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The Lessons of History

A Japanese American woman's experience during the war resonates in post-attack America, where a new generation will soon see the movie depicting her story.

November 06, 2001|AJAY SINGH | 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:

\o7 "Before Manzanar, mealtime had always been the center of our family scene.... .

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