On December 7, 1941, the nation of Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This began the official participation of the United States in World War II. While armed forces were overseas fighting the nation’s enemies, the United States government was trying to decide whether or not any group of people within America itself could be working for the other side. Out of this fear came one of the most atrocious acts the United States have ever perpetrated against its own citizens. Fearing internal enemies, the American government signed an order wherein anyone of Japanese descent could be questioned, arrested, detained, and interred at several camps throughout the American West. It was a policy of legal racism that served no good for the government but to instill in the people the knowledge that the government can make mistakes and it is possible to lose one’s civil rights even in the land of the free. In the book Citizen 13660, author Mine Okubo writes about her personal experience of returning to the United States just before the Second World War after spending a scholarly tour in Europe and how she came home to be free from the tyranny of war just to see that freedom stripped away by the United States government.
The graphic novel is comprised of pen and ink drawings and minimal narration. The pictures are as much a part of the story as the words, perhaps more so. All the illustrations show a stocky, short-haired woman in the middle of the action. Sometimes this woman is on the periphery of the picture and not receiving the action of the dialogue beneath the picture. However, she is omnipresent. In fact, this narrator is acting as a part of the story, but also as a commentator on everything that she sees. The narrator of the story indicates that from the moment she and her brother heard that it was the Japanese who were behind the attack on Pearl Harbor that there could be repercussions for them. “Then on December 7, 1941, while my brother and I were having late breakfast I turned on the radio and heard the flash — ‘Pearl Harbor bombed by the Japanese!’ We were shocked. We wondered what this would mean to us and the other people of Japanese descent in the United States” (Okubo 8). At this time, the narrator has indicated that she has a sister and father around the state. Her mother has just passed away before the beginning of the internment. The month before the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a secret report by Curtis B. Munson that stated the majority of West Coast Japanese-Americans were loyal to the United States but that this area was particularly vulnerable to sabotage attacks because dams, bridges, harbors, and power plants were mostly unguarded (Burton Chapter 3). Historians have questioned whether or not this understanding either proves or disproves the validity of internment. Some say that with the information the government had and the sense of growing panic in the United States, the internment policy could be construed as understandable. Others believe that the policy of internment was strictly due to internalized racism.
Of course, the response was the suspicion of anyone of Japanese descent by the Caucasian majority. Anyone of Japanese or German heritage was immediately suspected of being a spy for the enemy, particularly the Japanese. The racism of 1940s America was given a target in the Japanese-Americans. “The people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust” (Okubo 12). There were, of course, no proven connections between Japan and the majority of the immigrant Japanese population or their children. Still the climate of America turned against this group. Okubo writes:
It was ‘Jap’ this and ‘Jap’ that. Restricted areas were prescribed and many arrests and detentions of enemy aliens took place. All enemy aliens were required to have certificates of identification. Contraband, such as cameras, binoculars, short-wave radios, and firearms had to be turned over to the local police (10).
The term enemy alien applied to anyone in the United States who were not in possession of official documentation proving they were here legally. This was difficult given the laws of the period which stated that anyone of Japanese descent who was not born in this country could not be a citizen, but instead was labeled as a legal alien (Burton Chapter 3). Even those who did have these documents in their possession could be detained if the local officials declared the papers were forgeries or had been acquired illegally.
The only act of sabotage ever attributed to Japanese-American citizens was the case of a strawberry farmer who was refused the right to stay on his farm long enough to harvest the berries. According to Burton:
When told to leave his home and to an assembly center, one farmer asked for an extension to harvest his strawberry crop. His request was denied, so he plowed under the strawberry field. He was then arrested for sabotage, on the grounds that strawberries were a necessary commodity for the war effort (Ch. 3).
In 1942, the federal government of the United States began issuing proclamations limiting the freedoms and civil rights of the Japanese-American people. This began with the signing of Executive Order No. 9066 which gave the government the right to designate areas of land where “any or all persons may be excluded” (Burton Chapter 3). Among the atrocities against civil liberties included a curfew which stated that all Japanese-Americans had to be in their homes by 8 pm and could not leave before 6 am (Okubo 14). Also, anyone working more than five miles away from their home had to have a special permit. People who had been evacuated had to trust in the banks or in the Farm Security Administration to protect their property from opportunists in the community who had no qualms about illegally commandeering said property. This faith was often misplaced and many evacuees lost their homes and their property and were not compensated for their losses. This suspicion and criminality was not reserved to first generation immigrants (called Isei); a good portion of the citizens affected by the racist government policies were Japanese-Americans who had been born in the United States and had never set foot in the East (referred to as Nisei). “In all, 110,000 were moved out; two thirds of them were native American citizens” (Okubo 16).
