“In the camps, first at Tanforan and then at Topaz in Utah, I 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 condition. Cameras and photographs were not permitted
in the camps, so I recorded everything in sketches, drawings, and paintings."
-Miné Okubo, Citizen 13660
Japanese American artist Miné Okubo was an extraordinary woman who played a significant
role in documenting the mid-20th century history of Japanese Americans in the United
States. Her artwork and her outspoken commentary on social justice issues, particularly
relating to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, brought her
to the attention of a larger segment of the American public.
Miné Okubo (1912-2001) was born in Riverside, CA into a family of artists. Her mother,
Miyo, was a calligrapher and painter. Her uncle was a painter who found inspiration
in French impressionism and post impressionism and chose to spend much time in Paris
as he could. Two of her siblings became artists, too. The Okubo collection includes
more than 8,000 pieces of art work, professional and personal papers, and memorabilia
that Okubo accumulated during the 50+ years she lived in the Greenwich Village area
of New York City.
Okubo graduated in 1933 from Riverside City College and transferred to the University
of California, Berkeley where she earned a degree in Fine Arts. Okubo gained recognition
as an artist when she was incarcerated with her family—first, in the Tanforan Assembly
Center in San Bruno, CA and then the Topaz Camp in Delta, Utah—during World War II
under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066. She emerged as an iconic
figure following the publication of Citizen 13660, the first memoir by a Japanese American incarcerated during the Second World War.
Critics praised the unique, dramatic style of Okubo's ink drawings and sparse writing,
which documented the camp experience.
Following her incarceration, Okubo moved to New York and worked as an illustrator
for Fortune, Time, Life, and The New Yorker. Later, she taught briefly at UC Berkeley.
In 1974, the Riverside Community College District selected Okubo as its Alumnus of
the Year, and 30 years later Riverside City College named a street on campus in her
honor. In the early 1980s, she testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation
and Internment of Civilians. Among her many accomplishments, in 1987, Okubo was one
of twelve women pioneers in history recognized by the California Department of Education.