|June 27 1912
|February 10 2001
Miné Okubo (1912-2001) remains best known as a narrator and artist of the Japanese American camp experience, most famously in her 1946 book Citizen 13660 , a graphic memoir of her confinement at Tanforan and Topaz . However, Okubo considered herself first and foremost a painter, and she devoted seven decades to perfecting her art.
Early Life and Career
Miné Okubo was born in Riverside, California, on June 27, 1912, one of seven children of Tametsugu and Miyo (Kato) Okubo. According to family lore, Miyo Okubo had been an honors graduate of Tokyo Art Institute who was sent to the United States by the Japanese government to work as a calligrapher in the Japanese Arts and Crafts Show during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Miné later recalled that her mother used to paint at home, and always encouraged her seven children to pursue artistic careers; Miné added nevertheless that her mother often lost patience with her early efforts at art because Miné could never copy anything precisely. After Miyo died in 1940, Miné paid tribute to her with the painting "Miyo and Cat," which portrayed her with Bible in hand. Another artistic influence was Miné's oldest brother Benji (Bunji) Okubo , a pioneering Nisei painter and a director of the Art Students League in Los Angeles. Miné's older sister Yoshiko Okubo (Tanaka), an artist and gallery manager, was arguably the strongest influence on her developing career.
Miné attended Riverside's Poly High School, and then enrolled at Riverside Junior College (today known as Riverside Community College or RCC). Sometime around 1933, she was awarded a fellowship by the University of California, Berkeley, and she enrolled there in pursuit of her Bachelor's and Master's of Fine Arts degrees. After graduation, she took a job with the Federal Art Project, a branch of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, assisting on the painting of murals. In 1938, Okubo won a Bertha Henicke Taussig fellowship, which allowed her to spend 18 months traveling in Europe studying art.
In September 1939, war broke out in Europe. Okubo caught one of the last boats home to the United States. Once back in the Bay Area, she became active with the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA) and joined its annual painting and watercolor exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art (today known as SF-MOMA). In 1940 she won first prize in the University of California Art Exhibition, and that summer was selected to assist the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera in painting murals at the Golden Gate Exhibition.
Wartime Incarceration and Aftermath
In spring 1942, Okubo was working on murals for the Servicemen's Hospitality House in Oakland when Executive Order 9066 was issued—Okubo received special permission to travel after dark in violation of curfew so that she could make her commute and finish the work. The entire Okubo family was removed from the West Coast and dispersed. Okubo's father was arrested and interned in Missoula , Montana. Benji Okubo was confined at Heart Mountain , where he opened an art school. Other siblings were sent to Poston .
Miné and one brother were confined at Tanforan Assembly Center, then moved to Topaz. While at Topaz, Okubo taught art classes and helped found a literary review, Trek , for which she drew cover designs and illustrations. Because inmates were not permitted to bring cameras into camp, Okubo resolved to document the confinement experience through drawings. She produced over one thousand sketches of life in camp, some of which she then transformed into formal drawings and paintings. In early 1943, her drawing of camp sentries won a prize in a show at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and a reproduction appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle . Impressed with her work, the Chronicle's editors commissioned a set of her camp sketches as a feature for their Sunday magazine This World . The sketches, along with Okubo's written commentaries on her situation, appeared in the Chronicle in mid-1943. The publicity attracted the editors of Fortune magazine, who hired Okubo to work on a special issue on Japan in conjunction with two other Nikkei artists, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Taro Yashima . Okubo's illustrations in Fortune caused a sensation, especially the selection of her camp sketches that accompanied an article on Japanese Americans. With Fortune' s blessing, the San Francisco Museum mounted a special exhibition of the original artwork by Okubo (along with Kuniyoshi and Yashima) in August 1944.
With assistance from Fortune , Miné Okubo was able to leave Topaz in 1944 and settle in New York. The magazine's editors found her a rent-controlled studio apartment in Greenwich Village. There she would continue to live and work until the last months of her life. Once arrived in New York, Okubo met M. Margaret Anderson, editor of Common Ground , a liberal pro-immigrant quarterly. With Anderson's encouragement, Okubo assembled a show of her camp sketches and other art, which opened at Common Ground' s offices in March 1945, moved to the New School for Social Research, and subsequently toured the West Coast. When the show played the Seattle Art Museum, Time magazine ran an article on Okubo.
Meanwhile, Okubo arranged her sketches into a narrative sequence, and drafted text to go along with them. Columbia University Press published the work, entitled Citizen 13660 , in September 1946. Citizen 13660 recounts Okubo's removal experience, and her life at Tanforan and Topaz. Its words and images depict the multitudinous features of camp life—the dust storms; lack of privacy; the (barely) converted horse stalls where inmates were housed; the schools; the loyalty exams ; even the gangs of radical inmates who beat up suspected informers.
Even before Citizen 13660 came out, Okubo threw herself into her art. She participated in several group shows, and even spent summers teaching art in California. However, Okubo could not support herself by selling her canvases. As before the war, she took on commissions to work on mural projects. Most notably, in 1948 she was invited by American Export Lines to provide a set of eight murals for the salons of a quartet of new ships, "The Four Aces." Meanwhile, she worked as a commercial artist and illustrator. Her drawings appeared in numerous magazines, and were also featured in the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times .