The actual camps that the Japanese-Americans were interned at were converted racetracks and campgrounds with amenities barely suitable for human survival. These camps were no more than large prisons, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards (Okubo 15). After finally arriving at the internment camp, the narrator and her brother are installed in a stable. Their home for the present moment and for the foreseeable future was a horse’s stable. In this small square designed for the keeping of horses and donkeys and other such beasts of burden, two adults would have to share their lives. The narrator and her brother were lucky in this. Most of the stables were reserved for larger families wherein fathers, mothers, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins may have to live in the same small space all together.
A swinging half-door divided the 20 by 9 ft. stall into two rooms. The roof sloped down from a height of twelve feet in the rear room to seven feet in the front room; below the rafters an open space extended the full length of the stable. The rear room had housed the horse and the front room the fodder. Both rooms showed signs of a hurried whitewashing. Spider webs, horse hair, and hay had been whitewashed with the walls. Huge spikes and nails stuck out all over the walls. A two-inch layer of dust covered the floor, but on removing it we discovered the linoleum the color of redwood had been placed over the rough manure-covered boards (Okubo 35).
This place was hardly fit for the animals that it once housed let alone human beings. Yet this is the way the American government saw fit to treat some of its citizens without any evidence that they had perpetrated any crimes, without accusation, and without the ability to defend themselves in a court of law.
In the book Citzien 13660, the narrator’s name and family history are taken away and instead she is defined by the number given to her by the government registration of Japanese-Americans, the 13660 of the title. Okubo writes:
The woman in charge asked me many questions and filled in several printed forms as I answered. As a result of the interview, my family number was reduced to No. 13660. I was given several tags bearing the family number, and was then dismissed. At another desk I made the necessary arrangements to have my household property stored by the government (19).
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the atrocities committed by the Nazis came to light, including the eradication of the Jewish names and the forcing of those people to be marked and identified by the numbers tattooed on their arms. Though not a permanent mark like the Jews received at the hands of their inhuman oppressors, the numbers still signified a dehumanization of the imprisoned at the hands of the jailers.
During the course of internment, the Japanese-Americans had nothing to do to pass the time. They were imprisoned for months, and in some cases years. In the case of the narrator, after months, she and her brother were transferred to the Topaz internment camp, where the situation only got worse. All they could do was eat disgusting food, sleep in disgusting quarters, and try to survive despite the harsh conditions and lack of proper medical care. “We had to make friends with the wild creatures in the camp, especially the spiders, mice, and rats, because we were outnumbered” (Okubo 68). Over time, the individual inhabitants were able to fix up their small domiciles and make them slightly more habitable. Still, no matter how much time went on, it was still obvious that this was not a home, but a prison and no flowers or planted trees could change this basic fact or make any of imprisoned feel otherwise. “Physical elements could also be reminders of their lack of freedom. The guard towers and especially the barbed wire fences delineated the difference between inside and outside the camps, freedom and confinement” (Burton Chapter 3). The guard towers were not only there to ensure that the interred kept order and remained within the perimeter, they could also resort to violence should warnings to go away from the perimeter fence was ignored. There was one occasion where a 63-year-old man named James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot and killed on April 11, 1943. Wakasa was either unable to hear the guard’s warnings or was too distracted to understand them. In any case, the guards shot him in the chest and he died. There were eight other occasions where warning shots were fired, but no one injured (Burton Chapter 3). In order to eventually leave these horrible places, the interred would have to sign a loyalty oath, promising that they never had the intention of harming the United States and pledging that their sole loyalty was to the U.S. And not to their home country, or least the country of their evacuation.
Although eventually freed from the prison, the narrator and the Japanese-Americans like her were unable to forget their sufferings. Yet, for a long time the United States government refused to acknowledge their misconduct or attempt any reparation. This circumstance has been alleviated but the internment of the innocent Japanese-Americans remains one of the travesties of American history and an atrocious injustice.
Burton, J., Farrell, M. And R. Lord. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II
Japanese-American Relocation Sites. 2000. Print.
Okubo, Mine. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington, 1983. Print.
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