The Lessons of History

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been nearly 30 years since the book was published, and 25 since the film about it was made. But the story of how the Wakatsuki family was treated in World War II America has grown more resonant, not less, in the years since.

"Farewell to Manzanar," the story Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston co-wrote with her husband, James D. Houston, has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 1973. It is read in schools and colleges nationwide, where it is the standard text on the Japanese internment. Like the book, the TV film of the same title, made in 1976, is finding new audiences. In coming months, 10,000 video copies of the film will be made and sent to California schools and libraries.

The Wakatsuki family's story found its audience long before September's assault by terrorists on the United States. But those events have created a climate of suspicion toward another group of Americans--those of Arab ancestry this time, rather than Japanese--and made the message of the book and film all the more timely, the authors say.

The story illustrates what can go wrong in a time of national stress, "when people seem prone to jump to conclusions along ethnic lines," says Houston.

And, says Wakatsuki Houston, for those who may not quite have realized how diverse a nation this has become, there was striking evidence in the victims of the attacks. "I think it was very shocking for many people to see that many of those killed in the towers were people from all over the world, of different color."

In her own life, she experienced racism at the hands of the American government, which later apologized for its actions, and had to come to terms with the issues of cultural acceptance in her marriage--she defied Japanese tradition in marrying Houston, a San Francisco-born novelist.

Jeanne Wakatsuki, born in Inglewood, was 7 years old, the youngest of 10 siblings, when her family was uprooted from their comfortable Ocean Park home in Santa Monica. They were packed off to a barbed-wired compound of tin barracks and crude back-to-back toilets without walls--one of the first families to be shipped to the internment camps and one of the last to be released.

Of the scores of books on the Japanese internment, "Farewell to Manzanar" was the first by an internee to be widely read in the United States. It is an accessible and unsentimental work. Unlike most of the other books on the Japanese internment, Houston says "Farewell" is "not a sermon on political injustice nor an essay on the Constitution. It allows readers to enter the experience on the level of empathy."

The film portraying the Wakatsuki family's experiences was directed by John Korty. After years out of circulation, it was restored and featured last spring at the Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival in Los Angeles. At the same time, plans were announced to relaunch it in video form to help educate California students and the general public about the internment.

Backers of the project include Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Universal Studios, the Civil Liberties Public Education Project of the California State Library and members of the Japanese American community. Universal Studios is underwriting the video project--producing the copies and distributing them to every public school and library in the state; publisher McDougal-Littell is providing 8,500 copies of the book and the teaching guide to be included with the school videos.

The Manzanar project is an offshoot of the Commission for One California, a forum established and led by Bustamante to promote cultural understanding. Among its 30-plus members is Carole Hayashino of San Francisco State University. It was Hayashino who, along with the film's director and others, worked with Universal to have the film restored and made available to schools.

"This is still a very significant film," says Hayashino. It was the first widely seen movie by, about and starring Japanese Americans. "Its message is still very relevant. 'Farewell to Manzanar' is a reminder of how precious our civil liberties and rights are."

Manzanar was one of 10 internment camps to which the U.S. government sent citizens of Japanese ancestry following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is in the high desert at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, northeast of Los Angeles, not far from the community of Lone Pine. In the 1940s, it housed 10,000 internees. The interred were not suspects in any crimes, not guilty of any wrongdoing. Many were children.

Living conditions were cramped, communal and emotionally dehumanizing--and they tore families apart.

Writes Wakatsuki Houston:

"Before Manzanar, mealtime had always been the center of our family scene.... .

"Now, in the mess halls, after a few weeks had passed, we stopped eating as a family. Mama tried to hold us together for a while, but it was hopeless. Granny was too feeble to walk across the block three times a day, especially during heavy weather, so May brought her food in the barracks. My older brothers and sisters, meanwhile, began eating with their friends, or eating somewhere blocks away.... Not only did we stop eating at home, there was no longer a home to eat in."

Manzanar officially closed Nov. 21, 1945. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1972 after a vigorous, yearlong campaign by Japanese Americans. The National Park Service maintains the site, which is open to visitors year-round.

When the book, published by Houghton Mifflin, came out in 1973, it shed light on a subject that had been largely ignored in popular histories. Fifteen years later, in 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized for the internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans and offered reparations to survivors under the Civil Liberties Act.

In the years since the book was first published, Wakatsuki Houston, 67, has made numerous public appearances and continues to write. She recently finished her first novel--a fictional, multigenerational story that draws on the camp experience. She is often invited to schools and colleges, mostly on the West Coast and in the Midwest, to talk about Manzanar and its lessons for the country.

She says she knows in coming appearances she "will be speaking a lot about diversity and what it means to be American" in the aftermath of the September attacks.

And while she describes America as a tapestry, as a land of immigrants, she says the nation's strength comes from the things that bind Americans together rather than distinguish them from one another--the concepts of freedom, of equality, of the opportunity to grow.

"It is why being an American is an exciting lot. We have an open field we can run with. Sometimes we forget the others around us, but we are in this together."

Wakatsuki Houston and her husband live in Santa Cruz in an old craftsman bungalow a short walk from the Pacific Ocean. The couple have three children, all of whom make their homes in Santa Cruz.

When the couple married in 1957, Wakatsuki Houston says her husband was her "blond samurai"--a man as handsome as a Coca-Cola model and as rugged as a Japanese warrior. "Wanting to marry a blond samurai reveals a lot of my conflicts," she says. Despite her traditional Japanese upbringing, she found herself attracted to the idealized white men she saw in a steady diet of Hollywood films. Her husband, it turned out, was equally attracted to Asians.

She attributes in part the longevity of their marriage to the desire on both their parts to continue to grow and change, to not stay locked in their initial roles.

Her husband, 67, is an authority on the history and cultures of the western U.S. The latest of his seven novels, "Snow Mountain Passage" (Alfred Knopf), was published last spring and is the story of the Donner Party's tragic fate.

At the time they met, Wakatsuki never imagined that her union with Houston would one day produce a book about race relations in America. As a young adult, Wakatsuki strove to cast away her Japanese identity and embrace everything "American."

"When I was a child, it wasn't just bad to be Japanese, it was almost criminal," she says. "My self-image suffered--I felt as though I had bombed Pearl Harbor." Her parents treated her as inferior to her brothers in keeping with the prevalent Asian bias against females; segregation on ethnic grounds "added a second layer" to her distress.

Because it was taboo in her family to talk about their humiliating camp experience, Wakatsuki Houston's most painful memories remained suppressed for more than 25 years.

In 1971, one of her five nephews who had been born in Manzanar asked her what it was like to live there. "I started crying hysterically," she recalls. "It was the first time anybody had asked me about the camp--it was as if a thunderbolt had hit me."

Houston, too, was in for a shock. Although he knew about his wife's internment as a child, they had never really talked about it.

As an author, Houston knew that writing about the internment experience would be cathartic for her. But that wasn't the only reason he offered to help his wife with the book--he convinced her it was a story America should hear.

Since Sept. 11, "we have cases all over the country where individuals are getting challenged or threatened because of their ethnic background," Houston says. "That's exactly what happened during World War II--the assumption was that anyone of Japanese ancestry was somehow connected to the bombing and could not be trusted."

In Japan, Wakatsuki Houston says, the word "I" is rarely used--Japanese conversation usually takes place in the third person.

That, for her, sums up the essential difference between American and Japanese cultures: the first stresses individualism, the other revolves around communal cooperation.

But, in America in these trying times, these values hold a lesson.

"There's a sense that we need each other, that we don't live in a vacuum," she says. "The 'me, me, me' comes back to 'we."'

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