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Ko is the oldest son of a rich Samurai family from Hiroshima, Japan. Financial circumstances compel his father to run a 'tea house' in Hiroshima to make ends meet. Ko is totally dismayed over this lowly act and wants to leave home. His favorite aunt gives him money to go to America to make his dreams come true. As a result, he physically leaves Hiroshima forever. His life, however, is permanently tied to Japan; no distance can erase his proud heritage.
In America, Ko lives in California. He shows himself to be a headstrong idealist, who does everything with a flourish and a show. He is not, however, afraid of hard work and takes various jobs to get ahead. He marries and settles down to a life as a successful fisherman. He and his wife have ten children.
Jeanne, his youngest daughter, first depicts Ko as a proud and authoritative father who provides for and dominates his family. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ko becomes a changed man. He is immediately torn between an allegiance to his native Japan and his new home of America; he symbolically sees the war as a battle between his mother and his father. Then he is arrested, falsely accused of treason, and imprisoned. As a result, he loses everything he has built in America and his family is sent to Manzanar, a Japanese-American detention camp.
When Ko is released from the Fort Lincoln prison after nine months and joins the family at Manzanar, he is a lost man. He is so shamed by what has happened to him that he becomes an alcoholic, incapable of working and supporting the family. In his depression, he often verbally and emotionally abuses his wife and his children.
Ko has a great affect on the entire family. His drinking leads him to violence, upsetting all of the Wakatsukis. He argues with his son Woody, trying to convince him not to go to war. Unable to get or keep a job himself, he forces his wife to work and support the family. He tries to keep Jeanne from becoming Americanized, forcing on her the mannerisms and trappings of the Old World Japan.
In spite of his weaknesses, Ko Wakatsuki has a soft heart within his hard and proud exterior. When he hears about the bombing of Hiroshima, he worries about the family he has left there. When alone and missing his motherland, he sings the old songs taught to him in Japan and weeps inconsolably. He always wants the best for his family and feels ashamed when he is incapable of giving it to them. His soft nature is also seen when he passes his time painting pictures and building a rock garden and when he rejoices with his wife over the safe birth of Eleanor's baby at the Manzanar hospital. At the end of his stay in the detention camp, Ko dreams of starting a co-operative housing project for the good of all the Japanese families displaced by their detainment at Manzanar.
Fortunately, when Ko finally moves from Long Beach to San Jose, he is able to rebuild a life for himself. He actually gets a job, tending strawberries, which allows him to feel better about himself and support the family. By the end of the novel, Jeanne is able to admit that her father did the best he could under the circumstance. In spite of his harshness, Jeanne was able to thrive.
Throughout the memoir, Wakatsuki's wife is called Mama; in fact, her given name is never revealed. The constant reference to her maternity is most appropriate. As the mother of ten children, Mama is strong, ever-caring, supportive, responsible and loving. She is always there to nurture her sons and daughters, even when she is forced into supporting the family by working outside the home. She is a much more reliable parent than her husband. Everything she does is accomplished with determination, self-respect and dignity.
Mama is a strong personality throughout the book. She defied her own family to marry Wakatsuki and then helps him to succeed. When her husband is arrested and imprisoned, she is brave and takes charge of the family. When the scavenging second-hand dealers offer humiliatingly low prices for her fine china and heirlooms, she responds by smashing them to bits; she would rather destroy her nice things than sell them to the greedy vultures who dishonor her with their ridiculous offers.
When she and her family are forced to move to Manzanar, she does the best that she can, trying to make the barracks livable and as pleasant as possible for her children. Mama also proudly deals with the many humiliating conditions of the camp, including open toilets that mock her dignity and crowded quarters that lack privacy and cleanliness. She does not even allow the shifting from place to place within the camp to dampen her spirit. Mama takes every situation in stride and conducts herself with pride and respect.
Mama emerges as a much stronger character than Ko, for she does not bend or break under the pressure of war, internment, or discrimination. When necessary, she proves she is pragmatic and sacrificial, taking even menial jobs to make sure her children are cared for. She is patient with her husband, even though he does not work and drinks excessively. As a mother, she proves that she is extremely caring and loving. With Jeanne, her youngest, she particularly understands the twin influences of America and Japan tearing at her and tries to help. It is no wonder that she is deeply loved and respected by all her children, through good times as well as bad.Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version