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How Lucky I Was to Be Free and Safe at Home: Reading Humor in Min Okubos Citizen

Author(s): Sarah Dowling
Source: Signs, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Winter 2014), pp. 299-322
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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How Lucky I Was to Be Free and Safe at Home:
Reading Humor in Mine Okubos Citizen 13660
In our secular, progressive times, comprehensive forms of expiation
function as the backdrop to civil community. Rituals of expulsion remain
intact to intimidate and control. Who gets banned and expelled so that we
can live in reasonable consensus? Let us name them now. Criminals. Security
Threats. Terrorists. Enemy Aliens. Illegal Immigrants. Migrant Contami-
nants. Unlawful Enemy Alien Combatants. Ghost Detainees. These are
new orders of life; they hover outside the bounds of the civil, beyond the
simple dichotomies of reason and unreason, legal and illegal.
Colin Dayan 2011, 22
n a recent article, Avery F. Gordon asks how scholars might properly
attend to the knowledge produced by prisoners, how we might do so
in acknowledgment that prisoners fates are bound up with the fates of
those of us who are not yet captured 2008, 652. At issue are the prob-
lems of how to understand the unorthodox means by which prisoners
represent themselves and the power under whose dominion they reside,
the ways in which they nd and make life where death and destruction
dominate 654, and how to understand the relation of prisoners and
prisons to the not-yet-captured world. Gordon proposes that scholars at-
tend to the prisoners curse, a multiply voiced assertion of the life
world and life force of those who have been denied, abandoned, for-
gotten 655. The curse is a demand to know why the captive has been
deprived of his or her personhood; it is a call for reparation 655. It
cuts away at the impassable, uncrossable border erected between the
prisoner and the not-yet-captured addressee 656. Testifying to the truth
that it could be you; it might be you, the prisoners curse breaches this
divide with a gracious hand, despite the fact that it is horrible and un-
fair that the ones so troubled and burdened should have to do this too
For readers familiar with Mine Okubos Citizen 13660 1946 1983,
it may seem strange that I begin an essay on this work with a description
Thanks to Josephine Nock-hee Park, Poulomi Saha, Emma Stapely, Matthew Goldmark,
and the anonymous readers at Signs for their most useful commentary on early drafts of this
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2014, vol. 39, no. 2]
2013 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2014/3902-0001$10.00
S a r a h D o w l i n g
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of prisoners subjugated knowledge as a curse. Citizen 13660 documents
Okubos internment rst at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno,
California, and then at the Topaz War Relocation Center in central Utah,
but it can hardly be described as curselike. On the contrary, this texts pop-
ularity derives largely from its delightful and appealing qualities; although
it documents terrible hardship, Citizen 13660 is a clear instance of an in-
ternee exuberantly nding and making life. Okubo documents instances
of hate speech, separation from most members of her family, and the mani-
fold humiliations of life in camp, but Citizen 13660 is ironic, even imp-
ish; its most curselike gestures might be drawings of Okubo sticking out her
tongue at the guards or holding her nose in a childlike display of disgust. For
many of Okubos critics, the humorous nature of Citizen 13660 presents
a difculty: If the text is comedic, how are we to square its humor with the
experience of being interned? If it is humorous in a way that is not merely
comedic, then how does this humor operate? At times it feels uncomfortable
to laugh at Okubos jokes.
Okubo serves as a guide to the camp; she is present as a gure in nearly
every image in the book. But even as her swishy bangs, annoyed expres-
sion, and cross-patterned shirt become increasingly familiar, Citizen 13660
avoids encouraging identication with Okubo herself.
If the authorial
gure is ever present but unavailable, the title suggests another structur-
ing paradox: while the word citizen calls up the internees civil rights,
the number 13660 evokes the suspensioneffectively, the nullication
of their citizenship.
The word citizen refers to a community of com-
patriots as well as to an individual member of that community; similarly,
the number 13660 names the one specic family to whom it is assigned,
and it also evokes the impersonal regime under which the Japanese Amer-
ican population was delimited, counted, and categorized.
This ambivalent
Given the works title, it is no doubt unsurprising that there is a growing body of work
on Citizen 13660 that reads the text in conversation with studies of citizenship. See Creef
2004, as well as Sokolowski 2009.
Elena Tajima Creef reads this lack of personal disclosure in the context of a larger pat-
tern of reticence among Nisei memoirists noted by Traise Yamamoto. While Citizen 13660
offers a glimpse of the personal and public spaces inside the camp, Creef argues, we are
never allowed any such glimpse into the private space of Okubos interior self. She may use
herself as a reference point from which we may peer voyeuristically into scenes of daily life
in the camps, but Okubo does not offer us the same kind of close examination of the inti-
mate details of her own interior life. . . . Okubo never shows or tells us what she is actually
feeling; instead she gives us a brilliantly detailedthough somewhat detachedrecord of
the internment experience 2004, 88.
