Miné Okubo: The Sustaining Impact of Creative Expression During Times of Trial
April 24, 1942. The United States government has just issued Civilian Exclusion Order Number 19 and posted it on nearly every street corner where you live in Berkeley, California.
You are a thirty-year-old Japanese-American designing and painting mosaics for the U.S. government—waiting, hoping for life to return to normal. America has been at war since the previous December after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But when your father and siblings receive notification following President Roosevelt’s executive order barring Japanese aliens or Japanese Americans from living on the West Coast, you realize you and your family are being relocated. You and every other Japanese American or Japanese national living in California, the western half of Oregon and Washington states, and the southern third of Arizona, are considered a threat to national security.
You have three days to pack.
On the day of your departure, the government transports your family by bus to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, located approximately twelve miles outside of San Francisco. You’re glad your mother is dead so she doesn't have to witness this. Tanforan, a racetrack, has been repurposed; it now houses government detainees.
Welcome to your new home.
After disembarking from the bus, you are separated from all but one of your family members. Guards escort you and your brother to a twenty-by-nine-foot horse stall. The smell of manure and moldy hay overpowers you. As you set down your suitcase, you wonder, where is the rest of my family? You’re also probably thinking, I am an American. What have I done to deserve this?
Your name is Miné Okubo.
Miné Okubo is one of seventy-five women I feature in American Women in the 20th Century, Part I: 1900-1949, a free e-book for anyone interested in women’s history. You can download it from my website or request a copy directly by clicking on this link.
At the Tanforan Assembly Center, Miné faced more troubling news. As if forced incarceration isn’t humiliating and frightening enough, she learns that her father is being sent to an internment camp in Missoula, Montana. One of her siblings is to be sent to an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming; the rest will be sent to a camp in Poston, Arizona. One brother has already been drafted into the U.S. Army (the irony cannot have escaped Miné). Miné and the remaining brother with her, a college student, are to be sent to the War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah.
One can only imagine what life at Tanforan, which spanned months before Miné and her brother were transported to Topaz, must have felt like. Removed from her home, detained by her own government, and parted from all but one family member must have been a living hell.
Above: Line-up of newly arrived evacuees outside of this mess hall at noon at Tanforan, April 29, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.
Miné was, however, a fighter. To survive at Tanforan—and later the Topaz Relocation Center, Miné turned to the one thing no one but she could claim: her creativity. Miné was an award-winning artist.
Born in 1912, after high school, Miné attended Riverside Junior College. Upon securing an art scholarship, she transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and graduated in 1936 with a master’s degree in art and anthropology. By then she’d won a variety of art awards, the most prestigious among them the Bertha Taussig Traveling Scholarship, which entitled her to two years of art study in Europe.
While Miné was touring Europe in 1939 on scholarship, World War II broke out, stranding her in Switzerland. With the help of friends, Miné managed to make her way to France where she was able to book passage back to the United States.
At both internment camps, art would sustain Miné. She drew and painted using whatever medium she could get her hands on. Her subject: life in the internment camps.
To give voice and space to her creativity, Miné isolated herself as best she could. Privacy, after all, was almost nonexistent. At Topaz, for example, over eleven thousand people occupied an area a mile square surrounded by four-foot barbed wire. The barracks to which detainees were assigned were even more cramped. Miné often put up a “quarantine” sign outside the one-room living space she shared with others, creating as close to a mental room of her own as possible under the circumstances.
She didn’t completely isolate herself, however. At Topaz, Miné also released the power of her communal spirit. She worked for the camp newspaper, the Topaz Times. In her free time, she taught art to children and adults. Eventually, she and several of her friends started Trek, an art and literary magazine. Miné served as the art director and designed the covers.
By some odd stroke of luck, Miné’s artwork captured the attention of Fortune magazine. Yes, that one. “Would she move to New York to illustrate for them?” they asked. If so, they could arrange for her to leave the internment camp.
Miné again had three days to pack, only this time freedom would greet her on the other side of the bared wire.
The rest is more than just history. Miné’s story is that of a unique and talented artist, a woman who rose above injustice to create beauty with grace one can only admire.
After Miné accepted the opportunity to leave the internment camp, while working for Fortune she wrote a book. Citizen 13660, a graphic novel whose name is the number assigned Miné in the internment camps, features pen-and-ink images along with charcoal and gouache paintings. (Gouache is a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a gluelike substance.) The book documents Miné’s life and that of her fellow Japanese Americans during their detainment in Tanforan and Topaz.
