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Farewell to Manzanar is an autobiographical memoir of Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston, one of the thousands of Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps in the 20th century by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December of 1941. At the age of seven, young Jeanne and her family were evacuated to Manzanar—an internment located in Owens Valley, California.
Over the span of three and a half years, Jeanne experienced brokenness within her family, uncomfortable living conditions, inedible food, culture shock, and ambiguous grief of her father after spending an unspoken nine months in Fort Lincoln, North Dakota. Manzanar itself went through radical changes since its first impressions in 1942, with the development of churches, schools, clubs, job openings, and extra-curricular activities available.
1945 marked the end of World War II, and naturally, the closing of internment camps. Jeanne and her family set on a 225-mile journey to west Long Beach, California, and soon after to San Jose, California where post-war life is just as Jeanne fears. Full of rejection, discrimination, and missed opportunities, Jeanne is continually told who she can and cannot be—until her coronation as prom queen, which she realized she would never have known unless she let the voices, other than her own, go.
Fast forward 27 years later: Jeanne is travelling back to Manzanar in 1972 with her husband and three children. Jeanne relives her suppressed memories and realizes that Manzanar was not a burden, but where her life really began. Jeanne will never forget Manzanar, but is able to bid it farewell.
Since the rise of fear that Asians were taking over the opportunities that Europeans had originally come over from the East for, and because of the fear that the number of Asians would dominate Americans, the Exclusion Act in 1882 restricted all Asians from entering into American society. Since the Exclusion Act, in 1905, and in an attempt to expand, Japan and Russia fought over Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. (Keene, 585) With Japan defeating Russia and becoming allies with America, Americans still believed that Asians—in this case, Japanese—were to be feared just as their Chinese neighbors were nearly 20 years earlier.
As racial prejudice was present in American society, a school in San Francisco decided that they would segregate American children and every other Asian ethnic group to another; this outraged Japan. After their triumphant defeat of a European power, they deemed themselves of a higher standard to Chinese and Koreans. So, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt—as a way to favor both countries because Hawaii needed Japanese labors, but also to halt Japanese immigrants into American society—made the Gentleman’s Agreement. This stated that America would only allow immigration for Japanese workers into Hawaii, and in return, Japan did not allow their own to immigrate to America—only to those who were elite professionals, relatives of Japanese-American citizens, and wives of Japanese men already settled in America. They would annually immigrate through Angel Island in San Francisco to alleviate the fear that the number of Japanese immigrants in American society would take over. (Keene, 585)
In 1919, advocating for their American rights against Japanese immigrants resulted in the restriction of the Japanese owning property and obtaining American citizenship because they were not "white." The Japanese, however, found a loophole as wives could give birth to children on American soil, automatically admitting them to American citizenship and resulting in the exclusion of prospective Japanese wives to America in 1921. That would be until 1924 when Japanese immigration from all Asian ethnic groups was banished.
On December 7, 1941, America’s recurrent fight and greatest fear against the Japanese had come true. A surprising attack from Japanese fighter planes struck an American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that which provoked the start of World War II. Fear, discrimination, and racism towards the Japanese in American was continually present, but now, their lives became even more difficult as the true allegiance of the Japanese in America was questioned. Many Americans believed that many of the Japanese Americans were spies for Japan, and so, in the midst of uncertainty and to ensure security for all American citizens—two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942—President Franklin D. Roosevelt forced an evacuation of both Japanese and Japanese-Americans to be sent to internment camps where they would be kept captive and isolated from the rest of American society. Most Japanese Americans had to give up their homes, their stuff, their jobs, and were only allowed to bring one suitcase full of their belongings until the end of the war—they had no idea when that would be. But even for the duration of the war, since the majority of Japanese were American, they believed that their rights had been violated and decided to join the military to prove their allegiance to America, creating the 422nd Regimental Combat Team—the most decorated in American history.