The reissue of Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 by the University of Washington Press is especially timely, for interest in the Japanese American imprisoned during World War II has recently mushroomed with the establishment of museums and designations of former camp sites as national monuments. We owe a debt of gratitude to the UW Press for keeping this book alive by issuing reprints. This graphic memoir has a unique place in the literature for its presentation of the experience through the eyes and hands of a great artist.
When Okubo was incarcerated, she began doing what came naturally to her, that is, drawing pictures of her living the life of a prisoner. Since cameras and movie making equipment were not allowed, she picked up her drawing tools and started recording, leaving over 2,000 drawings, paintings and sketches of her time in the camps, first at the “assembly center” Tanforan and then at Topaz Concentration Camp.
With the pictures and the texts accompanying them, it is possible to get an understanding of daily life as experienced by the imprisoned peoples as they get rounded up, packed into horse stalls, and then on into the barracks in the desert. Okubo is documenting her own particular experiences but is acting as a representative of what happened to the group, the 120,000 individuals who went through this with her. The telling details, both in the drawings and the text give an immediacy as depictions of the hard impacts on the inmates, standing in endless lines, part of a mass of individuals reduced to being a number.
“To know what it was like, one would have had to live the shock, humiliation, loss, misery, sorrows, and tears,” Okubo said in a personal statement on a Day of Remembrance commemoration in 1993.
One can study the histories, the archives and all the records about the camps, but somehow, this book has an emotional power that mere words cannot express. Here she is, going through the process of finding her stall, filling her canvas bag with straw, shuffling through the bureaucratic maze, gazing out at the life on freeways just outside Tanforan. She is in every picture, the participant observer. She watches the “Caucasian camp police” walking their beats, peeking through knotholes on the lookout for contraband and suspicious actions. They must endure curfew in Tanforan, reporting for roll call every day at 6:45 a.m. and 6:45 p.m.
As quoted in Christine Hong’s new introduction, a former member of the War Relocation Authority, M.M. Tozier, who read the book after the war’s end, said: “After reading this book, I felt that I knew for the first time what camp life looked like, smelled like, and felt like to the evacuated people.”
Christine Hong’s fine introduction gives us more insight into an inmate’s predicaments. Because general policy was to assume everyone as disloyal until proven loyal, Okubo had to go through a gauntlet of examinations for release from the camp. Camp authorities needed at least five references including a former landlady, an ex-classmate, and three art teachers plus her local police and federal agency files. Most chilling was this: “It would also insidiously require testimony from unnamed camp ‘informants’ on her loyalty.”
Unfortunately Hong’s excessive use of difficult and academic terms, such as “carceral,” “interpellates,” “temporalities,” and “intersubjective overture,” mar an otherwise useful and informative piece. Perhaps to academics, these terms are meaningful, but for the general reader, they make the author’s meaning and intent hard to follow. Okuob’s own preface to the 1983 is far more grounded. Well, you can skip these introductions, get into the book, and draw your own conclusions about the meaning of it all.
Get a copy and study the drawings.It will come as a revelation for the many who have never seen it.