This chapter is told through the perspective of the boy. At the beginning of their internment, the boy thinks he sees his father in the faces of the other adult male prisoners. Everyone looks alike to him: black hair, slanted eyes, thin lips, yellow skin, high cheekbones. But whenever he calls out for his father, the men turn around and the boy realizes they are not his father. When he sees these strangers’ faces, he thinks that they all seem unknowable and inscrutable.
The boy’s description of the Japanese prisoners shows that he’s assimilated the prevalent racist beliefs about Japanese people. Using racially insensitive language, the boy expresses the stereotype that “all Asian people look alike.” Additionally, their perceived “inscrutability” was the exact reason why the U.S. government locked up innocent Japanese Americans citizens in the first place. Since the government could never know for sure the loyalties of these citizens (and it also considered them inherently foreign, alien, and “inscrutable”), it just incarcerated them all.
The woman, the girl, and the boy are assigned a room in a barrack not far from the fence. There is a window above the boy’s bed, and when he looks out he sees the rows of barracks and the guard towers where soldiers carry machine guns. On the first day in the camp, his mother tells him to never touch the fences, and to never to say the Emperor’s name aloud. In defiance of his mother’s warning, the boy sometimes walks past the guard towers, pulls his hat down over his head, and whisper the Emperor’s name: Hirohito. Hirohito. Hirohito.
In Japanese culture of the time, the Emperor was considered divine like a god. The woman knows that if the guards hear the boy say the Emperor’s name, they will be suspicious that the boy and his family are allied with Japan and the divine Emperor. As a small act of resistance, then, the boy repeats the Emperor’s name as a way of holding onto his heritage and cultural identity even as the government tries to demonize it or strip it away.
Most days in the camp consist of just waiting. Waiting for the mail, for news, for meals, for one day to end and the next to begin. The man scrubbing the dishes in the mess hall had formerly been a sales manager in an import-export business, the janitor had owned a small nursery, and the cook had always been a cook. One evening, the woman is carrying a bucket of water back to the barracks when she runs into her former maid, Mrs. Ueno. The maid immediately takes the bucket from the woman and helps her bring it to the barracks. The woman tells Ms. Ueno that she doesn’t work for her here, and that they’re all equals now, but the former maid doesn’t listen.
In the camp, class distinctions largely disappear—especially because the rich have been stripped of their money and belongings and now share the exact same fate as the poor. Internment itself has also highlighted the racial aspect of identity, so the prisoners are more unified by their shared Japanese ethnicity than they are divided by the usual lines of class, gender, etc. But class still exists, as we see when Ms. Ueno takes up her former social role as a maid and helps carry the woman’s bucket. Like the freed bird that wanted to stay in its cage, Ms. Ueno’s identity as a subordinate servant-figure is comforting and familiar to her, so she naturally assumes that role even when it’s unnecessary.
At night, the boy often wakes up, wondering where he is and why he’s there. He thinks he must have done something terribly wrong to get his family put in this place. Other times he thinks he’s still dreaming and that he’ll wake up to find his father making breakfast in the kitchen.
The boy’s guilt is another instance of characters accepting injustice and internalizing it as an inferiority complex. Believing in the essential goodness of the government, the boy looks for a personal fault or crime of his own rather than even conceiving of the possibility that an injustice has been committed by his government—the very system meant to protect him.
Every few days, letters arrive from the father. Sometimes, entire sentences are cut out by the censors, but they are always signed, “From Papa, With Love.” The boy remembers his father as a small, handsome man with delicate hands. He was always polite and when he walked into a room he softly closed the door behind him. He knew which restaurants would serve their family lunch and which barbers would cut their hair. He said the best thing about America was the jelly doughnut.
Descriptions of the father’s personality once again show the tragedy and blatant racism of imprisoning Japanese citizens. The father was a kind man who, though aware of racial prejudices against Asian people, found joy in American life and seemingly loved his adopted country.
The boy thinks that the dust is everywhere. Dust gets into your hair, pants, bed, and even your dreams. One night, the boy writes his name in the dust on the table in their room in the barracks. The next morning, he wakes up to find that his name is gone.
The erasure of the boy’s name foreshadows how the camp will slowly chip away at his identity. Over the course of the novel, the pressures of internment will compel the prisoners to give up their Japanese cultural identity, and even all individuality itself.
In early Autumn, farm recruiters arrive to sign up the prisoners up to help harvest crops. When the prisoners come back the following season, they say that they would never go out there again. They were shot at, spit on, and denied entrance to diners, theaters, and stores. They say that it is better inside the camp.
The intense racism outside the camp complicates what it means to be “free.” Previously, it seemed as if the fences marked the division between imprisonment and freedom. However, freedom for the Japanese prisoners no longer exists beyond the fences either, because “out there” they would face everyday oppression and restrictions from white citizens. Again the pet bird that refused to leave its cage provides an apt metaphor, as the people in the camp learn to accept and even prefer their internment because of the relative safety it provides in comparison to a life outside, where racists are constantly threatening your life and liberties.
