Mine’ Okubo Was A Young Artist Who Recorded World War II Experiences
She recorded history through her artwork
A young American woman of Japanese heritage used art to document a part of American history which some would like to forget. Many people are not aware of the grave injustice that was done to Japanese Americans during World War II. Mine’ Okubo drew pictures of her experiences of being incarcerated in a camp during that period of history. The artwork was published in a book, Citizen 13660. It is a novel containing a collection of 189 drawings with text.
Okubo was born on June 27, 1912, in Riverside, California. Her parents were immigrants from Japan who had seven children. Her mother was an artist who encouraged her children to pursue artistic careers, which several of the children did.
After attending Riverside Junior college, Okubo went to the University of California at Berkeley. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1938. She was awarded the Bertha Taussig Memorial Traveling Fellowship in 1938 so she was able to go abroad. She traveled in France and Italy while developing as an artist. She returned to the United States in 1939 after war broke out in Europe.
After being back in California, Okubo was commissioned to create several murals, including for the United States Army. She was living in Berkeley and creating mosaics for Fort Ord and the Servicemen’s Hospitality House in Oakland. After the start of World War II, Okubo received a special permit to travel more than the five-mile limit from her home to perform her work for the Army.
The Okubo family was removed from the West Coast in 1942. Her mother had died in 1940. Her father was arrested and sent to prison in Missoula, Montana. A brother was sent to the Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming where he operated an art school. Other siblings were sent to the Poston Camp in Arizona. Okubo and one brother were able to stay together. They were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center and eventually to the Topaz Camp in Utah.
Background of the Japanese American Experience during World War II
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This allowed the military commander in certain areas to remove any persons from their homes. The order was used as a racist move against those of Japanese descent. It could have been enacted against Germans and Italians as well, but only those who were ethnically Japanese were affected. People living in Hawaii and the inland states were not removed from their homes as were 120,000 people living on the West Coast.
There was a curfew for anyone who was Japanese, and they were not allowed to travel more than five miles from their home. That is why Okubo had to obtain a permit to travel each day to do her work for the Army.
Life became extremely difficult for the Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents. Then the Executive Order was enforced for most of those living in California, Oregon, and Washington. They had little notice to be ready to leave. They had to dispose of their property and goods. They could take with them only one suitcase and what they could carry. The government built ten camps in remote and desolute areas of the country to house those who were Japanese.
Japanese people in California were not allowed to purchase land for some time before the war started so most were living in rented space. There were some who had been able to purchase land in the names of their adult children who were American citizens or they had been able to buy property before that law was in effect in California. Some Japanese immigrants owned land in Washington and Oregon. They all had to make arrangements for their property in a hurry. There were some who had kind neighbors or friends who took care of their property while they were incarcerated. Others lost everything.
Even though she was an artist who was doing work for the U.S. Army, Okubo was not spared the unfortunate experience of incarceration. After being sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center, Okubo and her brother were given Citizen 13660 as their family identification number. When the camps were ready for occupancy, they were taken to the Topaz Camp in Utah. Okubo lived there from 1942 to 1944. She made drawings and sketches of daily life in the camps.
While she was incarcerated, Okubo was always with her sketchpad. She taught art to children in the camp and later entered a magazine contest with a drawing of a camp guard. Fortune Magazine, after seeing her talent, hired her as an illustrator. They made an arrangement that allowed her to leave the Topaz Camp and move to New York City in 1944.
After moving to New York, Okubo published a book about camp experiences. It was called Citizen 13660. It was first published in 1946 and has been in print for over fifty years. The book documents the struggles and achievements of the people who were incarcerated in the camps. The title was named for the number assigned to her and her brother. She has used art to explain this part of American history.
Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans want this history to be known so that no one else in the United States of America will ever have to suffer such an egregious injustice. These people did not deserve to be incarcerated.
Okubo’s book has been used in courses throughout the country for topics including artists in war, female artists, and ethnic artists. Okubo received numerous awards, including the 1984 American Book Award for Citizen 13660 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 1991. She has had her art in exhibitions at museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This quote from Okubo is in her book:
“In 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. Cameras and photographs were not permitted in the camps, so I recorded everything in sketches, drawings and paintings.” [Miné Okubo — preface to the 1983 edition of Citizen 13660]
Mine’ Okubo and her art have had a big impact on teaching about American History and the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. She passed away in February 2001 in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York.
To see an extensive collection of Mine’ Okubo’s artwork from the camps, look for “Mine’ Okubo art” on the internet.
[Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.densho.org, Citizen 13660 (book), The Japanese American Story As Told Through A Collection of Speeches and Articles (book)]