David Wybenga, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, has been drawn to Japanese comics, or manga, ever since he was a child. For #6 in his series “Mostly Manga, and Me,” David discusses the extraordinary work of Miné Okubo, who bravely illustrated and described her experiences while she was forcibly relocated during the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.
On Feb 19th, 1942 (75 years ago, as of this writing), President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing for the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-American people in the west coast states and Hawaii. Among the some 120,000 internees was 29 year old artist, Miné Okubo, who produced a thoroughly unique work of sequential art, telling the inside story.
If this is the first time learning about the Japanese Internment, then you are an easy YouTube search away from hearing the inimitable George Takei inform us about his experiences as a 5 year old, living behind barbed-wire. He spoke through TED talks, clips from CNN, and innumerable public speaking venues.
In the internment camps, photography was not allowed except by specific official photographers permitted by the government. Among them were the likes of famous photographers such as Ansel Adams and Dorthea Lange. There was also one covert photographer, an internee himself, Toyo Miyatake, which is another amazing story.
What I want to say is that with few exceptions, there was no significant recording of internment camp life.
At the end of 1939, when war broke out in Europe, Miné Okubo, a Japanese-American citizen, had been studying in Paris on an art fellowship from the University of California. Suddenly, in Europe, borders were closed, mail was delayed, and money that she had been expecting to be wired never arrived. She was stranded. After months more of waiting, she received news that her mother was critically ill. She then borrowed money and hopped on a ship, which was taking many European refugees to New York.
Once reunited with her family, things seemed to return back to normal. Then, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the life for a person of Japanese heritage living in California became very difficult, and within two months following the enactment of Roosevelt’s executive order, she was incarcerated with others at one of 10 internment camps throughout the U.S.
I encountered her work while researching another artist that lead me to the April 1944 issue of Fortune magazine. Scattered throughout this giant all-Japan issue were her small boxed illustrations of internment camp life, with brief descriptive text below. To my great amazement, I found that she continued her documentation of relocation camp life with 189 illustrations, which had been complied and published at first in 1946, then reprinted several times after.
I hesitate to describe this work as either a picture book or as a comic book – instead, it thrives by itself somewhere in between. Her book, which is as timely now as it was then, is Citizen 13660. It is an astounding, and incomparable firsthand account of the internment, which 46 years later, we are deemed to never forget with the help of Miné Okubo.
On behalf of the United States government in 1988, President Ronald Reagan formally apologized to all Japanese-Americans forcibly relocated to internment camps. Nevertheless, Citizen 13660 still remains relevant to this day, and I encourage you all to give it a look.