Anti-Japanese attitudes had a long history in the United States, and grew significantly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to remove any person from a military area. The federal government defined the entire West Coast as a military area. It quickly relocated the 110,000 Japanese Americans living in that region to concentration camps built by the federal government in remote parts of the country. The government argued that all Japanese-born (Issei) and American-born (Nissei) residents of Japanese heritage posed a threat to national security. Most internees were American citizens.
Life in the camps was traumatic. Families were often separated. Living conditions were basic and unsanitary. Communal bathrooms, straw-filled mats, and limited food reinforced the fact that the camps were prisons. Internees worked hard to establish community and make life manageable. The government ran each camp like a miniature city. Internees worked as doctors, nurses, teaches, shopkeepers, gardeners, and more. The number of potential employees outnumbered the available jobs, so many qualified men and women competed for the few opportunities for paid work.
The federal government went to great lengths to limit the general public’s knowledge about the camps. Government-hired photographers like Dorothea Lange were prohibited from publishing any photographs not approved by the government. The few images distributed by the government included smiling Japanese Americans who agreed to pose in the best possible conditions. Internees were not even allowed to own or use cameras. By controlling photography, the government ensured that the truth behind the camps stayed a secret for as long as possible.
These images were published by California-born artist Miné Okubo in her book Citizen 13660 in 1946. The title of the book comes from Miné’s government-issued family identification number. It was the first book about the American concentration camp experience written by a former prisoner. Miné hoped her book would shed light on the horrors of the Japanese American internment experience as the government moved to cover up much of the evidence. Miné was imprisoned from May 1942 through January 1944, first at the Tanforan temporary detention camp in California, and then the Topaz concentration camp in Utah. During her time in the camps, she drew over 2,000 illustrations. Two hundred of them were included in her book.
The first image shows Miné reading the newspaper and thinking about the increase of anti-Japanese attitudes following Pearl Harbor.
The second image shows Miné in her living quarters at Tanforan. She shared a room with her brother and a friend. Miné’s area was blocked off by the two blankets labeled “U.S.”
The third image shows Miné watching the operations of a camp hospital. Nursing was one of the few professional jobs available to female internees. Women who worked as nurses before imprisonment competed for the few nursing jobs available at camp.
The fourth image shows Miné waiting in line to use one of the bathrooms communal sinks.
The fifth image shows Miné leaving the camp while others watch. The government occasionally allowed internees to relocate outside the camps to attend college or take jobs. In 1944, editors at Fortune magazine learned about Miné’s illustrations and offered her a full-time job as an illustrator in the New York City offices.