The theme of isolation is addressed throughout the book. The Japanese-Americans themselves are isolated from their former communities, neighborhoods, schools and livelihoods. Being separated from familiar surroundings served as a way to demoralize the Japanese-Americans who found themselves in close proximity and even living with total strangers. Isolation also created tension within individual family units, between Japanese-Americans and Caucasians, and it created friction between some members of the Manzanar community that actually escalated into violence.
The Wakatsuki family did not see themselves as Japanese-American. In fact, prior to their internment, they had very little contact with other Japanese-Americans. However, with the onset of World War II, they were grouped together based solely on their ethnic-racial background, even though some were second- and third-generation Americans. This served as a way of imposing an identity on a group of people instead of allowing them to define themselves. Other people either refused to see them as individuals or failed to see their humanity all together. Having to figure out what her identity is creates a sense of disconnect for the protagonist as she tries to figure out where she belongs in post World War II America. She eventually discovers that her racial identity will play an integral role in an America that has drastically changed in the years since her internment.
Anti-Japanese sentiment was not unusual in states like California; however, it became more prominent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Japanese- Americans were grouped together and many were perceived as being enemies of the United States. Blatant prejudice and discrimination was experienced before, during and after the war as evidenced by young Jeanne when she reenters school and one of her classmates comments, "Gee, I didn’t know that you could speak English" (141).
Beauty, Attractiveness, and Desirability
The American ideal of beauty and desirability is explored in the text as Jeanne discovers more about herself and what it means to be an attractive young lady. She is drawn in by the attention that she receives from her male peers and notes the attention that her classmates, particularly Radine, receive based on how attractive they are as perceived by others. Jeanne makes a definitive comment that in order to overcome the “war distorted limitations of my race” she would use her “femininity,” (147) which included assimilating American beauty ideals.
The sheer determination that was necessary to live under the conditions of Manzanar reveal the spirit and desire to survive on the part of the detainees. Even as conditions in the camp improved, those who were interned found themselves having to think about the future and life outside of the invisible and real “walls” of the camp. Survival revolved around making sure that their basic needs were met, including food, clothing and shelter, but it was also necessary to work together towards the survival of the family. This is seen both while they are in Manzanar and after their release. In addition, Jeanne’s family and many of the other characters work to maintain the Japanese culture itself.
When families were relocated to the camp, they had no idea if or when they were going to be released. Yet, the Wakatsuki family and others maintain a strong faith in the decency of their fellow human beings even when their actions contradict this. There was also a sense of hope in a power greater than themselves, as illustrated by Jeanne’s desire to convert to Catholicism and learning from the nuns. Although she eventually becomes disillusioned, she still believes that there has to be some force, greater than oppressive ones, to draw from. Well before she is released, she knows that there is a better and much happier life awaiting them outside of the camp. She carries hope and faith for the future in her heart throughout the entire text, and this is further revealed when she talks about the futures of her own children at the end of Farewell to Manzanar.