Every week the people in the camp hear new rumors. They fear that they will be sterilized, stripped of their citizenship, taken out to sea and executed, deported to Japan, or given over to the Chinese for safekeeping. The soldiers tell them that they were brought to the camp as a matter of national security, and as an opportunity to prove their loyalty.
The rumors represent the fear of the unknown. Ignorant of their fates, the prisoners have no knowledge of the true intentions of their prison guards. Yet unlike the U.S. government, which also feared the unknown intentions of the Japanese American citizens, the prisoners—who have already suffered internment at the hands of the government—have real reasons to fear.
In a recurring dream, the boy always sees a wooden door. The door is the size of a pillow. Behind that door there is another door, and behind the second door there is a picture of the Emperor. No one was allowed to see the picture because the Emperor was divine, a god. In the dream, the boy is always about to open the second door when something goes wrong: the doorknob falls off, or he has to bend over to tie his shoe. Sometimes, a bell rings and he wakes up to find his father still absent.
Since the Emperor is a symbol of the boy’s Japanese cultural heritage, his inability to see the Emperor’s picture foreshadows that this identity will become more and more inaccessible. The Emperor can also be interpreted as a symbol for the father. Just like the boy yearns to gaze upon the Emperor’s face, he also wishes to see his father again. This connection between Emperor and father will be developed in the next chapter.
Three FBI agents had come for the father after midnight, months before. They had taken him out of the house while he was still in his slippers. The next day, the woman lit a bonfire in the yard and burned all the letters from their family in Japan, the kimonos, and photographs of their uncle who had been a general in the Emperor’s army. She burned the Japanese flag and the records of Japanese opera. For the children’s lunch, she packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches rather than rice balls. She told them to say they were Chinese, not Japanese.
Before the war, the family’s home was full of the signs of their Japanese heritage. Though the parents raised their children as Americans, they still instilled in them a sense of Japanese identity. In this way, their home illustrates the possible coexistence of Japanese and American cultural identities. Yet after the father’s arrest, the woman destroys all the cultural links to Japan out of fear the government will think the family is loyal to Japan. Fear causes her to eradicate a part of her family’s identity and assimilate more fully into white American culture—essentially trying to erase their past and, as a result, part of their humanity.
The only thing the boy knew about China was that people wore their hairs in long braids, hobbled on broken feet, and that they were so poor they ate dogs. One day before they left for the camps, a white man had stopped the boy on the street and asked, “Chink or Jap?” The boy answered, “Chink,” and ran away as fast as he could. Only when he got far enough away did he turn around and yell, “Jap! I’m a Jap!” But the man was already gone. A few days later, the signs appeared saying all Japanese had to pack up their things and leave.
The boy’s perceptions of China are infused with racism, which again illustrates how he has assimilated racist beliefs about people from Asia (from both Americans and the Japanese in this case, as in Japan at the time there was also a lot of anti-Chinese racism). Even though he has adopted these beliefs, he remains proud of his heritage, fiercely holding onto his racial identity despite the external forces that compel him to repress it.
Whenever the boy thinks of his father, he imagines him at sundown leaning against a fence in a camp for dangerous enemy aliens. He likes to think of his dad as an outlaw, wearing boots and riding a big horse. Then the boy feels ashamed that the FBI agents led his father away in his bathrobe and slippers, and the image of his father as a cowboy disappears.
The boy’s vision of his father conforms to popular Americans myths of the outlaw and the cowboy as heroes, which again illustrates the boy’s assimilation into American culture. Even as the boy imagines his father as an outsider and criminal in American society, he still relies on deeply American imagery. In the boy’s the mind, the father becomes an American hero while at the same time someone in conflict with the American government.
In late November, the army plants full-grown trees at the camp. As the woman looks at the trees from the barrack room window, she says that the soil is too alkaline and the trees will be dead by winter. She then tells the boy that she lost an earring on the train. She says that sometimes things disappear and there’s no getting them back. She then turns back to the window and says she had no business wearing those earrings, “no business at all.”
By planting trees—symbols of home and stability—the governments tries to accustom the prisoners to internment (or make it seem less inhumane). Yet the woman knows the trees will die and their plan will fail, because the camp will never be home. However, her claim that she had no business wearing the earrings shows that while she hasn’t accepted the camp as home, she has begun to accept her place in America’s racist social hierarchy. She seems to have now internalized the idea that Japanese minorities in America have no right to the prosperity that jewelry connotes.
