Editor’s Note: In honor of APA Heritage Month, we’re re-running a couple of our older pieces you may have missed.
In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which created military zones covering one-third of the nation. At the behest of nativist groups, opportunistic politicans, and military leaders, a series of presidential proclamations followed which defined Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants as “enemy aliens.” Military actions completed the process of forcing “enemy aliens” into internment camps, ostensibly to protect the military zones. One of those interned was MinÃ© Okubo, a Japanese American artist who was among the first to document life in the camps.
Okubo was born in Riverside, California on June 27, 1912. After completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at University of California at Berkeley, she was awarded the Bertha Taussig Traveling Scholarship, which allowed her to travel to Europe to study art. The onset of World War II in 1939 forced her back to the United States earlier than anticipated, but she soon secured a coveted spot with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Program. She created murals for the U.S. Army and for a time worked as an assistant to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in San Francisco, explaining his process to visitors while he worked from scaffolding above the audience.
On April 24, 1942, Okubo and her brother Tuko were forced to relocate to the Tanforan Assembly Center near San Francisco. Tanforan had been used as a racetrack and an airfield in previous years. The Okubo siblings lived for five months in a horse stall before they were transferred to Topaz, a permanent internment camp in the Utah desert. It was at this camp that Okubo began to record the lives of the Japanese American internees. Cameras were not permitted unless brought by white photographers chosen by the war department to produce propaganda, so Okubo recreated scenes of daily life in drawings and paintings. She amassed over two thousand works in her two years at Topaz, reproducing both banal and extraordinary scenes of daily life in the camps. She and other artists at Topaz created several issues of Trek Magazine while at the camp. In an interview in the late 1940s, Okubo explained her artistic output during these years by saying, “You had to work hard to keep yourself going, and to keep from thinking.”
One of her illustrations from Trek, a flattering depiction of a camp guard, found its way to an art show in San Francisco. Her drawing won a prize and caught the attention of an editor for Fortune magazine. The magazine obtained permission to bring Okubo to New York in 1944 so that she could work for them as an illustrator. Editors at Fortune also encouraged Okubo to publish her stories of internment and connected her with Columbia University Press. In 1946, while some Japanese Americans were still being held in internment camps, Okubo published Citizen 13660, a collection of over two hundred of her pen and ink drawings from Tanforan and Topaz.
Each illustration in Citizen 13660 is presented with Okubo’s detailed descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the scene, providing one of the earliest and most complete portraits of the process of Japanese American internment. In one drawing, Okubo and her brother pack and tag their belongings for storage in anticipation of their incarceration. In another drawing, internees talk with visitors through a barbed wire fence. A young woman with long hair and disheveled bangs is found in almost every drawing, perhaps in the foreground teaching children to paint, or in the background sticking out her tongue at a soldier. This was Okubo’s quiet way of reminding readers the book was the personal testimony of an American citizen, an artist, and a woman.