- Mine Okubo’s early life and education
- Executive Order 9066
- Internment time
- Okubo’s artistic documentation of concentration camps
- Release from the internment
- Publication of the Citizen 13660
Okubo was born in Riverside, California in 1912 to Japanese parents who immigrated to the United States in 1904, where they represented their home country in the St. Louis Exposition of Arts and Crafts. Okubo’s mother was a calligrapher, who graduated with honors from the Tokyo Art School, and her father was a scholar. After their move to America, her mother raised their seven children and her father worked as a gardener.
Okubo saw how her mother struggled as both a homemaker and an artist and said:
Oh, I knew I was never going to get married. Look at my poor mother. Her life was ruined working so hard for the children. She never had time to do anything. She stopped painting. I wasn’t going to wash anybody’s socks, cook their dinner. Forget it!
The young artist attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. In 1938, as the recipient of the Bertha Taussig Traveling Art Fellowship, she won the chance to study art in Europe. It was intended to be a two-year opportunity for Okubo, but only a year later, war broke out in Europe.
She was stuck in Switzerland with no way to get home. It took a while, but she eventually made it to New York where she learned that her mother had passed away, and then returned to the Bay Area in California. She worked as part of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project creating mosaics and frescos alongside artist Diego Rivera. During this time, she was also able to exhibit as part of the San Francisco Art Association.
Executive Order 9066
Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, thrusting the United States into the war. Then on February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued by President Franklin Roosevelt. Thousands of Japanese-born immigrants and their American-born children were sent to internment camps located in the western United States.
In a matter of days, thousands of families were forced to quickly pack, make government arrangements for their homes, and figure out what to do with the possessions they could not take with them. One of Okubo’s brothers joined the U.S. Army whilst the rest of the family went to different processing centers. Thankfully, she at least was able to stay with one of her brothers (who she only referred to as “my brother” throughout her book). They were first sent to the registration center at Tanforan in San Bruno, California where they stayed for six months and then transferred to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. She and her brother were assigned the family unit number 13660.
Okubo spent her time recording life at the camp: the indignities of sharing restrooms and living in squalid conditions, being at the mercy of the weather, as well as the absolute boredom and monotony they faced day after day. There were also brief moments of amusement, like talent shows and movie nights, or people experiencing snow for the first time. In the 1983 edition of the book, Okubo wrote,
In the camps, first at Tanforan and then at Topaz in Utah, I had the opportunity to study the human race from the cradle to the grave, and to see what happens to people when reduced to one status and condition. Cameras and photography were not permitted in the camps, so I recorded everything in sketches, drawings, and paintings. Citizen 13660 began as a special group of drawings made to tell the story of camp life for my many friends who faithfully sent letters and packages to let us know we were not forgotten. The illustrations were intended for exhibition purposes.
Citizen 13660, the 1983 edition.
She drew one-panel scenes, each accompanied by a few lines of text. She included herself in most scenes, serving as a kind of tour guide for us, the viewer. We see situations through Okubo’s eyes and often her reaction. In the 2014 edition, Dr. Christine Hong wrote in her introduction that Okubo, as a figure within the panels, reminds us that this “this could be you.”
In an early drawing, shortly after Pearl Harbor and before the Executive Order went into effect, Okubo shows herself on a public bus as her fellow riders stare at her with furrowed brows, she wrote, “The people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.”
A few pages later, she and her brother look back at their “happy home” as they prepare to leave for the bus station that will take them to Tanforan. Okubo has tears running down her face.
Citizen 13660: Tanforan
Only weeks prior, the Tanforan Assembly Center had been the Tanforan Park Racetrack. Horse stables became housing for entire families and mess halls and other facilities were either repurposed buildings or quickly erected.
Many of Okubo’s scenes show seemingly unending lines and crowds: lines to get vaccinated and lines to get into the post office, crowds in the mess hall, and crowds looking for their baggage. It must have been overwhelming and exhausting.
After arriving at Tanforan, the siblings were separated, told to undress, and looked over by a nurse for smallpox. Next, they were ushered to registration where she had to fight for her and her brother to remain together and then, amongst looming bad weather, they trekked through the mud across the camp to the horse stables that were their designated living space.
