Over the years, the family has moved a lot due to Papa’s different jobs. Jeanne was born on a farm in Inglewood, but she grew up near the water in Ocean Park, in a neighborhood with no other Japanese families. Papa chose to live there so that he couldn’t be “labeled or grouped” by his race. However, after Papa’s arrest Mama moves the family to Terminal Island; Woody and one of Jeanne’s older sisters already live there, and it’s comforting to be among other Japanese families in similar predicaments. However, Terminal Island feels “foreign” to Jeanne, as it’s the first time she’s gone to school with other children of her own race. She’s “terrified all the time.”
It’s interesting that Papa doesn’t want to associate only with people of his own race—even though he and Jeanne will later clash over her failure to behave like a traditional Japanese girl, her desire to assimilate into American society is in some ways an extension of Papa’s own refusal to be judged by his race. It’s the characteristics that Jeanne and her father share that cause conflict between them.
When Jeanne was little, Papa often threatened to “sell [her] to the Chinaman” if she behaved badly. This, coupled with the fact that she grew up among white children, gave her a “fear of Asian faces” that lasts until she moves to Terminal Island. Populated almost exclusively by Japanese family, the town is a “ghetto” controlled by the canneries. The men go fishing, and when they return all the women run to the cannery to process the catch, even if it’s the middle of the night. Mama and Chizu start working in the cannery in order to provide for the family in Papa’s absence.
Papa’s use of a stereotypical —even insulting—threat shows his desire for his children to feel American, even if it means leaving behind part of his own culture. Accordingly, Jeanne feels more ill-at-ease among Japanese-Americans than Caucasians. Unfortunately, while America purports to promote diversity and melded communities, the experience of internment will teach Jeanne that it’s safer and more comfortable to be among people of her own race.
In Terminal Island, the family lives in a glorified shack, “the cheapest kind of migrant workers’ housing.” The people around them are hardworking and proud to be considered “roughnecks”; they speak a slangy dialect of Japanese that Jeanne doesn’t understand, and because of this the other kids in her class despise her. Every day after school she and her brother Kiyo run all the way home, afraid of being attacked.
Throughout the novel Caucasian society lumps all Japanese-Americans together, but Jeanne strives to make the reader aware of the many cultural and class distinctions that characterize the Japanese-American community, making her feel more different from other Japanese kids than Caucasian ones.
After two months, the navy decides to push all the Japanese out of Terminal Island, as it seems “dangerous” to allow Asians to live so near the water and the nearby naval base. Mama knows something like this is coming, but she can’t prepare because she doesn’t know where else to get work and she has to support her young children and her mother, Granny, who is blind and speaks no English. When the official order comes, the family has forty-eight hours to move.
While the government narrative emphasizes the dangerous potential of Japanese-Americans, Jeanne emphasizes the vulnerability of her family. Especially now that Papa is gone, Mama is unconcerned with politics and must focus on providing for the many people who depend on her.
Immediately, opportunistic secondhand dealers prowl the neighborhood, offering ridiculously low prices for goods that the families can’t carry with them. Mama has brought only her most valuable things to Terminal Island: pottery, treasured tableware, and kimonos that Granny brought from Japan. When they pack up Woody’s car to leave, Mama’s beautiful china just won’t fit, and she reluctantly decides to sell it. A dealer offers her just fifteen dollars—a humiliating price. Worn out and stressed from packing and calming her family, Mama smashes a dinner plate on the ground. The dealer starts shouting at her, but Mama smashes every piece of china, even after he runs away.
This episode is one of the novel’s most poignant moments, and the only time when Mama loses her cool. Jeanne frequently stresses Mama loves her household possessions not because she’s materialistic but because they are a link to the country and family she’s left behind as an immigrant. However, for Mama it’s more important to preserve her inherited dignity than her inherited possessions. Smashing the china seems to alienate her from her culture even more, but it allows her to keep her pride.
With help from the American Friends Service, the family finds a house in a “minority ghetto” in Los Angeles. The whole family is gripped with uncertainty, as there are rumors going around about forcibly moving the entire Japanese population inland. Jeanne’s brothers constantly speculate on how to keep the family together if such a thing does happen; they don’t want to be separated again, as Papa was. Mama has finally received a letter from him telling her that he’s been imprisoned as an enemy alien in Fort Lincoln, North Dakota.
This is Jeanne’s third move in less than a year; the family’s repeated upheavals contrast starkly with the sense of rootedness they exuded in the first chapter, while watching Papa’s boats sail out to sea. It’s additionally sobering to learn that Papa has been actually imprisoned on a totally fabricated charge.
