Papa never speaks about his time in Fort Lincoln, and Jeanne believes that his silence is a result of his deep shame at being accused of disloyalty; for a Japanese man, there is “no greater disgrace” than such a charge. He’s also had to reckon for the first time with his lack of legal rights in the country he considers his home. All the men at Manzanar suffer from this “emasculation,” and everyone deals with it in some way, most less extreme than Papa’s.
Jeanne says that the men’s festering bitterness finally erupts in what is now known as the December Riot, which occurs on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Some outside commentators called it a demonstration of “militantly pro-Japan forces,” but Jeanne says it’s a result of the complex pressures and indignities of camp life.
The discrepancy between Jeanne’s interpretation of the riot and the commentators’ shows how preconceived prejudice can influence even the perception of clear facts—another insidious way that racism shapes the Asian-American experience.
For months before the riot, frequent mess hall bells announce public meetings to discuss both immediate problems, like wages and food quality, and bigger dilemmas, like whether the internees should “revolt,” declare their patriotism, or even return to Japan. Tensions are so high that people threaten to assassinate each other.
The public meetings emphasize the internees’ strong sense of community, even though thy haven’t lived together long. However, their implicit powerlessness is also clear—their committees have no legal standing and they have no formal way to petition the governmental bodies that control their lives.
On December 5, five men badly beat Fred Tayama, a member of the Japanese American Citizens League, which is frequently accused of collaborating with the camp administration. The next day, authorities arrest three men, one of whom is a young cook popular for frequent acts of defiance. The cook had recently accused a Caucasian steward of siphoning supplies of sugar and meat to sell on the black market; this is particularly meaningful charge since rumors have been flying that infants in the camp have died as a result of saccharin being substituted for sugar. The cook’s arrest is the immediate cause of the riot.
The siphoning of resources from a marginalized and stigmatized community corresponds to the robbery of Japanese-American possessions and land which is occurring simultaneously outside the camp. Although she rarely discusses it explicitly, Jeanne shows that racial prejudice is often motivated by the possibility of economic profit.
Papa does not participate in the riot and makes the children stay inside for its duration, but Jeanne remembers the unnatural quiet that lasts throughout the preceding morning, and hearing crowds rush outside the barracks after dark. Shouting in Japanese, the mob rushes from the hospital to the police station, searching for someone on whom to take out their anger. Papa calls them idiots and derides their plan to return to Japan; Mama says that maybe over there “they would be treated like human beings.” Papa tells her to be quiet and predicts that someone will be killed before the night is over.
While Papa is unyielding and adamant in his interactions with American authorities (for example, he refuses to give “safe” answers when he’s questioned at Fort Lincoln), he also refuses to ally himself blindly with the insurrectionist forces. Papa’s reluctance to belong to one particular group is a trait he passes onto Jeanne, who will eventually realize that her identity is too complex to be labeled simply as “Japanese” or “American.”
Joe Kurihara emerges as the leader of the rioters; he’s a former U.S. soldier so indignant at his current treatment that he wants to give up his citizenship and sail to Japan. He sets up a megaphone and begins giving speeches, alleging that Tayama and the administration are attempting to cover up the sugar stealing. The authorities agree to release the young cook, but the mob is not assuaged, and by this time it’s in control of the camp. A group heads to the hospital in search of Tayama. Others go to the police station to taunt the officers and sing in Japanese; the police throw tear gas into the crowd and, in the confusion, start shooting. This immediate stops the riot; two young men die as a result of the conflagration.
Kurihara’s former service in the military emphasizes that frustration and rioting stems not from Japanese sympathizing but from a sense of betrayal— after all, Kurihara risked his life for the very country that has now imprisoned him for disloyalty. The sudden death of two men shows the lurking perils of life at Manzanar, even though the circumstances often seem merely inconvenient and not actually dangerous.
All night after the riot, demonstrators keep the mess hall bells ringing, so Jeanne can’t sleep. She looks out the window and sees the searchlights sweeping over the camp. When she wakes up, the bells are still ringing—it’s the only sound she can hear.
While bells are normally a sign of order—announcing regular meals or meetings—today they’ve turned into a sign of chaos.