Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston revisits the three years she and her family spent in Manzanar, one of ten internment camps run by the US War Department for relocated persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Her father had been taken away earlier, arrested for presumably supplying fuel to Japanese submarines from his fishing boat off the coast of Southern California two weeks after the bombing of ships at Pearl Harbor. She survives. Her parents and older siblings, less so. The Japanese-American way of life did not. Houston supposes the traditions would have died anyway, but internment accelerated it.
Houston tells of how camp life for a child was part adventure, unlike the burden it posed to the adults. She also tells of how camp life began the disintegration of Japanese family life as extended families were separated from one another, and even when they could remain together, there was insufficient space for family events, such as eating a meal together, to happen. Yet in spite of this, families did what they could to make the overcrowded and insufficiently insulated homes as much like homes as possible. Setting rocks among raked sand in gardens outside the entrance to bring a bit of beauty, a bit of familiarity in the midst of a hostile environment.
Houston told her story in 1973, more than forty years ago. But the lessons of the story are important today as well. Fear of those who look different, whose traditions are different, whose language is different, can lead to intolerable policy decisions, as was the case during World War II. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we do not repeat them.
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