Although I am using the term Japanese American for the sake of simplicity, not all of
the internees were American citizens. Older internees, Issei, were typically not American
citizens, while their children and grandchildren, Nisei and Sansei, typically were.
300 y Dowling
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documentary focuses on absurd aspects of life in camp, the paradoxes of
a citizenship wherein demands for loyalty were extreme and rights and
freedoms were few. Accordingly, Okubo demonstrates that the stated
aims of Japanese internmentnot only to separate out a potentially dan-
gerous enemy population but to reeducate Japanese Americans in the
norms of cultural citizenshipwere consistently perverse.
Despite its goal
of rening Japanese Americans citizenship, internmentas Citizen 13660
documentsproduced nonnormative gender presentations, reinforced un-
sanctioned nonfamilial attachments, and established an impulse to engage
in surveillance. However, failures to learn the lessons internment was in-
tended to teach are represented as humorous absurdities. In this way, Oku-
bos rendering of life in camp conforms poorly to readerly expectations of
resistance, even of politics.
In this article I read Citizen 13660s quiescence in the face of such
expectations in conversation with Gordons description of the prisoners
curse. Citizen 13660 is a reply to the social death sentence under which
the internees lived; it is a testament to the rich lives that internees cre-
ated under harsh and cruel conditions Gordon 2008, 656. In depicting
that lifehard work, boredom, bathing, artistic production, fear, educa-
tion, commerce, political action, playOkubo protests against intern-
ment and warns against future possibilities of arbitrary imprisonment.
However, the gracious hand Okubo extends toward her not-yet-captured
audience greets us with an unexpectedly light, playful touch. Because the
humor with which Okubo solicits our regard is so difcult, I nd it rem-
iniscent of the feminist imperative to question the normative denition
of the political. But it articulates this imperative obliquely, in an unex-
pected idiom. Okubos depictions of incarcerated citizenship, of the un-
foreseen attachments produced in camp, and of her own impulse to engage
in surveillance demonstrate that we cannot presume to know our object in
advance; rather than locating what we recognize as politics or resistance
in the texts that we read, we must revise our own methodologies if we are
to meet the hands extended to us by imprisoned artists.
Histories of humor
Whereas many texts depicting internmentfromJohn Okadaa No-No Boy
1957 1976 to Julie Otsukas When the Emperor Was Divine 2003
I borrow the word perverse from Mae M. Ngais description of the perverse results
of internment 2004, 201, which I will discuss below. I use it etymologically, not perjora-
tively, to indicate that under internment the pedagogy of cultural citizenship was turned and
twisted into new and unforeseen directions.
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 301
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focus on internees careful management of their anger at the treatment
they endured, and offer detailed descriptions of the psychological costs of
doing so, Okubos intentionally at surfaces resist critical attributions of
an angry or wounded psychology lurking behind the text. Seeming to par-
take of what Elena Tajima Creef calls a rhetoric of good cheer char-
acterizing early representations of Japanese internment 2004, 32, Oku-
bos evenhandedness, and especially her humor, have presented difculty
for readers of Citizen 13660 throughout its publication history. While
early readers focused on her humor and objectivity to the neglect of the
texts other features, and readers of the 1983 reissue emphasized negativ-
ity and carefully avoided the texts pleasures, humor is a pivot point upon
which critical interpretations of Citizen 13660 have turned. Given this his-
tory, I submit that we ought to read with the text, as feminist critics have
recently advocated.
In doing so, I oppose critical models in which a hu-
morous surface conceals a sad or angry interior, or in which a true depth
of despair obviates discussion of the thin veneer of slapstick comedy and
ironic commentary.
While early reviews of Citizen 13660 tended to be favorable, their in-
sistence upon Okubos objectivity, good humor, and avoidance of bit-
terness is indicative of the expectations reviewers brought to the text.
Between September 1946 and November 1947, Citizen 13660 was re-
viewed in a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times,
the Chicago Defender, and many academic and popular journals.
M. Mar-
garet Andersons oft-quoted New York Times review uses the words ob-
jective and objectively twice 1946, BR4, and another reviewer believes
that Okubo leaves the thoughtful person to form his own judgment
of the camps Togo 1947, 122. The Chicago Defender reassures readers
that Citizen 13660 avoids recrimination or bitterness Conroy 1946,
15, the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs notes a good sense of hu-
mour 1947, 52, and the Pacic Historical Review praises its remark-
able good humor 1947, 476. Another reviewer, Setsuko Matsunaga
Nishi, approves of Okubos commendable objectivity 1947, 463 and
explains that the reader is left amused by Miss Okubos drawings, and with
some understanding of the external conditions in which the 110,000 evac-
uees were caught 463. A former internee herself, however, Nishi wor-
ries that few readers will move beyond amusement 463. She doubts
For the best introduction to this mode of thinking, see the special issue of Representa-
tions on surface reading Best et al. 2009.
These include the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the
Burlington Magazine for Conoisseurs, the American Journal of Sociology, Pacic Affairs, and
Pacic Historical Review.
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whether the disillusioning torment that evacuation meant is evident
to most readers: a facile, humorous surface, she explains, belies the
deep subjective meaning of the images and the text 463. She fears that
this meaning, which might garner sympathy for formerly interned Japanese
Americans, is too far beneath the texts playful surface.
By contrast, later readers tend to interpret Citizen 13660 primarily as
somber La Duke 1987, 45; bleak, depressing and sad Rayson 1987,
49; or as stiring emotions to the point of anger and frustration
Ujimoto 1984, 541. For example, Shirley Suns Mine Okubo: An Amer-
ican Experience contrasts Okubos internment period art against the work
immediately preceding it. Sun discerns a new emotional depth in the in-
ternment period works, which immediately strike us with their pervasive
gloom. Gone are the colors, the lightheartedness and air of Europe. Once
more, Mine returns to black and white drawingsa reection of stark and
somber realities of imprisonment as well as the drab and dusty colors of
the desert and earth. She gives up the free-handling of the brushwork with
which she was experimenting in Europe and returns to the relative safety
of the same tight lines used in the drawing of the early portrait, Mother
and Cat Sun 1972, 22. In contrast to the bold and free brushwork of
her European paintings 16, the internment charcoals are painful and ex-
cruciatingly private 23, expressing anguish and despair 24. Although
Sun allows that the Citizen 13660 drawings are humorous 30, she dis-
cusses them primarily as documentation of the dehumanization that the
internees faced: bed number, stall number, barrack number, train group
number, block number, apartment number, resident identication num-
ber, etc. 30. The relevant aspects of the textual surface are those that
gesture toward its inner gloom.
In my reading, the contrast between the reviews from the 1940s and
those from the 1980s does not suggest progress; we have not advanced
toward a more accurate understanding of Okubos work. Instead, this con-
trast is primarily illustrative of the demands that not-yet-captured readers
bring to captured artists texts. If we are willing to meet the prisoners out-
stretched hands, we do so only on our own terms. In greeting her read-
ers with surprising playfulness, Okubo reminds us that we cannot deter-
mine in advance what politics should look like or what resistance should
be. If we are to reach across the space between interned and not-yet-
interned citizens, between the captured artist and the not-yet-captured
reader, we cannot legislate in advance what type of gesture the captured
artist should make. We ought not ask these gestures to conform to a pol-
itics whose contours and aims have been determined in advance and un-
der a different set of constraints by the not-yet-captured scholar.
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 303
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Gendering incarcerated citizenship
Perhaps it is too infrequently noted that the celebrated gateways to Amer-
ican citizenship are equally spaces of incarceration: Ellis Island, Angel Is-
land, and other sites typically memorialized as points of entry were also
zones of exclusion for the detention of not-yet and never-to-be citizens.
Citizen 13660 begins with what seems like a typical immigrant narrative:
following a few pages that depict arduous potato farming, declarations of
war, and bureaucratic difculties in Europe, we see Okubo standing on a
pier in New York, surrounded by her trunks and luggage and a throng of
weary fellow travelers. I arrived in New York with exactly twenty-ve
cents Okubo 1946 1983, 6, Okubo explains, evoking typical immi-
grant narratives in which initial hardships are the harbingers of eventual
achievement and success. Okubo, however, is not an immigrant. Although
she self-consciously references the tropes of late nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century European immigration, Okubo is an ethnically Japanese
US citizen who had been traveling in Europe to study art on a scholar-
ship from the University of California. Her return to the United States,
prompted by the outbreak of the Second World War, is a homecoming;
she proceeds to the West Coast and settles with her brother in the Bay
Okubos evocation of the most iconic scenes and stories of US immi-
gration foreshadows the transformation her citizenship will undergo
through the course of Citizen 13660. She travels quickly and safely to her
home, where, as she states, everything was going along ne Okubo
1946 1983, 7. But waves of anti-Japanese sentiment soon ll the air
with hate speech and make her a target of scrutiny. Once the evacuation
orders are passed, Okubo is interned and her American citizenship affords
her no protection. While the opening of the text seems to predict a narra-
tive of monetary success and cultural assimilation, a trajectory toward the
American dream, the bulk of Citizen 13660 is devoted to the ridiculous,
the insane, and the humorous incidents and aspects of camp life ix; this
episodic documentary offers only a minimal sense of progression. Indeed,
as I will discuss, Citizen 13660 ends ambivalently and ambiguously, with
Okubo poised on the cusp of a nebulous and uninviting future: There
was only the desert now 209. While Okubos opening reference is to
the dominant narratives of immigrant success, the nonteleological struc-
ture of the work that follows represents a different mode of life in the
United States: the incarcerated citizenship she depicts is characterized by
a loss of control, not only over its narrative trajectory but even over in-
dividuals bodily surfaces.
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Mae M. Ngai explains that Japanese internment was a crisis of citi-
zenship, in which citizenship was rst nullied on grounds of race and then
reconstructed by means of internment, forced cultural assimilation, and
ethnic dispersal Ngai 2004, 201. In other words, the United States did
not actually strip Japanese Americans citizenship but for all intents and
purposes suspended it exclusively on grounds of racial difference 175,
proposing a program of reeducation whose goal was to create culturally
normative American citizens. In spite of the racist logic that produced and
justied internment, Ngai notes, the director of the War Relocation Au-
thority WRA, Milton Eisenhower, as well as his successor, Dillon Myer,
considered themselves anti-racist and imagined that the camps repre-
sented an opportunity to turn an unfortunate incidence of war into a
positive social good 177. The administration of the camps had a be-
nevolent assimilationist intent, envisioning them as planned com-
munities and Americanizing projects that would speed the assimilation
of Japanese Americans through democratic self-government, schooling,
work, and other rehabilitative activities 177.
This imposition of nor-
mative cultural citizenship in the absence of formal legal rights, Ngai ar-
gues, could only have perverse results 201. Citizen 13660 offers a
similar analysis insofar as it demonstrates the fraught status of Japanese
American citizenship under internment, what Okubo calls injustices and
contradictions 1946 1983, ix. At the same time, Okubo evacuates
explicitly political responses to this situation from the scenes she draws
and narrates; perversely, to use Ngais term, Okubo offers humorous im-
ages that convey only faint overtones of the resistance or critique that
contemporary readers might expect, or prefer to see.
To illustrate, one image about midway through the text shows Okubo
tangled in a leaess sapling see g. 1. Her body is bent over so that her
right hand and foot touch the ground while her left hand holds a clipboard
close to her chest. Her left leg is awkwardly laced through the small trees
branches, but her face is impassive. The text below this image reads: In
November, Arbor day was celebrated by the distribution of small shrubs
to each block. There was an overnight change in the camp scenery. Trees
and shrubs appeared in the most unexpected places Okubo 1946 1983,
150. This passage asks the reader to infer a simple narrative of slapstick
humor: immersed in her art as represented by the clipboard, the day-
In a move that seems especially bizarre today, the WRA ofcials even compared the
internment camps to Nazi concentration camps, believing that the contrast between them
stood as an ironic testimony to the value of American democracy Ngai 2004, 179.
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 305
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dreaming narrator fails to notice the new shrubs and trips over one, tan-
gling herself in it as she falls to the ground. While the narrator remarks
that trees and shrubs appeared in the most unexpected places Okubo
1946 1983, 150, the drawing shows three similar trees, planted in a
predictable, orderly fashion along the wall of a building. We laugh at the
narrators clumsiness, but because of her ironic commentary we laugh with
her, sympathetically.
While the overnight change in camp scenery Okubo 1946 1983,
150 creates confusion and disorder, it is not clear for whom this is so.
The use of passive voice in the accompanying textArbor day was cele-
brated, trees and shrubs appearedquietly offers the possibility that
it was not really the internees who celebrated Arbor Day, a national Amer-
Figure 1 Okubo depicts an American national holiday. Mine Okubo, Citizen 13600 1946
306 y Dowling
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ican holiday, and that in fact having trees and shrubs suddenly appear
in the most unexpected places was hardly cause for celebration. Okubo,
the only gure depicted in the image, looks awkward and uncomfort-
able but not shocked or surprised. She certainly doesnt seem to nd her
fall unexpected; instead, she seems to nd it annoying. As an American,
she is a possible Arbor Day celebrant, but the absence of any celebrating
internees suggests their exclusion from the broader community of citi-
zens. They may replicate American cultural rituals, but they do so only in
isolation: internees are at once shut out and caught unexpectedly, tripped
up by a celebration in which they are not included. Curiously, however,
this image and text seem oddly apolitical; all that Okubo represents is her
own arboreal discombobulation, which is played for laughs.
Okubos solitary encounter with the shrub is suggestive of internments
perversions of citizenship. Feminist theorists have called attention to the
practice of citizenship in civil society, expanding the arena in which citi-
zenship is practiced beyond the realm of explicit politics. Lauren Berlant
1997, Rian Voet 1998, Iris Marion Young 2000, Marilyn Friedman
2005, and Alison Jaggar 2005, among others, have called attention
to the ways in which citizenship is practiced in non- or extragovernmental
realms that might include business and the marketplace, the domestic sphere
of kinship and the family, popular culture, and subnational, afliation-based
public spheres. Recent anthropological considerations of citizenship have
also called attention to its cultural components: Renato Rosaldo 1989,
Aihwa Ong 1999, Lisa Rofel 1999, Martin F. Manalansan 2003, and
others have argued that citizenship is not only a fulllment of obligations
or an assumption of rights, it is a performance of behaviors, ideas, and im-
ages associated with the citizen Manalansan 2003, 14. Japanese intern-
ment in general, and Okubos depiction of it in particular, represent a
unique case of enforced cultural reeducation in the norms, practices, and
afliations of citizenship. As Okubo suggests, the internees faced a deeply
and cruelly ironic situation: I was an American citizen, she writes, and
because of the injustices and contradictions nothing made much sense
1946 1983, ix. Like the sapling in her drawing, internees were up-
rooted, replanted, and expected to ourish under the camps assimilation-
ist pedagogy; however, lessons in normative cultural citizenship did not
make much sense, perverted as they were by the reality of incarceration.
Recent feminist and anthropological studies understand citizenship as
a set of acts undertaken within a given cultural, political, and economic
milieuor as the performative enactment of particular afliationsand
recent studies of incarceration and immigration in the mid-twentieth-
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 307
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century United States have also demonstrated that the norms of Ameri-
can citizenship, particularly its gendered components, are also policed at
local, everyday sites: the welfare ofce, the border crossing, and the prison.
In Okubos documentation, this policing is given a different inection:
With close to ten thousand people conned in an area a mile square,
Okubo explains, people from the cradle to the grave were reduced to
one status and condition 1946 1983, ix. This reduction to one sta-
tus and condition occurs along axes of gender; for many internees, she
suggests, internment produced and enforced distinctly nonnormative gen-
der presentations. While the state invited young male internees to partici-
pate in dramatic and spectacular displays of masculinity, particularly by join-
ing all-Nisei combat units, Okubo suggests that for those who remained in
camp, gender nonconformity was actually enforced. Within the discourses
of literary study and of gender and sexuality studies, gender nonconformity
is typically read as resistance: to break with the norms of ones society is to
herald a new, liberating possibility. Okubo, however, depicts gender non-
conformity as an effect of incarceration and as a perversion of the peda-
gogy of normative cultural citizenship.
Rather than the exuberant perfor-
mance of a true self, in her rendering, gender nonconformity is indicative
of carceral institutions control over bodily surfaces; to a great extent, the
state sets the ground conditions for internees physical appearance.
Given this provenance, in Okubos rendering gender nonconformity
is often a source of humor, and it goes hand-in-hand with a reduction
in or blurring of other types of distinction, especially age. A particularly
funny episode occurs in a drawing of a group of women and children who
are all wearing slacks or jeans Okubo 1946 1983, 52. The gures
face away from the viewer so that what stands out in the image is their
Margot Canaday, for example, demonstrates that from the 1940s to the 1960s, a
homosexual-heterosexual binary . . . was being inscribed in federal citizenship policy
2009, 3 and that prior to this period, nonnormative sexual behaviors, gender traits, and
emotional ties were identied at local sites of state power as grounds for exclusion from
entering the country, serving in the military, or collecting benets 2009, 4. We might
also think of the ways in which recent immigration laws in Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere
have shifted policing from the border to the interior by targeting, among others, renters,
those seeking education, and those seeking health care. The duty of monitoring immigration
shifts to property owners, employers, health care providers, school ofcials, and so forth.
Of course, carceral institutions generally have what Regina Kunzel calls queering ef-
fects, even as they impose normative sexual and gender formations Kunzel 2008, 14. What
seems unique about Citizen 13660 is its demonstration that this production is explicitly
connected to an attempt to enforce normative American cultural citizenship. For a discussion
of the specic ways in which gender nonconformity was policed in American carceral insti-
tutions but not internment camps during this period, see Canaday 2009.
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comically short, bowed legs and their low-slung bottoms see g. 2. One
woman has a large patch on the seat of her pants; Okubos gaze, and there-
fore the readers, is drawn toward the patch as though it holds the key to
the images humor. Okubos textual commentary on the fact that all the
women, from grandmothers to toddlers, are wearing the same outt sug-
gests that this lack of distinction is unusual, and the fact that they wear
slacks or jeans in particular constitutes a humorous and surprising aspect
of life in camp 52. Although the humor here is sophomoric and vaguely
scatological, the documentary character of the imageits reportage of the
womens clothingsuggests that the target of the humor is not the women
but internment itself. Committed to the production of normativity, it
creates indistinguishability: women without faces, dressed in shabby attire
more typical of another gender. Fromgrandmothers to toddlers, they all
look the same.
Internees sartorial options are frequently depicted as limited and lim-
iting. In addition to ordering items from a narrow selection of catalogs,
Figure 2 Okubo depicts womens clothing. Mine Okubo, Citizen 13600 1946 1983.
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 309
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internees also received government-issue GI uniforms to wear in cold
As Okubo explains, all those employed, both women and men,
received this welcome but peculiar apparelwarm pea jackets and army
uniforms, sizes 38 and 44, apparently left over from the rst World War
Okubo 1946 1983, 151. The illustration on this page depicts Okubo
and ve of her fellow internees in comically large jacketssome of the g-
ures heads barely protrude above the thick collars of their outerwear. Two
male gures in the foreground are dressed identically, right down to their
striped socks. The two-page spread following this image suggests a simi-
lar dynamic: The illustration on the left shows Okubo wearing a comically
large shirt or jacket, whose long sleeves fully conceal her hands. Every-
one was dressed alike, because of the catalog orders and G.I. clothes, she
states 153. On the facing page, Okubo wears the same outt as two other
women; one is quite elderly, and the other is pregnant. Okubo and the
pregnant woman wear the same pleated skirt, and all three women wear
the same tight-tting shirt with a row of buttons down the fronta con-
ventionally feminine and rather cute outt, but clearly one of a very few
possibilities on offer in the Sears catalog. In both of these images, Okubo
also wears a sad expression: in camp, clothing choices are not expressive of
preferences, tastes, or identities. Rather, they suggest the vagaries of life
under carceral power: whether one is dressed androgynously in the cloth-
ing of a soldier from a prior era or in the uniform of ones gender, clothes
bespeak the states view of the internees as an undifferentiated mass whose
few distinctions size 38 or 44? are ultimately irrelevant.
The blurring of distinctions is illustrated especially clearly in a two-page
spread in which an elderly male internee and a young female internee,
depicted in two separate images, are posed identically see g. 3. The male
internee, ying a kite, and the female internee, dancing the hula, comically
reect each others postures and gestures: both jut their hips dramatically
to one side, extending one arm delicately outward, and raising the op-
posite hand above their heads. The cross-hatching on the female dancers
grass skirt echoes the pattern on the male kite iers pants, while the shape
of his drooping chest echoes her breasts. If the images are considered
Commentary on clothing is ubiquitous in womens internment memoirs. For example,
in Nisei Daughter 1953 1979, Monica Sone describes her initial reaction to the receipt of
GI clothes: We gave a lusty cheer for the government when we were told that they would
provide winter clothing for those who needed it. Mother was the rst to go after her clothing
allotment. When she came home with the bundle, we all gathered around her excitedly to see
what she had. She held up a dangling pair of longjohns, olive-drab army trousers of World
War I, and a navy pea coat. Theyre good quality woolens, she said calmly, and theyll
certainly keep me warm. One thing, its too bad we arent all males 1953 1979, 196.
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separately, the two gures seem quite unremarkable; both behave and are
dressed according the norms of their respective genders, and the appear-
ance of each is entirely conventional. Placed alongside each other as these
images are, however, the internees twinned postures suggest that the dis-
tinctions between them are absolutely minimal; the elderly kite ier and
the nubile dancer are practically interchangeable. Under internment, cul-
tural normativity is bent and twisted until it becomes an imposition of
nonidentity; distinctions among the internees fade into irrelevance. Sur-
faces are not expressive of true, inner, or even personal depths. Rather, they
are expressions of the conditions under which the internees live, and over
which they have little control.
Unforeseen attachments
As recent feminist scholarship has suggested, the primary locus of Amer-
ican cultural citizenship is the home.
Under internment, however, Jap-
anese Americans were to be instructed in the practices of citizenship via
removal from their homes and incarceration in concentration camps.
in other carceral institutions, familial attachments sanctioned and cele-
brated within the wider culture were rendered difcult if not impossible
as families were split apart and scattered among different camps. Okubo
herself was separated from all of her family except for a younger brother,
Toku. Later, after being moved to Topaz, the two were reunited with an-
other brother and a sister, but Okubos eldest sister was interned at Heart
Mountain, in Wyoming, and other members of her family were sent to
Poston, in Arizona. Her father was incarcerated in a number of top-
security prison camps after being arrested by the FBI and only later joined
some of the family in Poston Creef 2004, 79.
Okubo discusses ongoing worry over her father but devotes minimal
discussion to other family members locations. She does, however, rep-
resent the experiences of families who separated by choice, or members of
families who wished to separate from each other. Unlike contemporary
theoretical accounts wherein the private, domestic realm is consistent with
or imagined as an expression of civic duty, Okubo reveals that for some
internees, loyalty to the United States and proper cultural citizenship
Berlant, for example, argues that the United States is characterized by a privatized,
intimate core of national culture, in which cultural citizenship is produced through acts
originating in or directed toward the family sphere; acts that are not civic acts . . . bear the
burden of dening proper citizenship 1997, 5.
This is, of course, to say nothing of the massive theft of internees homes and property
while they were interned.
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could only be demonstrated through desires and attempts to sunder the
family unit. National and familial attachments did not align, and some in-
ternees had to rend the latter in order to fold themselves into the former.
However, Okubo does not emphasize the differences between those who
separate by force and those who separate by choice; instead, her crowd
scenes suggest that an ambivalent attachment to the undifferentiated mass
of internees arises in the place of familial attachments. Drawings of crowds
reveal few distinctions among the group, and her departure from camp re-
veals her own attachment to the incarcerated population.
Okubos discussion of the establishment of the Segregation Center at
Tule Lake, intended for internees perceived as security threats, suggests
that conicting attachments emerge in the internment camp: In the fall
of 1943 thirteen hundred Topazians about one tenth of the total were
sent to Tule Lake. The group included all who had said they wished to
return to Japan; the No, nos, that is, those who would not change their
unsatisfactory answers to the loyalty questionnaire; all who remained un-
der suspicion of disloyalty after investigation by the War Relocation Au-
thority and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and close relatives who
would rather be segregated with their families than separated from them
Okubo 1946 1983, 199.
Initially, at least, internees loyalty to their
families trumps their loyalty to the United States. In a strange way, this rep-
resentation fullls American fears about the un-American character of the
enemy race. Furthermore, Okubos drawing offers only the most minimal
distinctions between the internees who stay and those who go. Aside from a
few impassive gures in the foreground, the internees seemto be one great
mass; the undifferentiated crowd dominates the scene. Her narration, while
matter-of-fact, offers sympathy for the internees sent to Tule Lake; her
mention of the relatives who accompany their disloyal family members is
particularly tender.
However, the long textual passage on this page of which I have quoted
only a portion carries over onto the next; when the page is turned, a rare
instance of text unaccompanied by a drawing states: Children had to go
to Tule Lake with their parents, but some adolescents resented the label
In 1943, all residents of the internment camps were forced to complete one of two
questionnaires aimed at distinguishing whether they were loyal or disloyal. The most
controversial questions asked whether internees would be willing to serve in the armed forces
and whether internees would swear unqualied allegiance to the United States and would
forswear allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor or any foreign government. In-
ternees feared that to answer yes to the former would result in a forced departure from the
internment camps, possibly abandoning elderly family members there. Internees also feared
that noncitizens who forswore allegiance to Japan would nd themselves stateless people.
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 313
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disloyal and fought bitterly to remain behind Okubo 1946 1983,
200. The crowded scene sketched on the previous page, depicting trucks
full of disloyal internees and the throng waving them goodbye in a display
of friendship if not solidarity, is replaced with an absence, unseen teen-
agers whose allegiance to the United States makes them want to leave
their families to stay behind with everybody else. Appearing to have cor-
rectly learned the lessons internment intended to teach, insofar as their loy-
alty to the United States seems unimpeachable, they pass beyond the lim-
its of Okubos representation, appearing only in the text, not in the image.
When Okubo depicts her own departure from Topaz, however, she il-
lustrates a new attachment that arises as a result of her incarceration, one
apparently unforeseen by the camps assimilationist pedagogy. Upon her
departure, her strongest loyalty is not to her own family, as normative
American cultural citizenship would suggest, nor to the United States it-
self, as internment would require. Rather, it is to the internees who have
not been released, to those who remain behind in camp. By 1944, some
internees, especially Nisei women, were allowed to leave the camps to at-
tend college or to take jobs in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Prior to
leaving, these internees received brochures instructing them as to How
to Make Friends, How to Behave in the Outside World, and what to do
When You Leave the Relocation Center Okubo 1946 1983, 2078.
At rst Okubo appears quite excited by the prospect of her departure.
However, when the time comes, her response is more fraught:
I looked at the crowd at the gate. Only the very old or very young
were left. Here I was, alone, with no family responsibilities, and yet
fear had chained me to the camp. I thought, My God! How do they
expect those poor people to leave the one place they can call home.
I swallowed a lump in my throat as I waved good-by to them.
I entered the bus. As soon as all the passengers had been accounted
for, we were on our way. I relived momentarily the sorrows and the
joys of my whole evacuation experience, until the barracks faded
away into the distance. There was only the desert now. My thoughts
shifted from the past to the future. Okubu 1946 1983, 209
Although her sadness is only momentary, Okubos departure is am-
bivalent. While the nal word in the book is future, suggesting a life
of possibility, her statement that there was only the desert now is an
indictment of the bleak character of what lies ahead. Even after the bar-
racks have faded away into the distance, Okubo remains in the des-
ertthe book ends in transit, and Okubo does not offer any depiction
of her destination. Although Citizen 13660 begins by depicting Okubos
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arrival in New York with exactly twenty-ve cents 6, it does not re-
veal that after her internment she returned to New York to begin work-
ing for Fortune magazine. This second arrival in New York is surely a ful-
llment of the promises of success offered by the opening reference to
stereotypical immigrant narratives; it might even have suggested her ful-
llment of the pedagogy of internment. But Okubo avoids depicting her
reentry into mainstream America altogether, so thoroughly has her incar-
ceration broken this narrative of forward progression and success.
