On the first weekend of December 1941, Jeanne Wakatsuki has just turned seven. She’s with her Mama and her sisters at the wharf near her house, watching the fishing boats get ready to leave. The water and sky are clean and blue, and there’s a lot of exciting yelling, especially in Papa’s boat—he likes to “give orders.” Jeanne’s oldest brothers, Bill and Woody, are Papa’s crew, and when everything is ready they sail away from the wharf. Papa has two boats, in which he has invested a lot of money and from which he takes a lot of pride. When he goes fishing, he wears tall boots and a turtleneck Mama has made for him.
The opening passage of the novel emphasizes the Wakatsuki family’s unity—even though the men are only leaving on a routine fishing trip, everyone has gathered to mark the occasion. It also shows their rootedness in America—Papa has shown his sense of belonging and security in his adopted country by cultivating a business and investing in things for his family, like the two boats.
Papa works hard as a fisherman, especially since he is still paying off a loan from one of the local canneries, which he used to buy his boats. Many of the Japanese families in the area work as independent fishermen, and although they’re technically competing with each other they always set sail together and share their nets. Standing at the harbor, Mama, Billy and Woody’s wives, and Jeanne wave goodbye. They don’t know exactly when the men will return, as the length of the trip depends on the location of the fish.
Papa’s dedication to hard work and independence—he doesn’t want to be under a debt for his boat, even though such loans are routine—show that while he’s not vain or afraid of hard work, he is very proud, concerned with maintaining his own dignity—and by extension, that of his family.
Jeanne is used to seeing the boats disappear beyond the horizon, but this time they stop when they’re still in sight and soon start returning to shore. Chizu, Woody’s wife, wonders aloud what’s wrong. While the boats are still sailing in, a cannery worker runs down to the dock and shouts that the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor. Neither Chizu nor Mama know what Pearl Harbor is, but the employee is running down the docks “like Paul Revere,” and doesn’t have time to explain.
In describing the arrival of the Pearl Harbor news, Jeanne compares the messenger to Paul Revere, a figure of American patriotic myth. Her rhetoric shows a deep sense of herself as American, which is ironic given that the memoir will address her attempts to gain acceptance in a society that doesn’t believe she’s American enough.
That night Papa burns his Japanese flag, which he brought when he emigrated from Hiroshima. He also burns any papers which demonstrate his connection to Japan. However, this effort proves futile; he’s not a U.S. citizen and he’s a fisherman, making him a suspicious person in the eyes of the FBI.
Even though Papa is often reluctant to abandon Japanese culture in order to assimilate into Anglo-American society, when it comes to loyalty and patriotism, he’s very clear about his priorities.
Two weeks later, Papa is arrested while the family is staying over at Woody’s house in Terminal Island. The FBI has been questioning all the Japanese families in the area and “ransacking” houses for any sign of treason—even owning a radio can be evidence of disloyalty. One morning they come to Woody’s house and take Papa away. Papa doesn’t struggle; he’s resigned to being “a man without a country.” By immigrating to America, he’s severed his ties to Japan; but he’s also prevented by law from becoming an American citizen, so he has virtually no rights.
The fact that ownership of ordinary items like radios now signifies disloyalty hints at the extent of anti-Japanese hysteria that gripped the country after the Pearl Harbor attacks. It’s this fear and new sense of insecurity on the part of Caucasians—not any substantiated concerns about the Japanese-American community—that lead them to deny immigrants and citizens their rights, thus subverting ideals of American democracy even as they purport to defend them.
What Papa does have is his “tremendous dignity.” He’s tall and in good shape from his hard work. He doesn’t want to be dragged out of the house, so he “leads” the policemen himself.
In a time of crisis, Papa always acts with one eye to his dignity—although this sometimes leads him to impractical choices, it fills Jeanne with confidence and strength.
For days, the family can’t get any news of Papa. They don’t even know what he’s been charged with, until one day an article appears in the local paper accusing him of delivering oil to Japanese submarines with his boat. The accusation makes Mama burst into tears and Jeanne hugs her legs, not understanding what’s going on.
Papa’s arrest is one of the most frightening and starkly unjust events of the novel—it reminds the family that no matter how much they feel committed to America, they don’t enjoy the rights of native-born Caucasian Americans.