Citizen 13660 (book)
|Original Publisher||Columbia University Press|
|Original Publication Date||1946|
|Current Publisher||University of Washington Press|
|Current Publication Date||2014|
Published in 1946 as the last camps were being shuttered, Nisei artist Miné Okubo's illustrated eponymous memoir, Citizen 13660, has the distinction of being the earliest, first-person, book-length account of the American concentration camp experience. Always a vigorous booster of her own work, Okubo promoted the book that came to define her career as "the first and only documentary story of the Japanese evacuation and relocation written and illustrated by one who was there." All told, Okubo produced an estimated 2,000 portraits of camp life in a range of styles and materials, including ink, charcoal, and gouache, while imprisoned at the Tanforan temporary detention camp in California and the Topaz concentration camp in Utah. Okubo's voluminous output notwithstanding, it was primarily Citizen 13660's roughly 200 line-drawings that established her standing as a major chronicler of and historic witness to the camp experience.
Description and Synopsis
Its title taken from the government-issued family identification number that Okubo and her brother affixed to both their baggage and themselves prior to their incarceration, Citizen 13660 offers a first-person account of the irony of citizenship for Japanese Americans whose Constitutional rights were violated on the U.S. homefront during World War II. It opens in September 1939 as war is breaking out in Europe where Okubo is on an arts fellowship, moves quickly to May 1942 when Okubo and her brother leave for Tanforan, and closes in January 1944 when she, having finished her sketches of camp life, is cleared to leave Topaz for work in New York. In the main, Citizen 13660 focuses on the details of everyday life under the dehumanizing conditions of mass incarceration. As with other minority literary texts, it privileges cultural representation because access to political representation has been foreclosed. Denied the right to cameras and conventional forms of mimetic technology with evidentiary weight, Okubo produced Citizen 13660's line-drawings "on the spot" while behind barbed wire—where, as she stated, she was "close to freedom and yet far from it." She insisted that her book be recognized as a documentary record of the American concentration camp experience.
Historical Background and Early Reception
Citizen 13660 is today typically read and widely taught as a subtle yet discerning exposé of racist unfreedom at the heart of American democracy. This interpretation, however, obscures the degree to which Okubo's memoir, as the first published Nisei account of the camps, arose out of the fraught politics of the transwar years when every aspect of the mass incarceration process, including cultural representation, was scrutinized and subjected to a national security calculus. Anachronistic retrievals of Citizen 13660 as a transparent critique of rights violations on a massive state-sponsored scale therefore overlook the fact that Okubo's illustrated account of life behind barbed wire was aligned, in its first circulation, with the objectives of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency in charge of the camps. "Cameras and photographs were not permitted in the camps," Okubo pointed out in her 1983 preface, "so I recorded everything in sketches, drawings, and paintings." Far from stealthily executed or subversively realized, however, her documentary book project generated active interest from and garnered the support of WRA officials. In internal WRA and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records, Okubo was singled out as one of a handful of "young people in the evacuee group" deemed to possess "special abilities and talents" that might prove useful for "all the projects" ("projects" being the WRA euphemism for "camps"). Toward this end, camp administrators not only vetted her drawings and writings for Trek, the Topaz journal, but also approved of her open goal of "writ[ing] a book on her experiences here."
Although Okubo would retrospectively maintain that there was limited appetite, indeed revulsion, for anything that could be construed as "Japanese" in the wake of World War II, the fact that Citizen 13660 was published during this time attests to complex politics of visibility around representations of the camps. If the camps, located as they were in remote settings, were generally meant to be off-limits, it was also true that figures within the WRA and the white liberal establishment converged on the "democratic" value of Nisei self-representation relative to the camp experience. For example, in a classified June 1942 naval intelligence report, Lieutenant Kenneth Ringle specifically argued the "Americanizing" merits of "a history of the entire evacuation and resettlement program from the point of view of those affected...with accompanying pictorial illustrations." In her memoir, Okubo states that the "humor and pathos of the scenes" of recent arrivals going through the induction process at Tanforan in May of 1942 inspired her "to keep a record of camp life in sketches and drawings." Although Okubo would later claim that "Citizen 13660 began as a special group of drawings made to tell the story of camp life for my many friends who faithfully sent letters and packages" while she was incarcerated, her correspondence suggests it was a more formal undertaking from the outset. As early as March 22, 1943, Common Ground editor M. Margaret Anderson, on the basis of having seen a copy of Trek, inquired in a letter to Okubo: "What chance is there of a story, in sketches, of life in a relocation center?" Pointing out that "[w]e all have so much more in common than we have in differences," she urged Okubo to adopt a universalizing perspective by "emphasiz[ing] the very human situations in which the evacuees find themselves." By fall of that year, Citizen 13660, as a formal book project, seems to have been well underway. In an October 1 letter, UC Berkeley administrator Monroe Deutsch encouraged Okubo in her plans to "finish [her] book by November" and added that Dorothy Swaine Thomas, of the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), had also remarked on the "considerable documentary importance" of a standalone volume of drawings.
