Citizen 13660, a Graphic Memoir of Japanese Concentration Camps, Is an Understudied Masterpiece

LOS ANGELES — How many of you came across Miné Okubo’s acclaimed book Citizen 13660 in school? I certainly didn’t, and I am in disbelief that such a significant work was missing from a curriculum that included other iconic graphic memoirs such as Maus and Persepolis. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Okubo’s work, the current exhibition Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660 at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) is required viewing. JANM marks the 75th anniversary of the book’s publication by contextualizing Okubo’s masterpiece alongside their impressive collection of the artist’s archives.

Citizen 13660 is a firsthand account of Miné Okubo’s experience in the Japanese concentration camps of Tanforan and Topaz in California and Utah respectively, capturing the details of her everyday life with remarkable detail, visual wit, and sobering insight. Presenting nearly 200 illustrations, its importance cannot be overstated as, in the artist’s own words, “the first and only documentary story of the Japanese evacuation and relocation written and illustrated by one who was there.” It is also undeniably an epic work of art in its own right.

Illustration from Citizen 13660 depicting Miné Okubo and her brother Toku standing with their government-issued family identification number affixed to both their baggage and clothing. (Japanese American National Museum, gift of Miné Okubo Estate)

As Okubo recalls, “Cameras and photographs were not permitted in the camps, so I recorded everything in sketches, drawings, and paintings.” The drawings follow Miné scene-by-scene: Her journey starts in Europe, where her yearlong art fellowship from the University of California is interrupted by announcement of war. Here she is next to her brother, listening to the radio announce the fate of Japanese Americans over the breakfast table. Shortly afterwards, we see her looking apprehensively at her new lodgings, the hasty whitewashing of the stables unable to disguise the sawdust and cobwebs of the former stables. When prisoners are later asked to prove their loyalty to the US government, we see the artist in the corner of the frame holding her nose in distaste. Miné Okubo speaks with stark clarity through the details of each facial expression and movement of the body, as well as the cleverness in her composition revealing a wide panorama of emotions. Each illustration is annotated with both humorous and poignant observations, “making things comical in spite of the misery,” as the artist writes, her voice (and opinion) ever-present through both image and text.

Growing up in Southern California, my education around the history of Japanese American internment during World War II was reduced to an abstract litany of names (Manzanar, Topaz, Tule Lake), the euphemistic legalese of terms like “relocation,” “non-aliens,” and “assembly center” obscuring the inhumanity required to carry out the forced removal and detention of anyone of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps. Seeing Okubo’s memoir, illustrated with such empathy and attention to detail, made the betrayal, humiliation, and downright misery suffered by countless Japanese Americans hit home in a way that no history textbook ever could.

Miné Okubo served as artistic director for a literary arts magazine created in Topaz known as Trek. Here she is drawing the cover of their second issue.  (Japanese American National Museum, gift of Miné Okubo Estate, 2007)

By displaying the artist’s original drawings together with other primary documents like book reviews, artist profiles, and pages from literary arts magazines, the exhibition highlights the complex politics surrounding the publication of Okubo’s memoir and the difficulty that Americans faced in accepting their Japanese American counterparts as equal citizens. The museum takes care to point out several editorial changes made by the original publisher (Columbia University Press), cutting out sentences describing police brutality or the inadequacy of the resettlement program, thus lessening the artist’s condemnation of the US. Furthermore, despite the book’s initial critical success following its publication in 1946, reception was not always favorable; several reviews, for example, tended to characterize Okubo’s retelling of her experience as devoid of emotion. Together, these documents are evidence of the fact that the nation wanted to forget, and perhaps didn’t want to know, the explicit reality of its treatment of Japanese Americans.

Long lines were common at Tanforan detention center. Miné Okubo documented the people who were waiting to receive typhoid and smallpox vaccinations.  (Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Miné Okubo Estate, 2007)

After its initial reception, the book largely fell out of public spotlight — perhaps because it was, as Okubo later recalls in the preface to the reissue of her memoir in 1983, “[published] too soon after the war … [when] anything Japanese was still rat poison.” In the fight to bring visibility to Japanese American history and fully convey the seriousness of what happened to her community, Okubo went on to advocate not only for her book, but for the rights of Japanese Americans as a whole. She became increasingly active in politics and was involved in the Japanese American redress movement, continuing to spread her story through an ever-steady stream of illustrations and texts until her death in 2001.

Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660 continues at the Japanese American National Museum (100 North Central Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles) through February 20, 2022.

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