That morning, Jeanne and her family wait half an hour in freezing wind to get breakfast. They bring it back to the unit and eat huddled around the stove. Woody is hard at work fixing up the shack, but there are almost no materials to work with in the camp. Months pass before conditions in the shack truly improve. In the meantime, the family lives with the bare floors and bare bulbs, as well as the open ceilings that allow young children to climb up the rafters and spy on other people’s homes.
The family privacy both among itself and in relation to other families. This is a deep hardship for the Japanese-American community, which is very insular but also very independent. The families crowded into barracks are a notable contrast to the fishing fleet in the first chapter, where the men cooperated but each sailed their own independent vessel.
At this point, all the internees realize that they really weren’t prepared for the grim reality of camp life. At least the Wakatsukis brought coats; some men came in short-sleeved shirts and hats and had to wait for coats to arrive. The War Department, in charge of all the camps, sends old military surplus uniforms. Eventually, seamstresses among the internees form factories to turn old camps into usable clothes, but for now everyone makes do. Jeanne laughs when she sees Mama wearing old trousers much too big for her, but the important thing is to stay warm.
Even though Mama cares a lot about her personal dignity, she also knows when to prioritize practical concerns—this ability to balance her prioritize will help her lead the family more effectively than Papa, who is forever crippled by the injustice of internment.
At the beginning, Jeanne is constantly plagued with stomach cramps and diarrhea, caused by typhoid vaccinations, spoiled food, and the close quarters. To make things worse, latrines are crowded and often out of order.
Sickness like this shows that conditions at Manzanar aren’t just materially inconvenient— they’re also a public health hazard.
The first time Jeanne and Mama visit the latrine on Block 16, they find it covered in excrement and all the toilets overflowing. A woman directs them to Block 12, where they join a long line. The toilets here work, but there are no partitions. As do most Japanese people, Mama prizes modesty and it’s “agony” for her to use the bathroom among strangers. One old woman has solved this issue by surrounding herself with a cardboard screen. When she struggles to fold it, Mama assists her; they politely bow to each other, and the other woman offers to lend her the screen.
Mama and the old woman are able to maintain their dignity and formal conventions of politeness even in the middle of this squalid situation. Although Mama is a demure and self-abnegating character, gestures like this demonstrate her strength and resilience.
Eventually, the internees build partitions in the latrines, one by one. Mama and Jeanne’s sisters walk all the way across camp to use bathrooms with private toilets. Many women wait until the middle of the night to use the toilets, with the ironic result that midnight is “the most crowded time at all.”
The determination to preserve the customs of their old life is what drives internees to improve Manzanar and cultivate a real society there— but it’s also what makes the first months so difficult.
Mama never becomes accustomed to the “humiliation” of the latrines, but she learns to endure it, telling herself “shikata ga nai.” Even though she cares so much about personal privacy, she knows she has to concentrate on the problems of her family in order to survive. The desire for privacy and the willingness to subordinate oneself to the community are two typical Japanese traits, which the issei, or first-generation immigrants, have inherited from their parents and transmit to their children. It’s these traits that all the internees to “take a desolate stretch of wasteland and gradually make it livable.” However, the conditions to which they arrived are such “an open insult to that other, private self” that most people find it hard to overcome.
The novel often focuses on how Japanese culture helps characters survive and thrive in an American environment. This is one way of elevating and valorizing Japanese culture at a moment when mainstream society is maligning it fiercely. However, there’s an implicit tragedy in the knowledge that the traits that most support the Wakatsukis and the Japanese-American community are also most under attack from the outside world.