Tellingly, in its early reception, Citizen 13660 elicited plaudits from liberal administrators and liberal critics of the camps alike. WRA director Dillon Myer, WRA public relations chief M. M. Tozier, Nobel laureate Pearl Buck, Survey Graphic literary critic Harry Hansen, writer Carey McWilliams, and Margaret Anderson all praised what they deemed the authenticity and pedagogical value of Okubo's camp-life tableaux for a postwar American audience. Early reviews likewise described Okubo's illustrated memoir as an unvarnished historical record. Library Journal hailed Citizen 13660 as "a revealing pictorial record which should take its place among the documents of World War II." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch referred to it as "documentary evidence" and a "graphic report." The Chicago Tribune commended it as "an honest record."
Citizen 13660 was originally published by Columbia University Press a year into the postwar period when, Okubo would later quip, "anything Japanese was still rat poison." Indeed, its early reception notwithstanding, Okubo's illustrated chronicle of life in an American concentration camp would not be reprinted for two decades—and only then by minor New York-based publishing houses that specialized in book reprints principally for the purpose of library distribution. In the late 1960s, in response to Okubo's inquiry about whether it viewed the time as ripe for her memoir to be reprinted, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) exhibited cautious interest in its historical value. Ultimately, Citizen 13660 did not gain momentum or currency until its 1983 republication by the University of Washington Press, a publisher known for its commitment to Asian American studies and Asian American arts and letters. The symbolic homecoming of Citizen 13660, as a synecdoche for Japanese Americans stripped of their rights in World War II, thus occurred over four decades after the government-mandated mass expulsion of the California-born Okubo and other ethnic Japanese, citizens and aliens alike, from the West Coast of the United States.
Long after Citizen 13660's initial publication, Okubo continued to play an instrumental role in curating its meaning, most influentially by framing it, in the last decades of her life, as aligned with the politics of the Japanese American redress movement. Significant in terms of the contemporary interpretation of her memoir, Okubo penned a preface for the 1983 University of Washington Press reissue, updating Citizen 13660's meaning for subsequent generations of readers. Underscoring the "untold hardships, sadness, and misery" that "all those who were evacuated and interned" had experienced as a result of official wartime policies of mass removal and incarceration, Okubo, in this preface, explicitly called on the U.S. government to issue "some form of reparations and an apology." Activist in tone and tenor, this preface followed from her November 23, 1981, statement before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), the federal committee charged with recommending redressive measures. Okubo submitted a copy of Citizen 13660 as part of her testimony to the Commission "for the record." In so doing, she encouraged that it be read as a self-evident indictment of government wrongdoing.
One gauge of the impact of Citizen 13660's republication was its enthusiastic transpacific reception. In 1984, a year after its University of Washington Press reissue, Okubo's memoir of camp life was distinguished with an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation, earning it a durable place within a U.S. multicultural literary canon. That same year, Ochanomizu Shobo, a Tokyo publishing house, translated it into Japanese.
Text, Context, and Cultural Form
Created, in the first instance, for outside viewers, the line-drawings in Citizen 13660 allow for border-crossing access into the camps. With her side-profile serving as a formal framing device, Okubo's self-figuration as a historic witness to scenes of camp life characterizes almost every image in Citizen 13660 and authenticates her memoir's documentary value. The message to the general readership is "I saw it therefore you can see it." In the text accompanying her images, Okubo also takes pains to translate camp-life for outside readers, explaining, for example, that geta are "handmade wooden clogs" and "'Caucasian' was the camp term for non-evacuee workers."
