Making his art out of his 1978 converted Bluebird bus, lifelong artist and storyteller Josh Tuininga started illustrating books 15 years ago, beginning with children’s books, until evolving his work into graphic novels.

We Are Not Strangers captures a new angle from which to understand the incarceration of the over 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes during World War II. Taking place in the Central District of Seattle, Washington, Marco Calvo’s story comes to life based on Tuininga’s discovery of his own local family history.

“It was a story my uncle told me offhand and it kind of stayed with me,” Tuininga said. 

We Are Not Strangers uncovers how Calvo, or Papoo, helped his neighbor and long-time friend Sam Akiyama when his family was taken from Nihonmachi, or Japantown, in 1942.

With no bargaining power, the Akiyama family — along with the rest of the Japanese American community — could not sell their property for more than a tenth of what it was worth, with Papoo piecing together a way to assist the Akiyama family’s expenses while they are incarcerated at Minidoka in Jerome, Idaho. 

During Tuininga’s and his uncle’s research process, Devin E. Naar, Professor of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington, agreed to meet up to assist the author and his uncle learn more about these untold stories.

“We started researching and got hooked up with Densho and just kind of started making a chapter about different parts of history until it slowly evolved into a full-blown graphic novel,” said Tuninga. 

Tuininga’s graphic novel, We Are Not Strangers, portrays aspects of the distinct cultures of the Japanese American and Jewish American communities. After talking about the fishing village in Japan her Ojichan, or grandfather, grew up in, Akiyama asks his daughter Mary what generation Japanese Americans she is. She shouts: “Sansei! Sansei!”

Subsequently, the novel finds the Calvo family is in the Sephardic Bikur Holim Synagogue in the Central District on Shabbat HaGadol listening to the rabbi. He speaks of Passover and how the Jewish community was once a stranger in the land of Egypt, welcoming strangers to the “Seder table,” and drawing comparisons between the the plight of Jewish people and that of Japanese Americans in the 20th century.

“The Jews had an ally with the U.S. against the Nazis, yet saw the Japanese Americans get incarcerated by their own government,” Tuininga said. 

While the Jewish American community was fearing for their families in Germany, an ally of Japan, they were simultaneously witnessing their Japanese American neighbors taken from their homes by the U.S. government. Tuininga insightfully captures this complex internal conflict and how the two communities navigated a polarizing sociopolitical climate.

Tuininga’s story eloquently highlights the way Papoo stood in solidarity with the Akiyama family and the Japanese American community which is partially attributed to the multimodality of the graphic novel medium. 

“Reading a book is only one modality — there are so many types like words, panels, the information between the panels… I felt like this would get to more people,” explained Tuninga. “The stuff that’s coming out these days in this art form is some of the most compelling stuff.”

The newspapers that the characters are reading in We Are Not Strangers depict headlines from real publication archives. The expressions on the characters’ faces show the array of undertones throughout the story. Historical landmarks of a 1940s Central District pop up throughout the panels. These are all captivating features of Tuininga’s work.

The multimodality of graphic novels ultimately conveys a sense of empathy to the reader. From seeing Papoo and Sam Akiyama fishing together in one chapter, to then watching Papoo fish by himself after Executive Order 9066. From feeling Papoo’s stress while taking care of his family and the Akiyama business while they’re away, to experiencing Akiyama’s daughter Mary’s alienation from her friends who question her “Americanness.” 

There are rarely incarceration stories that focus on solidarity and the (re)actions of neighbors and surrounding folks, much less that between the Jewish American and Japanese American communities. The comraderie between Papoo and Sam Akiyama was not only refreshing but comforting and empowering. 

“There are so many takeaways [from this story], like, how would I be in this situation?” said Tuininga.

Josh Tuininga will be in conversation with Dr. Devin E. Naar and Tom Ikeda on Monday, October 23, 2023, at 7:00PM at Third Place Books Lake Forest. The event link can be found here: 

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