For consideration in her book, Miné had over a thousand images from which to choose. She selected just over two hundred, many of them from Tanforan. For each image she wrote a corresponding description, which adds further depth to her visual story. Hers was the first first-hand account of life in the internment camps published in book form, a rendering of the physical, psychological, and emotional impact of incarceration through the eyes of a woman. Because internees were not allowed cameras, Miné’s drawings were priceless. From the moment of publication by Columbia University Press in 1948, Miné’s contribution to this chapter in American history was recognized as a national historical treasure.
“To me,” Miné is quoted as saying, “life and art are one and the same, for the key lies in one’s knowledge of people and life. In art one is trying to express it in the simplest imaginative way, as in the art of past civilizations, for beauty and truth are the only two things which live timeless and ageless.”[i]
“To me, life and art are one and the same, for the key lies in one’s knowledge of people and life. In art one is trying to express it in the simplest imaginative way, as in the art of past civilizations, for beauty and truth are the only two things which live timeless and ageless.” -Miné Okubo
Timeless and ageless, indeed. Miné settled permanently in New York. After a successful ten-year stint as a commercial illustrator, she became an independent freelance artist, finally producing her own vison of art in which she tapped her Japanese heritage for inspiration. It will come as no surprise Miné earned widespread recognition during what turned out to be a seventy-year career. Exhibitions of her work would feature in shows in New York, Massachusetts, and California.
Of course, the story of Japanese American internees like Miné didn’t end in 1945 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled their detainment unconstitutional and President Roosevelt ordered their release the day before the Court made its decision public. Resentment at what happened to Japanese Americans festered for years, and rightly so. In 1980, Congress created a commission to investigate their internment along with the detention of Aleut Native Americans in Alaska during World War II. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians interviewed more than 750 internees, Miné among them. Two years later, the Commission issued a 467-page report titled Personal Justice Denied, which concluded there was no reason for the detention of these Americans, blaming it instead on “race, prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”[ii]
In 1983, Miné issued a new edition of Citizen 13660. In the preface, she 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.”
Citizen 13660 won an American Book Award the following year.
A recommendation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was for Japanese Americans still living to receive $20,000 each and for a five million dollar fund to be used for direct payments to surviving Aleuts evacuated from their homes, to compensate for the loss of education, the negative impact on families, and the racial stigma the forced internment further instigated. The redress, as it became known, was a ten-year process that began in 1988 after the United States government issued a formal apology to Japanese Americans. The redress would identify, locate, and issue payments to eligible Americans. Okubo received her payment. An ever practical individual, she used it to pay bills.
“I am often asked, why am I not bitter,” Miné wrote in the preface to the 1983 edition of Citizen 13660 regarding her detention, “and could this happen again? I am a realist with a creative mind, interested in people, so my thoughts are constructive. I am not bitter. I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again.”
I hope and pray nothing like it ever happens again in America.
“I am often asked, why am I not bitter, and could this happen again? I am a realist with a creative mind, interested in people, so my thoughts are constructive. I am not bitter. I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again.” -Miné Okubo
Historical fiction can help make sense of the past. Such novels also make history more accessible. Given the popularity of World War II novels at present, for my fellow readers, I would like to recommend two poignant novels that occur on American soil regarding the topic of Japanese Internment.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is the story of a Chinese-American boy and the Japanese-American girl with whom he falls in love at the vulnerable and tender beginning of their teen years and prior to Japanese Internment. The story reveals how racism, along with the detention of Japanese Americans, affected their Seattle neighborhoods—and their respective futures.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is another story of love, this between a white boy and Japanese girl on San Piedro Island off the coast of Washington state. It is also a story of a community’s struggle to reckon with its past involvement in detaining Japanese Americans.
Below are links to dozens more novels that may interest you. Also listed are resources for further exploration of the fascinating Miné Okubo and the painful, sad, and regrettable internment of Japanese Americans.
Do you have a favorite book or novel you’ve read about the Japanese Internment? If so, please share in the comment section below.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
Book lists featuring historical fiction about the Japanese American Internment:
From The Oregonian, one of Oregon’s leading newspapers
From Densho, an organization dedicated to maintaining history on Japanese Internment in the U.S.
From Kyuhoshi, a Japanese travel site
From Off the Shelf, a book blog
More about Miné Okubo:
Digital footage of the Japanese Internment:
Sources for this blog post:
LaDuke, B. “On the Right Road: The Life of Miné Okubo.” Art Education (May 1987): pp. 42-48. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3193056?origin=crossref&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Okubo, M. (1983). Citizen 13660. University of Washington Press.
[i] Quote retrieved from https://uwapress.uw.edu/book/9780295987743/mine-okubo/
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