Citizen 13660 invites contradictory interpretations. In its earliest circulation, Okubo's memoir of life behind barbed wire and under armed guard was often situated in an overarching political context conditioned by the WRA's "liberal" goals of assimilation and resettlement. Within this framework, the American concentration camp was rationalized as essentially democratic in intention, if flawed in execution and consequence—a regrettable yet ultimately temporary node, to parse the logic, in a government-sponsored program of ethnic dispersal. In more recent decades, colored by the politics of the redress movement, Citizen 13660 tends to be read along testimonial lines as an indictment of structural racism and massive government injustice. Central to any reading of Citizen 13660 is how the American concentration camp should be historically theorized—for example, as evidence of American fascism, as historical aberration, or as "an exciting adventure in the democratic method." At issue in the reading of camp narratives is, in other words, the question of whether a democratic society is capable of correcting its mistakes or, more disturbingly, whether these accounts expose unfreedom to be a constitutive feature of the American political system.
Resisting easy genre classification, Citizen 13660, with its signature combination of words and images and inset figuration of Okubo as a viewer in the frame, lends itself to a range of hybrid descriptions: graphic memoir, visual autobiography, documentary drawing, and comics, to list a few. In contrast to illustrated literary works in which images supplement largely seamless text, Okubo's images in Citizen 13660 predominate. Single images occupy the top half of nearly every page, whereas her written reflections appear as supplementary text ranging from a single line to a few paragraphs in length.
The question of Citizen 13660's genre is related to the question of how to theorize cultural form when it comes to the historical American concentration camp experience. Reissued in 2014 in hardcover by the University of Washington Press, Citizen 13660 is now marketed avant la lettre as a "graphic novel." If, however, comics and its variants, including graphic novels, are more than a commixture of word and image but rather are "sequential art" in the sense of "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer," the question we must ask is whether the American concentration camp experience can or should be narrated along progressive lines. Although loosely chronological in ordering logic, neither the written narrative nor the line drawings in Citizen 13660 are consistently forward in propulsion. The ambivalent temporality of Citizen 13660 can be discerned in the pairing of Okubo's closing statement describing her departure from Topaz, "My thoughts shifted from the past to the future," with an unsettling image of "the very old or very young"—presumably elderly Issei and small children—who remain positioned behind barbed wire.
The comparison of Citizen 13660 to comics is not new. In an early postwar review, The New York Herald Tribune likened Okubo's memoir to World War II veteran Bill Mauldin's 1945 Up Front, a multimedia work that combined written reflections and captioned cartoons. In a November 1946 letter to Okubo, J. Charles Laue, publisher of the Foxy Fagan comic books, commended her on whimsical details in her drawings, in particular the hats "worn by the Honorable Author." It is worth noting, however, that Okubo invokes political cartoons and comic strips in Citizen 13660 in implied contrast to the realism of what she referred to as her "documentary sketches of camp life." In an era in which even Dr. Seuss went to war, so to speak, by infamously rendering Japanese Americans as a fifth column, Okubo depicts herself in Citizen 13660 in the act of reading the "funnies" and in another image contrasts her drawn self-figuration to a racist caricature with buckteeth and slanted eyes that bears the caption, "A Jap Looks Like This."
For More Information
Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman. "Miné Okubo." In Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987. 66-74.
Lampert, Nicolas. "The Visual Politics of Miné Okubo." In A People's Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements. New York: New Press, 2015. 177-87.
Robinson, Greg. "Birth of a Citizen: Miné Okubo and the Politics of Symbolism." In Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road. Ed. Greg Robinson and Elena Tajima-Creef. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Simpson, Caroline Chung. "'That Faint and Elusive Insinuation': Remembering Internment and the Dawn of the Postwar." In An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Culture, 1945-1960. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001. 12-42.
- Miné Okubo, "Japanese American Resource Registry Data Form," c. 1979, Miné Okubo Papers, Center for Social Justice and Civil Liberties, Riverside Community College District, Riverside, CA. Hereafter cited as "Miné Okubo Papers."
