When Jeanne and her family first arrive at Manzanar, they are appalled to see the barbed wire that surrounds the camp’s grim enclosure. The fence demonstrates that they aren’t just in “government custody,” they’re in prison. In the early and chaotic days of Manzanar, barbed wire signifies the complete exclusion of Japanese Americans from society, and the drastic actions which prejudice can spur.
However, as internees respond to internment by creating their own functional society, barbed wire becomes less important to Jeanne—and it even sometimes becomes a sign of comfort. Jeanne describes a picture from the Manzanar high school yearbook in which a woman walks on a path towards the edge of the camp, but the barbed wire fence is out of focus and invisible. As Manzanar society becomes more functional, it’s easier to forget that the fence exists at all. Jeanne enjoys going on camping trips outside the fence with her class, but she reflects that if she had the option to leave the fence forever, she would run straight home to the barracks. By this point, life at Manzanar is all Jeanne knows, and the fence is a comforting boundary, rather than a limit. Jeanne’s parents also come to see the fence as protective. By the time the war ends, they’re accustomed to life at Manzanar, and the anti-Asian hysteria that has persisted through the war means that Japanese-American families will face hostility and violence when they return to their homes. Even when they are officially free, the Wakatsukis are among the last families to leave the camp. For them, isolation behind the fence signifies safety—however, it’s important to remember that this safety is informed by the racism awaiting them on the other side. Whether the barbed wire symbolizes imprisonment and exclusion or comfort and safety, it’s a reflection of the prejudice which has made Japanese-Americans unsafe in mainstream society.
Barbed Wire Quotes in Farewell to Manzanar
The physical violence didn’t trouble me. Somehow I didn’t quite believe that, or didn’t want to believe such things could happen to us. It was the humiliation. That continuous, unnamed ache I had been living with was precise and definable now. Call it the foretaste of being hated … At ten I saw that coming, like a judge’s sentence, and I would have stayed inside the camp forever rather than step outside and face such a moment.
These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep.