Mine Okubo; Her Art Told of Internment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mine Okubo, an artist who wrote and meticulously illustrated an important chronicle of life in relocation camps for Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, has died.

A native of Riverside, Okubo died Feb. 10 in Manhattan, New York City, after an illness. She was 88 and had lived in New York for five decades.

In early 1942 she was among 110,000 people of Japanese descent in the Western United States who were seen as security threats and ordered to detention camps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Two-thirds of the internees sent to 10 Western camps were, like Okubo, American citizens.

Okubo was held for two years, first at an assembly center at the Tanforan Race Track outside San Francisco, then at the Topaz Relocation Center in the Utah desert. She documented the daily life of internees in 2,000 drawings, many of which were published in her 1946 book "Citizen 13660."

Still in print, it was the first book on the camp experience to be written by an internee. It remains a widely cited document in histories of the Japanese in America.

The book tells without bitterness--and with a good deal of poignancy and humor--how Okubo and thousands of others lost their freedom and were sent to live in desolate areas, sharing primitive housing that lacked running water, barely sheltered them from the elements, and afforded them almost no privacy. Sanitation was poor and crowding was rampant.

"I realized that no one in the U.S. knew about this," Okubo once recalled, "so I started to tell the story, first with pictures."

Her mother was a calligrapher and her father a scholar who moved to the United States from Japan in 1904 to study. They had little money; her father found work in a candy factory and as a gardener.

She attended Riverside Poly High School and Riverside Community College before transferring to UC Berkeley, where she obtained her bachelor's and master's degrees in art.

When the war broke out, she was 26 and traveling in Europe on an art fellowship.

After returning to the States, she got a job with the Works Progress Administration in San Francisco, where she demonstrated the fresco technique of mural making. Working on the scaffold below her was the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Soon after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the evacuation of Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Initially voluntary, the evacuations later were forced.

Okubo was given three days to pack and told to "bring work clothes suited to pioneer life." At the registration center, she wrote, "my family name was reduced to No. 13660."

She and a brother, Toku, were assigned to Tanforan, a converted racetrack in San Bruno a few miles south of San Francisco. For the next several months, their home was a 20- by 9-foot horse stall that reeked of manure. Their beds were rough sacks stuffed with hay.

"It's a horrible thing," she said of the internment that caused such indignities. "I was a citizen. I didn't do anything wrong."

Yet once settled, Okubo put her talents to work. She taught classes. She helped start a literary magazine called Trek. And, true to her upbeat nature, she elevated the dismal into art.

Because internees were forbidden to use cameras, she recorded her observations in charcoal, watercolor, and pen and ink. The result was a series of keenly detailed tableaux, often focusing on women and children.

She portrays herself in nearly every drawing: a serious young woman with longish hair and bangs askew. She presented herself as a witness to the daily parade of humanity, watching people queue up for mail or showers, spying on a couple jitter-bugging in cramped quarters, or studying a bachelor engrossed in solitaire.

Humor infected many of her drawings, evident sometimes in the tilt of a nose, other times in the situation, such as Okubo trying to teach rambunctious children how to paint, or scrambling over a mountain of suitcases to find her own.

Okubo left the Topaz camp in January 1944 when Fortune magazine hired her to illustrate a special issue on Japan. The editors encouraged her to write a book on her camp experiences. Two years later, Columbia University Press published "Citizen 13660."

Reviewers responded favorably. "Mine was everywhere with her sketch pad, recording all that she saw, objectively, yet with a warmth of understanding," the New York Times wrote.

"Citizen 13660" won an American Book Award from the American Booksellers Assn. in 1984 after it was reissued by the University of Washington Press.

Some of her drawings were displayed in "The View From Within: Japanese American Art From the Internment Camps, 1942-1945." First exhibited in 1992 at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery, it later toured to San Jose, Salt Lake City, Honolulu, New York and Tokyo.

She never married, and lived modestly in a small Greenwich Village apartment, where she devoted her last years to painting.

She was proud of her testimony before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, where she urged the government to apologize to those who had been held in the camps. She received her $20,000 reparations payment in 1990 and used it to clear personal debts.

"Don't envy my life. Boy, it's been hell," she told an interviewer several years ago. But she was not bitter about her incarceration.

"I am a realist with a creative mind," she said. "I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again."

She is survived by a sister, Yoshi Tanaka, of Fallbrook. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. March 17 at Riverside Community College, at the A.G. Paul Quadrangle Art Gallery, 4800 Magnolia Ave., Riverside.

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