Okubo depicted her and her brother sweeping out the stall by hand with a whisk broom. She wrote,
The guide left us at the door of Stall 50. We walked in and dropped our things inside the entrance. The place was in semidarkness; light barely came through the dirty window on either side of the entrance. A swinging half-door divided the 20 by 9 ft. stall into two rooms. The roof sloped down from a height of twelve feet in the rear room to seven feet in the front room; below the rafters an open space extended the full length of the stable. The rear room had housed the horse and the front room the fodder. Both rooms showed signs of a hired white-washing. Spider webs, horse hair, and hay had been whitewashed with the walls. Huge spikes and nails stuck out all over the walls. A two-inch layer of dust covered the floor, but on removing it we discovered that linoleum the color of redwood had been placed over the rough manure-covered boards.
She drew them setting up their cots,
We opened the folded spring cots lying on the floor of the rear room and sat on them in the semidarkness. We heard someone crying in the next stall.
She showed women using the community bathroom stalls and showers. Without any privacy afforded to them, they utilized what they could: old blankets nailed up and boards that leaned against their knees. The showers also offered little modesty.
In a particularly poignant scene, Okubo wrote,
We were close to freedom and yet far from it. The San Bruno streetcar line bordered the camp on the east and the main state highway on the south. Streams of cars passed by all day. Guard towers and barbed wire surrounded the entire center. Guards were on duty night and day.
She shows herself sitting on the roof overlooking the camp with a streetcar just on the other side of the fence with the guard tower and barbed wire between them.
Citizen 13660: Topaz
September brought the relocation to Topaz on a two-day train trip to Utah. This was the more permanent location – though, of course, it was unknown how permanent it might be, and the camp was still in the midst of construction. They saw some familiar faces from Tanforan who helped Okubo and her brother find their living space. Getting there was unpleasant as the wind and sand and dust blew into their faces.
Okubo and her brother had to live with a stranger, a young man who hoped to relocate shortly with his father. They hung up a rare spare blanket to create a private space for Okubo, the lone woman.
She resumed her sketching: the community restrooms and bathing facilities (“four tiny bathtubs”), the crowded mess halls, and the schools where she taught art. She even documented the annoying fact that they tended to wear the same clothes as they all had to order from the same mail-order catalog. The expressions of the women, in their matching shirts, are at once humorous and heartbreaking.
The inmates continually battled the weather – extreme heat and cold, blustery sand and dust storms, and constant rain, that during the summer brought brutal mosquitos. Cattle, chickens, and hogs were brought in, and people planted gardens that everyone helped out with, though the climate and soil made it hard for the produce to thrive.
In early 1943, the military created a combat unit of Japanese Americans. Roosevelt sent officials to the internment camps and asked for male volunteers. They had to complete a complex questionnaire intended to prove not only their loyalty to the United States, but also their opposition to Japan. Many, unsurprisingly, found this insulting, which added to the existing tension. Those who answered that they wanted to return to Japan were segregated and later sent to a separate camp.
Rules began to relax slightly and passes were allowed for inmates for work or to go shopping for basic necessities. Eventually, the complicated relocation reversal process began. People returned to their previous lives or got new jobs or, like Okubo’s brother, joined the military.
Much red tape was involved, and ‘relocatees’ were checked and double checked and rechecked. Citizens were asked to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and to defend it faithfully from all foreign powers. Aliens were asked to swear to abide by the laws of the United States and to do nothing to interfere with the war effort. Jobs were checked by the War Relocation offices and even the place of destination was investigated before an evacuee left.
Okubo left in January 1944:
I was now free.
The last page show Okubo as she looked back at those who remained:
I relived momentarily the sorrows and the boys of my whole evacuation experience, until the barracks faded away into the distance. There was only the desert now. My thoughts shifted from the past to the future.
Published in 1946, Citizen 13660 was the first of its kind; a primary source of the Japanese American experience in an internment camp.
In 1976, Executive Order 9066 was officially repealed by President Gerald Ford. Five years later, Okubo testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. She shared her story, providing copies of Citizen 13660, the degradation she felt as a loyal American forced into a camp, and the hope that such a thing never happened again.
In 1988, more than 40 years after the end of World War II, Congress issued a formal apology and provided reparations to those who had been interned.
Though she is best known for Citizen 13660, Okubo was a prolific artist who painted until her death in 2001. In a book on her work, author Elena Tajima Creef described walking into Okubo’s New York apartment and seeing works in a range of sizes in various mediums and styles on every available surface.
The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles is home to the Miné Okubo Collection. In 2021 (and ending February 20, 2022), the museum commemorated the 75th anniversary of her book entitled Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660. It features her original drawings and book drafts. Living on the east coast, I was not able to see the exhibition in person. However, the museum’s website has some wonderful videos that discuss Okubo, as well as an online catalog of her work.