- Citizen 13660 (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1983), 81; Toyo (Suyemoto) Kawakami, letter to Miné Okubo, March 1, 1979, Miné Okubo Papers. The ban on cameras that Okubo refers to was eased later in the war, and there is a considerable oeuvre of photographic images of life inside the camps from the perspectives of the incarcerated.
- "Preface to the 1983 Edition," Citizen 13660, ix; hereafter cited as "Preface."
- Miles E. Cary, memorandum to E. R. Fryer, August 25, 1942, Miné Okubo evacuee case file, record group 210, stack area 18W3, row 8, compartment 27, shelf 5, National Archives, Washington, DC.
- Loyalty and Character Report on Mine [sic] Okubo, September 23, 1943, Miné Okubo evacuee case file. Also, Evelyn K. Johnson, assessment of Miné Okubo, January 30, 1943, Miné Okubo evacuee case file.
- K. D. Ringle, "On the Japanese Question in the United States," Miscellaneous WRA Publications, Office File of Commissioner John Collier, 1933–1945, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, record group 75, stack area 11E-Z, row 30, compartment 9, shelf 5, National Archives.
- Citizen 13660, 53.
- "Preface," x.
- M. Margaret Anderson, letter to Miné Okubo, March 22, 1943, Miné Okubo Papers.
- Anderson, letter to Miné Okubo, April 7, 1943, Miné Okubo Papers.
- Monroe Deutsch, letter to Miné Okubo, October 1, 1943, Miné Okubo Papers.
- These reviews are collated in a Columbia University Press press-packet archived in the Miné Okubo Materials at the Rivera Library at the University of California. See "Excerpts from Comments on 'Citizen 13660' by Miné Okubo," Miné Okubo Materials, History of California Collections, UC Riverside Library.
- Deborah Gesensway and Mindy Roseman, Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), 74. Following its initial 1946 publication, Citizen 13660 would be reprinted in 1966 by AMS Press, a minor East Coast academic publishing house. In 1979, another New York-based publisher, Arno Press, reissued the memoir.
- Mike Masaoka, letters to Miné Okubo, May 10, 1967 and June 1, 1967, Miné Okubo Papers.
- "Preface," xi, ix, xi. Okubo appears to have maintained friendly relations with the political factions pushing for redress and offered varying degrees of support. She appears to have donated signed copies of her reissued memoir to the New York JACL chapter, with any proceeds to be marshaled toward its fundraising efforts for its National Committee for Redress. See John Tateishi, letter to Miné Okubo, September 8, 1983, Miné Okubo Papers. By contrast, the William Hohri-led National Council for Japanese American Redress purchased 25 copies of her reissued memoir directly from the University of Washington Press also for the purpose of fundraising; Okubo obliged Hohri, with whom she had a long epistolary friendship, by sending him "stickers" of her signature. See William Hohri, letters to Miné Okubo, September 24, 1983, and October 10, 1983, Miné Okubo Papers.
- Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, November 23, 1981, New York hearing, Roosevelt Hotel (statement of Miné Okubo), Miné Okubo Papers.
- As a visual strategy, Okubo's depiction of herself as an observer of camp-life anticipates the "testimonial comics image" of late twentieth-century human rights-themed manga, graphic novels, and graphic journalism like Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Joe Sacco's Palestine. See Christine Hong, "Flashforward Democracy: American Exceptionalism and the Atomic Bomb in Barefoot Gen," Comparative Literature Studies 46.1 (2009): 145.
- Citizen 13660, 161, 60.
- Dillon S. Myer, "Japanese American Relocation: Final Chapter," Survey Graphic: Magazine of Social Interpretation 6.1 (1945): 66.
- On the similarity of Citizen 13660 to Taro Yashima's 1943 The New Sun, see Greg Robinson, "Birth of a Citizen: Miné Okubo and the Politics of Symbolism," in Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road, ed. Greg Robinson and Elena Tajima-Creef (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2008), 167.
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 9. The term "sequential art" is Will Eisner's.
- Citizen 13660, 208.
- J. Charles Laue, letter to Miné Okubo, November 19, 1946, Miné Okubo Papers.
- Citizen 13660, 206.
- Citizen 13660, 19, 10. On Theodor Geisel's racist and jingoistic wartime political cartoons, see Richard H. Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (New York: The New Press, 1999).