Miné Okubo

Miné Okubo was an American writer and artist best known for the 1946 book Citizen 13660, which documents her experience in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. Citizen 13660, which is sometimes termed an early graphic novel and at others a visual autobiography, includes sketches of people, scenes, and events Okubo observed during two years of confinement, first in the Tanforan Assembly Center and then the Topaz War Relocation Center (1942-44). 

Okubo was born in Riverside, California, and attended first Riverside Junior College and then the University of California–Berkeley, where she earned her M.F.A. in 1938. UCB also awarded Okubo a Bertha Taussig Memorial Traveling Fellowship, which enabled her to travel across France and Italy for two years. During this time Okuba studied with avant-garde painter Fernand Léger in Paris and continued to explore and develop her own artistic style. When she returned to the US, Okuba collaborated with muralist Diego Rivera on art for the Works Progress Administration and was commissioned by the Federal Art Project and the United States Army to create several more murals and mosaics. Her projects were interrupted, though, when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 went into effect, mandating the internment of all Japanese-American citizens following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath, Okubo and her brother Toku were transported from Berkeley to San Bruno, California and held for six months in a converted horse stall at the Tanforan Assembly Center before being relocated to the more long-term Topaz Relocation Center outside Delta, Utah. 

Okubo continued creating art throughout the two years she and her brother were confined. Okubo kept a sketchpad and used it to record her impressions of daily life at Topaz, including the struggles and humiliations she witnessed fellow prisoners suffering at the hands of their guards as well as the small achievements and joys they managed to snatch despite the injustice and hardships of their experience. She completed over two thousand sketches in all, about 189 of which would eventually make it into Citizen 13660. Despite Okubo’s frank cataloguing of internees’ experiences, Topaz administrators were aware of her work and highly interested in her goal of someday writing a book about her time in the camp. Select drawings and writings by Okubo were even vetted for inclusion in Trek, a quarterly literary and arts magazine published by Topaz inmates from December 1942 through June 1943, and Okubo served as the art editor of this endeavor. 

Fortune hired Okubo as an illustrator while she was still interned and, between the prominence of this offer and internal War Relocation Authority (WRA) records that identified her as an internee with promising talents, Okubo was released from Topaz prior to the official end of internment. She immediately relocated to New York City, where she worked with Fortune, then as a freelance artist and teacher, for almost fifty years. She published Citizen 13660 in 1946 with Columbia University Press and remained involved in curating its meaning until her death in 2001. Most notably, she presented the book as a thank-you gift to those who had reached out to her while interned, and also as an authentic, firsthand experience of life in the internment camps. Paratextual documents such as her letters, though, suggest a more complicated reality in which Okubo planned early on to write and publish a book, thus implying a much wider audience and a much more self-aware purpose to the eventual Citizen 13660.  Later Okubo also aligned her work with the redress movement, framing it as a primary source in her call for the US government to issue reparations and an apology for its mass internment of Japanese-American citizens. The book itself, though, would gain the most traction with a 1983 republication by the University of Washington Press. 

Though Citizen 13660 launched Okubo’s popular career, it remained her only book. Okubo often said that she considered herself a painter and a teacher of the arts first and foremost, though the narrative of Citizen 13660depends on her neutral but evocative writing as much as her characteristic art style. 

Okubo died in Greenwich Village in 2001, at the age of 88. 

Bibliography

  • Citizen 13660, Columbia University Press, 1946 (2nded with University of Washington Press, 1983)

Links

Japanese American National Museum Collection of Miné Okubo Drawings

Esther Klotz Collection of Miné Okubo Drawings