The girls of Manzanar

by The Orange County Register September 22, 2012

One was photographed by Ansel Adams. The other wrote a best-selling memoir. Their stories still resonate.

 

By THERESA WALKER / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The girls were 7 when Executive Order 9066 uprooted their lives in Los Angeles.

That April, in 1942, both ended up more than 200 miles away from their homes at the same desolate area in the arid Owens Valley, ordered by the U.S. government to live behind barbed wire fences and under the watchful eyes of armed guards in gun towers.

Joyce Okazaki of Seal Beach holds the book “Born Free and Equal,” which shows photographs of her, left, and her sister, Louise Nakamura, right, taken by Ansel Adams in 1943 at Manzanar War Relocation Center in the eastern Sierra. She now gives talks about that time in her life.

They were two children among 10,000 people, all of Japanese descent and two-thirds of them, like the girls, American citizens by birth.

They never crossed paths – at least not that they know of – at Manzanar War Relocation Center, where families lived in rows of Army barracks divided into blocks and “apartments” measuring 20-by-25 feet.

But, in different ways, each girl came to represent the place where their families were confined for more than two years.

The girl from Block 12, Joyce Nakamura Okazaki, became the face of Manzanar in 1944.

She’s the schoolgirl with the near-perfect curls in the book “Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans” by famed photographer Ansel Adams, who hoped to suggest, as he says in the introduction, that “the broad concepts of American citizenship, and of liberal, democratic life the world over, must be protected in the prosecution of the war, and sustained in the building of the peace to come.”

The girl from Block 16, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, gave a voice to Manzanar with the 1973 publication of one of the most widely read memoirs written by an American author, “Farewell to Manzanar.”

Her story has sold more than 1 million copies, and has landed on banned book lists, too.

Both Okazaki and Houston now spend much of their time educating young and old alike about Manzanar.

Their Manzanar discussions are part of a series of OC Public Library programs centering on the theme “Searching for Democracy” that start this weekend and continue into October.

A PERSONAL STORY

“Farewell to Manzanar” was not intended for any particular age group, but in 2001, Publishers Weekly listed the collaboration between Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her belated novelist husband, James D. Houston, as one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

It became part of school curriculum around the country and standard reading in grade schools to universities all over the world. A TV movie aired in 1976.

“Farewell to Manzanar” broke decades of national silence on what happened to some 120,000 Japanese Americans – men, women and children – detained under presidential order between 1942 and 1945 at 10 camps around the country.

“I was writing it for my family, for myself,” Wakatsuki Houston says of her memoir. “We never imagined it would be a book that would live on this long.”

She believes the power of “Farewell to Manzanar” lies in the story it tells about a family, and what relocation did to them. Rather than bring the Wakatsukis closer together, life at Manzanar broke the family’s bonds.

“It’s an honest story,” says Wakatsuki Houston, who has traveled the world from her home in Santa Cruz to speak about Manzanar. Her stop in Orange County includes scheduled visits with youth at Orangewood Children’s Home and teens from the Brea and La Habra Branch libraries.

She never tires of the subject. She sees the opportunity to engage in discussions with young people about issues such as Manzanar as the true meaning of democracy.

“I hope it enlarges (students’) view of community, of California, of country, of ethnic and racial diversity – and see it as a plus.

“It’s why America is the great country it is,” she adds. “Of course we have failings. But we can still revert to our ideals.”

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

In the photo that Ansel Adems took on a sunny fall day in 1943, Joyce Okazaki is smiling.

Back then, she was Joyce Yuki Nakamura. She looks sweet and innocent, with her head and her smile tilted just so.

She does not look like an enemy.

But she admits to being a cranky 8-year-old with one of the world’s greatest photographers.

They were outside and she asked if he could shoot the photo in the shade. No. Could she at least face a different way? No.

She didn’t like the blue-and-white striped dress she wore either. Her sister, Louise, 4, got the dress with ruffles and flowers. It was a mismatch for both.

“She was the tomboy type,” Okazaki says. “I was the girly-girl.”

Her father, who graduated from Berkeley with a degree in architecture, had been allowed to travel to Idaho where he picked potatoes to earn extra money. He had bought and mailed the dresses to his girls.

Her mother, Yaeko Nakamura, is included in the book. A USC grad, Yaeko Nakamura’s ethnicity prevented her from being hired as a teacher before the war, but she taught physical education to youth at Manzanar.

Okazaki’s image appears on the cover of the 2001 reprint of “Born Free and Equal” and has been seen in a number of exhibits, including at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, not far from where her grandfather ran a successful dry goods store before relocation, and at the Eastern California Museum in Independence, not far from Manzanar.

Okazaki, who lives in Seal Beach, retired in 2008 after working more than 20 years in libraries and media centers in the Los Alamitos School District.

She volunteers with the Manzanar Committee, the organization behind the successful effort to have Manzanar designated a national historic site. Okazaki answers often-asked questions about how to define the camps.

“My question is always, why was I, a child, put into a concentration camp?” Okazaki says. “I was a citizen. That’s against the Constitution.”

That’s not a discussion she could have had at 7, when relocation meant leaving behind her favorite doll, Buttercup.

But 70 years later, she can’t stop talking about what else was left behind.

 

DEMOCRACY TALKS

The statewide California Reads program encourages youth and adults to read books and participate in discussions about the theme “Searching for Democracy.”

OC Public Libraries received a grant from Cal Humanities in partnership with California Center for the Book to help fund its presentations. Here are upcoming events at local libraries focusing on Japanese American relocation during World War II.

“Farewell to Manzanar” author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston will speak Saturday at 2 p.m., Garden Grove Regional Library, 11200 Stanford Ave., Garden Grove, and on Sunday at 2 p.m., Laguna Niguel Library, 30341 Crown Valley Parkway, Laguna Niguel.

Joyce Okazaki, the schoolgirl photographed by Ansel Adams at Manzanar, will speak on Oct. 1, 7 p.m., at Los Alamitos Rossmoor Library, 12700 Montecito Road, Los Alamitos, and on Oct. 23, 3 p.m., at Cypress Library, 5331 Orange Ave., Cypress.

Artist Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz will discuss her book “Camp Days 1942-1945″ about childhood days at Poston, Ariz., and share movie clips on Oct. 26, 2 p.m., at El Toro Branch Library, 24672 Raymond Way, Lake Forest.

Through the month of October, the Fullerton Public Library is encouraging city residents to read “Farewell to Manzanar” as part of “Fullerton Reads, One City, One Book, One Adventure.” Activities will include an oral history project, speakers and community discussions.

Contact the writer: twalker@ocregister.com or 714-796-7793