelist James D. Houston, she has written Farewell to Manzanar, a poignant account of her family, the years at Manzanar, and her adjustment to white America after the war. Of course Jeanne Houston was too young to keep a diary as Charles Kikuchi did. Instead, she relies on the memories of her family and friends, memorabilia of Manzanar, and works by scholars about the Japanese Americans. Her story is really “a web of stories” that tells of the relocatees before, during, and after internment. It is Ms. Houston’s attempt to come “to terms with the impact these years have had on my entire life.”
Despite differences in form and reasons for writing, the volumes by Kikuchi and the Houstons tell a similar story. Jeanne Houston in her first seven years had little contact with other Japanese Americans. She came from a relatively successful family, but her father, like Kikuchi’s, was deeply distressed by the treatment he had received from white Americans. Indeed the authors view racism in America as having psychically deprived her father of his manhood. For example, when Mr. Wakatsuki returned to southern California in late 1945, it was only to discover that the family’s furniture and fishing boats had vanished without a trace. Her father now had nothing; he was in the same condition as when he first came to the United States in 1904. “It was,” the authors write, “another snip of the castrator’s scissors….”
The Houstons clearly delineate her father’s character. In part, their book is a tribute to him; but it is a tribute made with full understanding of his faults. “He was a poser, a braggart, and a tyrant,” they write, but he also “dreamed grand dreams,” did things with a “flourish,” and proved capable at many tasks. When the war broke out the government detained Mr. Wakatsuki and sent him to Fort Lincoln, North Dakota. In all, he was separated from his family during nine critical months. And he returned from North Dakota to Manzanar a broken man. Despite his great difficulties and his alcoholism his pride remained.
The authors trace the decline of the traditional family organization, recount the great adjustments Japanese Americans had to make, and assess the psychic costs of the experience.
Of special interest in Farewell to Manzanar is the story of Jeanne Houston’s attempts to come to grips with the white world after the war. When Houston returned to school in Long Beach she felt “the urge to disappear and the desparate desire to be acceptable.” She soon discovered that she could compete successfully in athletics, scholarship, and various student activities. In social situations -clubs and choosing friends-different rules prevailed, and Jeanne was excluded. She soon learned that her “sexuality” was an apparent avenue of acceptance into the forbidden white world. After moving to San Jose, she was chosen by her high school classmates to be queen of the annual carnival. But even this did not make her “acceptable.” She realized that this was “just another form of invisibility.” She now knew that her desire to play totally by the rules of the white ethnic group was “false and empty.” Nor could she follow her father’s wish and become a traditional Japanese woman.
A few years ago Ms. Houston returned to the site of Manzanar to look at the place where her “own life really began….” She had wrestled with the problem of the imprisonment (her rejection by society) for twenty-five years and now could accept it: “I had nearly outgrown the shame and the guilt and the sense of unworthiness.” Indeed, the intensity with which Houston relates this story sometimes leads her into sententiousness. For example, having come to terms with her memories of Manzanar she writes, “I could say what you can only say when you’ve truly come to know a place: Farewell.”
Charles Kikuchi and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston have written valuable books. For the student and the historian, Kikuchi’s diary will remain a basic source. It allows readers to enter into the world of the Japanese American evacuees in 1942 and to see the reactions of many of them to the dramatic events of that year. The Houstons contribute nothing new for the scholar. But they do tell Jeanne Houston’s story with an emotional power that will affect many readers. Together these authors breathe life into a subject that in recent years has lacked contributions by the participants themselves.