- Inscrutable Grief:Memorializing Japanese American Internment in Miné Okubo's Citizen 13660
During and after World War II, Japanese Americans occupied a precarious position within the United States.1 After Pearl Harbor, rumors of fifth column conspiracies proliferated, and anti-Japanese sentiments quickly escalated. This tense situation culminated on February 19, 1942, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving the government the right to create military exclusion zones and paved the way to the internment of enemy aliens on the West Coast. More than 110,000 Japanese Americans were interned. Roughly two-thirds were United States citizens.
The losses of those affected by internment were great. Forced to quickly leave their homes, most had to abandon, destroy, or sell (at greatly deflated prices) the majority of their belongings. The material losses alone were staggering, but the psychic losses were worse. Internees were separated from their friends—occasionally from their families—and from their homes, businesses, and schools. To add insult to injury, these losses often went unacknowledged in mainstream American culture. In fact, government authorities on both national and local levels told Japanese Americans that the evacuation was for their protection and that they "should be glad to make the sacrifice to prove [their] loyalty."2 Reconfiguring forced losses as willing "sacrifices" that anyone would be glad to make, the government masked the devastation to the Japanese American community. [End Page 47]
Over forty years later, President Reagan signed H.R. 442, otherwise known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a landmark bill that officially acknowledged the injustice of internment and hardships suffered, apologized to Japanese Americans, and awarded monetary damages to former internees. This hard-fought victory came after a long report from the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that confirmed the government's wrongdoing.3 Many factors led to H.R. 442's eventual passage, including shifting cultural understandings of internment that made this kind of unprecedented legislation palatable not just to Congress but also to their constituents.4
This article explores how Japanese American cultural production helped reshape mainstream conceptions of internment, focusing on the immediate postwar period. The most publicly circulated type of cultural work at the time was life writing (such as memoirs), and I show how memoir serves not only to publicly record the events of internment but also the emotions associated with it, specifically loss and grief. Such writing made the losses of internment public by representing Japanese American grief, working to turn unacknowledged grief into reparations for grievance.5 By focusing on personal experiences of internment, this literature added an important dimension to the redress movement (even in its nascent stages). While we can make a case for political action from statistics and facts—a rational basis for retribution—this enumeration of casualties in neat rows of numbers centers our understanding of loss in objects, not the grieving subjects left behind. Indeed, Sara Ahmed's concept of a queer politics of grief involves recognizing not just the "other's grief, but … the other as a griever."6 In recognizing the other as a feeling, grieving subject, we may move toward a more empathetic politics. Literature provides a crucial public space for representing and circulating these kinds of grieving subjects, one that can reshape the bounds of recognition.
But the first memoir of internment published was not a straightforward text. Rather, Miné Okubo's Citizen 13660 (1946) is a dynamic interplay of text and image—pen-and-ink drawings done during her time at the Tanforan Assembly Center in California and the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah and later paired with contextualizing captions for publication. It is exactly this dialogue between visual and textual that makes Okubo's depictions of grief so affecting—and so innovative in ways that I will discuss shortly. However, despite its generic novelty (the term "graphic memoir" did not exist in 1946) and its groundbreaking status as the first memoir of internment, Okubo's text does not garner much attention outside of Asian American studies. By contextualizing Citizen 13660 in its cultural moment to demonstrate its techniques for representing Japanese American grief over internment—work that ultimately helps reshape...