When Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Miné was living with her younger brother Toku on Melvin Street in Berkeley, California. Employed as an artist for the Works Progress Administration, she painted frescoes for military bases and worked alongside the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at Treasure Island.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Miné had to get a special pass to travel to Bay Area military sites in order to complete her frescoes. Then, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing what was to become the mass forced removal and incarceration of all residents of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast – citizen and alien alike. Miné and Toku were among 110,000 people of Japanese heritage who were removed from their homes and placed first in assembly centers, and then in concentration camps in the nation’s interior.
Miné and her brother were given three days’ notice to report, and all “evacuees” were encouraged to bring only what they could carry, including clothing suited to “pioneer life.” At the Berkeley assembly center, the Okubos were assigned collective family number 13660, and officials no longer referred to them by their given names. They and other evacuees boarded a Greyhound bus with paper-covered windows that took them to Tanforan, an old racetrack that was turned into an assembly center in San Bruno, California, where they were held for six months in a horse stall. Remembering the evacuation and her subsequent internment, Miné later commented: “It’s a horrible thing. I was a citizen. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
She was shipped to the euphemistically named Topaz Detention Center in Utah after 6 months at Tanforan. The Topaz camp was located in an arid desert where temperatures ranged from 106 degrees to below zero. From Trek, a literary and arts magazine published by inmates at Topaz, a description of the camp emphasizes the alien environment: “Asked what the infant city was like, those first residents might have, with some justice, summed it up with one word–dust.” The camp held 8,000 people on one square mile.
Barracks, Miné Okubo
Cameras were forbidden in the camps, but Miné felt compelled to document daily life through her art. She explained that while she was interned, she “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.” She was all over the camp, observing people’s responses to incarceration and sketching what she saw, just as she had done on her European travels. The curiosity and intuitive nature she developed during her time as a budding artist in Europe took on great importance during her internment, and enabled her to create a body of artwork that would later become Citizen 13660.
At Topaz, Miné kept up correspondence with her friends outside, continued to sketch daily life, and taught art to interned children. She was the art editor of three issues of Trek, and she provided illustrations for the magazine. Citing the lack of literature available for reading, she developed an interest in comic strips during her time at Topaz, stating: “I feel sorry for people who don’t like the funnies.” Her favorite strip was Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune.
Miné entered an art contest with a drawing of a concentration camp guard and won, attracting the attention of Fortune magazine. Fortune hired her as an illustrator, and arranged for her to leave Topaz in January 1944 and relocate to New York City, where she would gain notice for the 1946 publication of her comic book-like representation of her internment experience, Citizen 13660.
Post contributed by volunteer Danielle Sanchez, with appreciation to Hal Fischer, Mary Curtin, and the members of Miné’s family.