With Papa, the patriarch, gone, Jeanne’s brothers are anxious to take care of the family but not exactly sure how to do it. However, it seems like there’s not much for them to do but wait for government decisions. In these situations, the Japanese use the phrase “shikata ga nai”—“it cannot be helped,” or “it must be done.”
Jeanne’s brothers’ anxiety to take over Papa’s role signifies the centrality of the family unit in their worldviews. Although all the Wakatsukis see keeping the family together as superlatively important, they are unable to keep the pressures of internment from weakening their bonds.
Mama and Woody go to work packing celery, while Jeanne and her siblings Kiyo and May go to school. Jeanne is confused and hurt that her teacher “would have nothing to do with me”—this is the first time she’s felt “outright hostility” from a white person. She doesn’t understand that anti-Asian feelings, always present on the West Coast, have come to a head since the U.S. went to war with Japan.
It’s both irrational and heartless that an educator would take out her fear and anger over the war on an obviously innocent child. Episodes like this show the fundamental illogic of racial prejudice, and the extent to which it is rooted in fear.
A month later, the family is ordered to evacuate Los Angeles to Manzanar, a town they’ve never heard of. In some ways, the family is relieved; they’ve heard stories of overt violence against Japanese-Americans and feel this might be safer to be in government protection, away from the frontlines of naval operations. Proud to be wearing a new coat, Jeanne reports to a pickup point with her family and boards a Greyhound bus headed inland. It’s her first bus ride.
Jeanne’s blithe obliviousness often contrasts with her elders’ worry. Although her youth makes internment confusing to her, it also insulates her from fear and despair. By the end of the novel, Jeanne will conclude that life in Manzanar helped her grow up and develop into a woman, rather than hindering her.
Jeanne is very excited about the trip, and she feels safe on the bus. Half the passengers are related to her, and the adults are all playing cards or reading as they do at home. Mama and her brothers have strategized to make sure everyone in the family is evacuated to the same camp; other families, less lucky, spent months in separation while they waited for transfers.
Throughout her time at Manzanar, Jeanne will be surrounded by her ten siblings; however, the family will soon learn that physical proximity doesn’t guarantee closeness or unity, especially under the harsh circumstances of camp life.
By late afternoon, the bus reaches Manzanar. Jeanne sees a red, dusty landscape; dust swirls around the bus and pelts the windows. The bus drives through a barbed-wire fence and Jeanne can see some tents, behind which lie long rows of barracks. The adults on the bus are silent and apprehensive at this sight. But Jeanne leans out the window and yells, “Hey! This whole bus is full of Wakatsukis!” Her outburst breaks the tension, and everyone starts laughing.
Jeanne’s feeling of security is touching and emphasizes how much confidence her family gives her. At the same time, her insouciance contrasts notably with the barbed wire, a physical manifestation of the family’s unjust imprisonment and causeless exclusion from American society.
The Wakatsukis have arrived just in time for dinner, which takes place in a half-completed mess hall. The new arrivals eat overcooked food out of army mess kits. The Caucasian kitchen staff serves rice with fruit for dessert; this is a disgusting combination for the internees, as Japanese never eat rice with sweet foods. However, no one protests; when Jeanne opens her mouth Mama pokes her, warning her not to be impolite.
Even though the family is suffering from a major miscarriage of justice, Mama refuses to allow Jeanne to be impolite. Mama’s determination to maintain the conventions of normal life, while sometimes a quixotic endeavor, maintains her personal dignity and often gives the family the strength to go on with life in Manzanar.
After dinner, the family is taken to Block 16, which has just been finished the day before. The barracks are just shacks covered with tarpaper. Shoddy construction means that dust and wind come easily inside. The Wakatsukis get two tiny units, furnished with army cots, even though there are twelve members of the family, including Woody’s baby daughter. They try to partition the units with blankets in order to maintain some privacy.
The dismal conditions at Manzanar are indicative of the hasty and ill-thought nature of the internment project. Not only is this a material hardship for the family, it’s deeply insulting that they’re expected to live in such inhumane conditions.
In fact, the Wakatsukis are lucky to be living only with family members. Jeanne’s oldest sister and her husband live in a unit with strangers who constantly argue about domestic arrangements and noise at night. Eventually, Jeanne’s sister leaves Manzanar to harvest beets in Idaho; even though the work is grueling, she and her husband can have a cabin to themselves.
The lack of privacy at Manzanar is often an issue. Not only is it inconvenient, it contributes to family dissolution and strips away the internees’ personal dignity.
As the youngest child, Jeanne gets to sleep next to Mama. She’s happy about this and continues to sleep next to her mother every night until Papa returns.
Although Jeanne will quickly become very independent at Manzanar, her nighttime clinging to Mama reminds the reader how young she really is.