In winter, the temperatures drop to ten degrees. One day, the boy taps the girl’s arm while she is looking at her reflection in the mirror. He asks her where the army gets the meat they serve in the mess hall. Annoyed at being disturbed, the girl puckers her lips and says the army rounds up the wild horses, like the ones the boy saw on the train, and shoots them. Over the last few months, the girl has been spending less time with family. She eats all her meals with her friends, smokes cigarettes, explores the camp past curfew, and ignores the boy when he is around.
The girl’s response that the army kills the wild horses symbolically connects the Japanese American prisoners to the horses. Killing the horses would mean utterly depriving them of their freedom and right to live. Likewise, the army has rounded up the Japanese citizens and taken their freedom. In this way, Otsuka associates freedom with the very essence of being alive. At the same time, she also shows how a teen girl’s typical antagonism of her brother (he had been fascinated by the horses earlier) can, in such a dire situation, lead to deeper psychological troubles. The horses had been symbols of freedom to the boy, and now he feels like that freedom has been murdered.
While the girl withdraws from the family, the woman withdraws almost completely into herself. The woman spends all day inside, staring at the stoves for hours with an opened book on her lap. At times she stares at her hands, as if surprised to see them still there, and then says that she doesn’t know if she’s awake or asleep. Worried for his mother, the boy tries to comfort her by telling her that she is awake.
The woman loses the calm practicality that marked her identity in the first chapter. As she pulls away from the family, she becomes more mysterious, unknown, and inaccessible to both her children and the reader. The camp causes her to lose her core personality and become an “inscrutable” person with no real identity.
One day, the woman says she cannot bear the endless waiting. She hangs a white sheet around her cot and sleeps away the days, dreaming of her childhood in Japan. When she is awake, she lies on the cot and tells the boy of her dreams. For the first time in months, the boy thinks he sees his mother smile when she tells him of the bamboo fishing poles her father used when fishing for trout.
Though the woman loses parts of her identity, she tries to stay connected to herself by living in the past. Unable to cope with the reality of the present—a world where she has been dehumanized and had to sever all ties to her cultural identity—she retreats into the past, trying to escape into nostalgic memories of Japan.
In February, a team of army recruiters arrive looking for volunteers to join the military. They give out a loyalty questionnaire to everyone. When one man says he is not willing to serve in the armed forces wherever he is ordered, he is sent with his wife to a different camp for the “disloyals.” In response, the woman tells the children that they shouldn’t cause trouble because the “nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Loyalty, disloyalty, allegiance, and obedience are just words for her. She tells them that the most important thing is staying together, and staying in their home in America.
The woman’s advice reveals the foundations of the novel’s theme of the “model minority.” This term refers to minority groups that have supposedly achieved high levels of socioeconomic success in America, and have “assimilated” well. Otsuka suggests that internment acted as a sort of cultural trauma in the minds of Japanese Americans, causing them to afterwards “toe the line” and be upright, unobtrusive citizens so that they would never be deported or have to face internment again.
All the trees die at the beginning of spring, and soon afterward a man is shot dead near the barbed-wire fence. The guard on duty said the man was trying to escape, but a friend of the dead man says otherwise—the friend claims to have seen a rare flower just outside the fence where the man was shot, and believes that the man had just been reaching out to pick the flower. At the funeral service for the man, the boy wonders what would have happened if the man had picked the flower: exploding ships, columns of black smoke, planes falling out of the sky.
The government planted the trees in an attempt to make the camp feel more like home, but the trees’ death then symbolically remind us that camp is no home. At home, people aren’t shot for reaching for a flower. The boy’s vision of destruction also reinforces the absurdity of racism and internment. In the boy’s mind, the government is so afraid of its Japanese citizens, and of letting them be free and flourish, that even a simple act of rebellion and independence like crossing a fence will bring down the American military.
When the following summer arrives, street signs with the names of trees appear throughout the camp. Seeing the signs suddenly appear, the woman tells the boy and girl with resignation that it doesn’t look like their family will be leaving anytime soon. The girl responds that at least they now know where they are.
The street signs are another symbolic indicator of how far away the camp is from home. The internment camp is as real of a home as the sign that reads “Oak Street” is a real tree. The girl’s response sounds ominous, even if it’s intended as sarcastic, and indicates the total alienation the family feels from their surroundings. At the camp, they are adrift, displaced, and rootless. These street signs—a feeble attempt at giving the prisoners a sense of place and belonging—only highlight just how lost they really are.
During the heat of the summer, the boy traces an SOS in the ground, but before anyone could see it, he wipes the letters away. Late at night in his cot, the boy imagines his father arriving at the camp with a single white pearl, asking whom it belonged to. Then the boy imagines sitting next to his father on his cot. Pulling out his pipe, his father would lean back in the cot and ask the boy to tell him everything he had missed.
The boy’s message directly echoes the scene where he wrote his name in the dust. While previously the dust erased his name, now he erases the message himself, illustrating how internment has affected his psychology. The boy no longer needs to wait for an external force to erase his dreams and desires. He has now learned to do it himself.