Postwar Work and Rediscovery
Okubo ultimately turned to book illustration for both money and artistic expression. In 1948, she was commissioned by Friendship Press, the publishing arm of the National Council of Churches (then called the Federal Council of Churches), to produce Asian scenes to illustrate Toro Matsumoto's autobiographical novel The Seven Stars . Friendship Press had Okubo illustrate a half-dozen further books about Japan and international relations over the following years. She meanwhile did a frontispiece for Robert O'Brien 's 1950 sociological study The College Nisei . In 1959, Okubo took up a new challenge when she was commissioned by the publisher Springer to provide illustrations for the anatomy textbook Clinical Coordination of Anatomy and Physiology . Okubo stated later that she had carefully studied and memorized anatomical details for the drawings. She likewise illustrated a psychology book, Walter Toman's Family Constellation , for the same publisher. After 1960, Okubo resumed painting as her primary activity, despite the reduction in her income that this produced. (Okubo disliked galleries and commercial sales, and worked primarily through individual patrons).
By this time, Miné's camp experience and artwork had faded from view, although an interview with her was featured in the 1965 CBS-TV documentary Nisei: The Pride and the Shame . During the 1970s, however, Okubo's wartime work was rediscovered by Asian American artists and scholars, many of them connected with the Japanese American redress movement. Miné Okubo: An American Experience , the first major retrospective of her art, premiered at the Oakland Museum in 1972, and gave rise to a widely-distributed catalogue. In 1974, she was invited back to RCC as Alumna of the Year, in conjunction with which the college held an Okubo exhibition at their art gallery. In the years that followed, Okubo was asked to contribute to shows of art by camp inmates, and her drawings appeared in Amerasia Journal and in Asian community newspapers; most notably, she began contributing an annual New Year's drawing, based on Chinese zodiac figures, to the New York Nichibei newspaper, and another to Hokubei Mainichi in San Francisco.. A reprint edition of Citizen 13660 , with a new introduction by the author, appeared in 1983 and won an American Book Award. Okubo was also interviewed and featured in the War Relocation Authority camp art anthologies The View From Within and Beyond Words , the Asian American feminist anthology The Forbidden Stitch , and Betty LaDuke's 1996 documentary film Persistent Women Artists . In 1987 Okubo was selected by the California Department of Education as one of twelve women pioneers in the state's history.
Even as the new edition of Citizen 13660 achieved the status of an Asian American classic, Okubo became increasingly active in the Japanese American redress movement. In 1983 she testified before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians , and offered a copy of Citizen 13660 as evidence. She likewise attended the U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the NJCAR class action lawsuit Hohri v. United States .
Miné Okubo remained active as an artist until her last months of life, and by the time of her death, she had amassed a personal collection with an estimated 2,000 pieces of artwork, divided up between her studio home and a series of warehouses. Following her death, there was a new wave of discussion of her career. A special Okubo tribute issue of Amerasia Journal , edited by Elena Tajima Creef and Greg Robinson, appeared in 2004. It was followed by a critical anthology volume on her career, Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road , which appeared in 2008. A one-woman play of her life, Mary Curtin and Theresa Larkin's Miné: A Name for Herself , premiered in 2006. The most substantial legacy was created for her at Riverside Community College, where she left her papers and the bulk of her private art collection. In February 2006, a street on the campus was officially renamed Mine Okubo Avenue in her honor, and the Okubo collection was put on permanent exhibition in their Center For Social Justice and Civil Liberties, which opened to the public on Okubo's 100th birthday in June 2012.
For More Information
La Duke, Betty. "On the Right Road: The Life of Mine Okubo." Art Education 40.3 (May 1987): 42-48.
Okubo, Mine. Citizen 13660 . New York: Columbia University Press, 1946. New York: Arno Press 1978. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983. Introduction by Christine Hong. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.
Robinson, Greg, and Elena Tajima Creef, ed. Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Sun, Shirley. Mine Okubo: An American Experience . Oakland, Calif.: The Oakland Museum, 1972.
Selected Volumes with Contributions by Miné Okubo
Text and Artwork
Creef, Elena Tajima, and Greg Robinson, eds. Tribute to Miné Okubo , special issue of Amerasia Journal 30.2 (Summer 2004).
Gesenway, Deborah and Mindy Roseman. Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps . Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.
Higa, Karin M., ed. The View From Within: Japanese American Art from the internment Camps, 1942-1945 . Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1992.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, Mayumi Tsutakawa, and Margarita Donnelly, eds. The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology . Corvallis, OR: Calyx Books, 1989.
Peggy Billings. The Waiting People . New York: Friendship Press, 1952.
FitzSimons, Ruth M. A New Boy on Hillside Street . New York: Springer, 1962.
Griffiths, Louise B. Wide as the World: Junior Highs and Missions . New York: Friednship Press, 1958.
Grace W. McGavran. Where the Carp Banners Fly . New York: Friendship Press, 1949.
Toru Matsumoto. The Seven Stars . New York: Friendship Press, 1949.
Robert O'Brien. The College Nisei . Palo Alto: Pacific Books, 1949.
Nugent, Marianna, and Norman Young Prichard. Ten Against the Storm . New York: Friendship Press, 1957.
Pitel, Martha, and Mildred Schellig. Clinical Coordination of Anatomy and Physiology . New York: Springer, 1959.
Toman, Walter. Family Constellation: Theory and Practice of a Psychological Game . New York: Springer, 1961.
Williams, Philip. Journey into Mission . New York: Friendship Press, 1957.
Wood, Sumner. Whose Word? A Handbook on International Relations . New York: Friendship Press, 1960.
Last updated July 15, 2020, 3:22 a.m..