Born in 1912 to Japanese migrant parents in Riverside, California, Miné Okubo was a nisei (second-generation Japanese American) who would later become a prominent figure in the movement for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans who were forcibly evicted and confined during World War II.
Expressing an early and promising interest in art, Okubo followed her passion into higher education, attending Riverside Junior College (now Riverside City College) and transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed her bachelor's degree in 1935 and graduated the following year with a master's degree in fine arts.
Through an art fellowship, Okubo traveled to and throughout Europe over the course of 18 months between 1938 and 1939. However, with rising national tensions in Europe, Okubo made plans to return to California. Upon receiving an alarming letter informing her that her mother was seriously ill, Okubo made for home immediately. Soon after her return to California, sadly, Okubo's mother passed away.
The loss of her mother was not the only major event in Okubo's young life. On December 7, 1941, Okubo listened to the radio announce the news, “Pearl Harbor bombed by the Japanese!” Stunned as much as any American, Okubo began
to think about the repercussions that would follow for Japanese Americans in particular.
On April 24, 1942, Civilian Exclusion Order No. 19 was issued in Berkeley, California. Many were surprised that the exclusion orders affected the nisei and issei (first-generation Japanese American) indiscriminately. For Okubo and many others, it heightened the reality that the exclusions were blatantly anti-Japanese on the basis of race, not as military risks as the government claimed.
Okubo was interned at Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and later in the Central Utah Topaz concentration camp from 1942 to 1944. Within those two places, Okubo sketched the realities of camp life for Japanese Americans. Reflecting, she writes, “[t]ime mellows the harsh and the grim. I remember the ridiculous, the insane, and the humorous incidents and aspects of camp life. I was an American citizen, and because of the injustices and contradictions nothing made much sense, making things comical in spite of the misery” (Okubo, ix). Okubo drew nearly 2,000 sketches of daily life for the detained Japanese Americans.
For Okubo, it was “[t]he humor and the pathos of the scenes [that made her] decide to keep a record of camp life in sketches and drawings” (Okubo, 53). She recalls, “[t]here was a lack of privacy everywhere. The incomplete partitions in the stalls and barracks made a single symphony of yours and your neighbors' loves, hates, and joys. One had to get used to snores, baby-crying, family troubles, and even to the jitterbugs” (Okubo, 66).
Free people, both at home and abroad, failed to appreciate the indignities endured by confined Japanese Americans. Some wrote letters to her exclaiming, “how lucky [she] was to be free and safe at home” (Okubo, 61). In reality, Okubo and tens of thousands of other confined Japanese Americans slept on mattresses made of hay in abandoned horse stalls, scrambled for food every night in overcrowded mess halls, battled fierce winds with dilapidated housing, and were always within the range of the potent stench of human waste. Japanese Americans were, ironically, “close to freedom, and yet far from it” (Okubo, 81).
Okubo writes in Citizen 13660, “A feeling of uncertainty hung over the camp; we were worried about the future. Plans were made and remade as we tried to decide what to do. Some were ready to risk anything to get away. Others feared to leave the protection of the camp” (Okubo, 139).
During her confinement, Okubo was scouted by Fortune magazine to work as an illustrator on their Japan issue and was released to work in New York City on the April 1944 issue. Two years later, in 1946, Okubo published her first book, Citizen 13660.
Of her original 2,000 sketches, 206 were compiled as the telling illustrations in Okubo's highly pictorial recounting of her experiences in the camps where she was first assigned the number 13660, after which her book, Citizen 13660, was named. She notes,”[i]n the camps, first at Tanforan and then at Topaz in Utah, I had the opportunity to study the human race from the cradle to the grave, and to see what happens to people when reduced to one status and one condition” (Okubo, ix).
Citizen 13660 served both as memory to the abuses suffered by Japanese Americans during World War II and as a highly effective political tool in the efforts for redress and reparations that were organized by primarily Japanese Americans. Although well received, the book fell out of favor because, as Okubo recalls, “[t]he war was forgotten in the fifties. People throughout the country were rebuilding their lives” (Okubo, x). It was in the 1970s that Citizen 13660 made its way back onto the political stage. Okubo explains, “[f]or the third generation Sansei … the seriousness of the evacuation had at first been difficult to comprehend…. By the 1970s, however, they were growing up and many were in college. When they understood what had happened to their parents and grandparents during World War II, they were incensed” (Okubo, x).
Because of that groundswell of interest, Citizen 13660 was reprinted in 1973 and was again educating the U.S. public about the existence and experience of the concentration camps. Miné Okubo “believed that some form of reparation and an apology were due to all those who were evacuated and interned,” and was one of many who testified in 1981 before the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Okubo, xi). While every testimony played its part, Okubo offered powerful documentation when she gave a copy of Citizen 13660 to the commission.
During and after the time of Citizen 13660's reprinting Okubo remained an important figure within the Japanese American community. Okubo appeared on the televised program The Nisei: The Pride and the Shame, a CBS News special with Walter Cronkite in 1965; she was chosen as one of the top 12 women pioneers in A History of California (1800–present) in 1987; and she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus for Art of the College Art Association in 1991.
Okubo lived the remainder of her life in New York City in Greenwich Village. On February 10, 2001, at the age of 88, Miné Okubo passed away.
Kia S. Walton
Hanstad, Chelsie et al. “Mine Okubo.” Voices from the Gaps. University of Minnesota, 2004.
Miné Okubo Collection. Riverside City College. http://library.rcc.edu/riverside/okubo/ .
Okubo, Miné. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983.
Robinson, Greg and Elena Tajima Creef (Eds.). Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.