By Chau Nguyen
Manzanar, which was used as an internment camp for the Japanese during WWII, serves as the backdrop for the novel. Courtesy of memory.loc.gov.
The internment of the Japanese during World War II serves as a constant reminder of America's racist past. Fast forward to the 21st century, and although racism has not ended, many of us would like to think that America has matured since that time. The idea of internment seems almost inconceivable now, but Perry Miyake's "21st Century Manzanar" shows that under intense pressure, those events can easily happen again.
The Japanese people attending a baseball game on the Manzanar camp grounds. Courtesy of memory.loc.gov.
The setting is World War III, and instead of nuclear warfare, it is now the Economic War against Japan. All Japanese products, businesses, and investments are banned. As a last attempt to save the feeble economy, Executive Order 9066 is reinstated and old internment camps resurrected. Once again, the Japanese are forced to abandon everything and report to the camps where an ambitious camp director awaits them with plans of her own.
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part "Evacuation, the Sequel," we find out that David Takeda has just put his sister Kate and her family on the train to Manzanar. Before making his own journey to the camp, David finds out from the news that his brother was just beaten to death on the highway by racist white teenagers. With anti-Japanese sentiments running high, David knows that he will have to make his way through the city carefully if he is to avoid the fate of his brother.
The second part of the novel is ironically entitled "Sweet Home" as life in the internment camp is anything but sweet. Here, we witness the deterioration of the family as daughters and sons separate from their parents to live in their own barracks. The moral fabric of the community is torn apart as the young girls partake in prostitution, and the young boys in petty crimes. The adults, having lost everything, are incapable of amending the situation.
The final part "Congregation," talks about the daring escape of a group of camp prisoners as they try to avert the government's watchful eye. They seek refuge on an Indian reservation, and although they themselves have escaped, the situation has not ended. In this section, Miyake draws a parallel between the Native Americans and the Japanese, providing a contrast between the first victims of America's racism to the latest group to be targeted. Although different in histories, cultures, and customs, these two groups were able to bond and support each other.
Throughout the novel, race is an omnipresent theme. On one hand, David gains assistance from his friends, a black man and a Latina lesbian, and also his Caucasian ex-wife. On the other hand, he also gets harassed by Latino gang members and young Middle Eastern immigrants. "It was the recent arrivals, who had tons of money and barely spoke English …treating his people, who had been here for generations, like the foreigners." Through this, Miyake shows that the line dividing "us" and "them" is a fine one, and it isn't necessarily the color of your skin that determines what side you stand on.
Within the events of the story, we also catch a glimpse of David's past from his days of working as a gardener with his father to his college years. This not only allows Miyake to put in reflections of his own life growing up in Venice, California, but it also helps to show that the Japanese were just like any other American citizen. They led normal lives and participated in average everyday activities. It was only their appearance that designated them as perpetual foreigners.
Through the various members of the camp, Miyake introduces a host of views that the Japanese community had toward the internment. They vary from those who had hopeful expectations of life in the camp, to those who were bitterly deteriorating away within the camp confines; from those who embodied "Japanese ideals" of being passive and obedient, to those who were "too American" and openly defiant.
Miyake also introduces the other side of the coin through Lilian Bunkum, the Nazi-like camp administrator who has her own prejudices against the Japanese but tries to mask it as genuine concern. Even though what she does isn't humane, she justifies it by convincing herself that it is good for America and the American people. It is through these sentiments that we realize, given the right justifications, individuals can go against their own moral code to convince themselves that almost any behavior is acceptable. Thus goes the saying "The road to evil is paved with good intentions." Her solution for the "Japanese problem" is a mass sterilization program, a plan she hopes would win her a seat in Congress.
Although set in the future, the story conveys a historical accuracy that makes it seem even more plausible. Based on 11 years of actual research of the internment camps, Miyake recreates the historical situation while embodying the different views, sentiments, and feelings of the people. He draws his inspiration not only from the case of Vincent Chin, the Asian American who was beaten to death by unemployed auto workers in Detroit, but also rumors of rounding up Iranian-Americans during the Gulf War.
In America where ethnic scapegoating has become almost the norm in periods of social distress, Miyake's book could not have come at a better time, especially in light of post 9/11 and the recent war with Iraq. His novel serves as a daunting prediction of what can happen when mass hysteria and paranoia get out of hand. Even though the novel centers around the Japanese, no reader of any ethnic minority group can set down this book without the unsettling feeling that this situation can possibly recur in the future.
October 10, 2003