On the final page of Those Who Helped Us, a new graphic novel by author Ken Mochizuki and illustrator Kiku Hughes, a ball rises in the air, its uncertain fate a matter of chance and will and hope.
The latest in a series of Japanese American World War II graphic narratives from the
Wing Luke Museum and Chin Music Press, the book honors those few individuals who
offered support to Seattle-area Nikkei through forced removal and mass incarceration.
Some efforts were dramatic. Rev. Emery “Andy” Andrews of Seattle’s Japanese Baptist
Church relocated his family to Twin Falls, Idaho, enduring racist harassment to serve
his congregation at Minidoka. Father Leopold Tibesar, a Catholic priest, moved into the
camp barracks, while others, like the Filipino Felix Narte and members of the Muckleshoot and Puyallup Tribes, helped some Nikkei keep or reestablish their farms after the war.
Other gestures were smaller, but meaningful. When others refused service to Japanese
Americans after incarceration, Carl Kossen stepped up to sell necessary insurance for
their homes and vehicles. “Just one little act, to say, ‘Okay, I’ll take your money,’” Hughes told me, “those are the details we take for granted when we are not facing that kind of persecution.”
Mochizuki carefully studied the lives of the “helpers,” and built on older research on figures like Ada Mahon, the formidable principal of Bailey Gatzert Elementary. “This story became a fiction/nonfiction hybrid out of necessity,” he explained. The helpers’ acts are annotated, with biographies provided in a short appendix, but their stories are woven together through a fictional protagonist, Sumi Tanaka, a basketball-obsessed eleven-year-old girl who attends Miss Mahon’s school and Rev. Andy’s church, and is coached by Gene Boyd, the beloved athletic director at Collins Field House in the Central Area.
These details provide a tangible sense of place, reflecting Mochizuki’s intimate knowledge of local communities and his celebrated career as a chronicler of Japanese American experiences. (Watch out for his next book, a biography of the legendary author Michi Weglyn!)
Hughes, whose 2020 graphic novel, Displacement, was itself an instant classic, appreciated the perspectives Mochizuki’s writing gave her on her own family history in San Francisco and Topaz. “There are similar stories,” she said, “but everybody’s got a little bit of a different twist.”
Such local accounts can be overshadowed nationally. Most prominent examples of
Japanese American wartime allies are Californian—lawyers Ernest Besig, Wayne Collins, and Hugh Macbeth, or Ralph Lazo, the Mexican American teenager who went to Manzanar to live with his friends. Yet the community character of Those Who Helped Us turns its focus onto small, everyday actions.
Mochizuki noted that “helpers” began as a shorthand term among the book’s production
team. “If ‘helper’ did seep into the book’s text,” he explained, “then those who assisted
were helping those they had personal connections with, rather than becoming an official
ally, or taking their side.” Whether formed at school, church, or the basketball court,
these bonds withstood tremendous pressure, abuse, and violence.
“That story is a hard one to tell,” Hughes added, acknowledging the challenge of representing the value and limitations of small gestures amid larger atrocities. “Little things can help,” she said, while leaving oppressive systems intact.
A dream of freedom is not freedom, and an act of kindness is not justice, but these stories honor a spark of possibility. For Japanese Americans confronting the reality- erasing force of racist state violence, this spark validated a vision of a different world.
One of Hughes’s favorite images, which Mochizuki described as worthy of framing, comes when educator Arthur Kleinkopf takes a few incarcerees on a trip outside camp. They stop to embrace a tree—“something they don’t see at bare, sagebrush Minidoka,” Mochizuki said. “The drawing, done in silhouette with Mr. Kleinkopf’s back in the foreground as he watches the celebration taking place in the distance, really captures that momentary, fleeting joy.”
For Mochizuki’s classic picture book, Baseball Saved Us, illustrator Dom Lee was allowed to interpret the text without interference, and he tried to follow a similar approach, trusting Hughes to provide images for his words. Just as Hughes had not worked with a writer before, though, Mochizuki had never written a graphic novel. “I had to write for the illustrations,” he said, rather than handing off his text for visual accompaniment.
Hughes spoke passionately about the power of visual art to communicate incarceration history. In Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660, a graphic account of camp life published just after the war, Hughes sees a telling contrast between the text’s neutral language and the complex emotions depicted in the images. She also cited the cartoonist Eddie Sato,
whose sketches at Puyallup fill gaps in the visual record left by government photography.
In her research, Hughes was struck by how groups like Densho, Tsuru for Solidarity, and Day of Remembrance organizers insisted on this history’s living aspect. “They didn’t isolate it in the past,” she said. “They were really focused on bringing action into that remembrance.”
A mixed-race Yonsei raised mostly apart from a Japanese American hub, Hughes found
answers to questions of personal identity in a collective commitment to activism. “One of
the things in Japanese American culture, specifically, is this sense of responsibility,” she
said, “this need to bring up this topic in a way that is pushing us to be present for other
Mochizuki, too, sees parallels between the political climate of the past and the present.
“What happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II occurred because the majority of America remained silent,” he said. “Will the next persecuted group in this
country be defended?”