Okubos departurewe might even say her liberationis riven with
doubt and nostalgia. The perverse result of internment is that it has broken
up her family, and it has produced a new allegiance to the camp itself, to
the familiar and beloved population of fellow internees. Her departure
appears to position her as a successfully rehabilitated citizen. However,
she does not represent herself as an individual headed to New York to
seek fortune, as a modern woman throwing off the shackles of family, or
even as future-oriented and hopeful. Instead, she represents herself as
lonely, looking back to the community of the very young and the very
old whom she leaves behind Okubu 1946 1983, 209. Okubos tepid
response to the future what the government, if not the reader, assumes is
her continuing forward march toward complete assimilation and her sad-
ness at leaving her community behind suggest the ambivalence that char-
acterizes Citizen 13660 overall: if the aim of internment was to produce
better Japanese Americans, to suspend their rights in order to ensure their
love and loyalty, the loves and loyalties developed in camp are directed
toward the camp itself, to the others interned there. Instead of the desired
cutting off from Japanese America and resuturing into the fabric of
the nation as isolated American citizens Creef 2004, 31, Okubo offers
her own tale of attachment to the incarcerated population that she leaves
Impulse to engage in surveillance
If Okubos departure suggests loyalty to the incarcerated population, her
earlier depictions of life within the camp make clear the limitations of
her allegiance, especially her lack of interest in the other internees politics.
Vivian Fumiko Chin argues that in Okubos critical perspective, mak-
ing owers is more appropriate than speaking out against the guards
abuse of power Chin 2004, 27; Chin suggests that Okubo uses a visual
language of shielding to critique productive and unproductive forms of
resistance. While Citizen 13660 frequently depicts content or events that
we might recognize as political, from the internees efforts to organize to
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 315
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the humiliations of public bathrooms, Okubo is at once too close to and
too distant from these explicitly political scenes. She alternately mashes
her drawn self into proximity with her fellow internees and then wrenches
this gure into an unbridgeable distance from them. This shifting per-
spective mimics the scrutiny of the states gaze upon the criminalized Jap-
anese American population: in its rage to qualify and quantify the most
minute and intimate details of their existence, the states perspective seems
almost microscopic. Simultaneously, as I have shown, Okubo demon-
strates that the state also takes an aerial view of the internees, understand-
ing them as a mass, undifferentiated by distinctions of age or sex. Her own
documentary gaze upon her fellow internees mimics these perspectives; this
appropriation complicates a reading practice that might rely on common-
sense or otherwise preconceived notions of resistance.
Okubos presence in every image is suggestive of the atmosphere of
surveillance in camp, but it is also charming. In her discussion of the in-
ternees reactions to the announcement of the Japanese American combat
unit and the loyalty questionnaire, she is particularly impatient with the
anti-administration rabble-rousers who skillfully fanned the misunder-
standings at the center-wide meetings Okubo 1946 1983, 176. The
illustration shows a man on stage giving a speech to a room full of men.
There are drops of moisture on most of the mens faces, and the man on
stage holds a handkerchief up to his cheek and neck. It appears that the
men are crying, a reading that is supported by some parts of the text:
Okubo notes that aliens Issei would be in a difcult position if they
renounced Japanese citizenship and thereby made themselves stateless
persons, and her drawing depicts many elderly men who seem terried
by the prospect 17576. However, sympathy for the Issei is complicated
by Okubos presence in the image. She stands in the bottom left corner,
with her eyes cast to the side, holding her nose in a sign of disgust, whether
at the inammatory speech or the bad smell coming off the men. Perhaps
they are not crying, but sweating. Okubos impish gesture is humorous,
but it is not clear what is at stake in her dismissal of the mens political
engagement, concern, and fear. These men are hard at work trying to con-
vince each other of where to lodge their political afliations, of how to
properly respond to the demand that they renounce their Japanese citizen-
ship and make themselves stateless. Okubos ironic documentation of the
meeting suggests that the internees attempts at political organization are
merely comical; in this way it appears that her own loyalties dont conform
to what we might typically understand as political or that they complicate
the politics of resistance that many readers would prefer to see.
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Okubos appeal to the reader, the way she positions herself in the fore-
ground of the image, soliciting agreement through her childish gesture,
distances her gure from the men and from the Isseis political concerns.
And yet the purpose of her work is to document such conicts and con-
cerns. An extended sequence on the Tanforan bathrooms and showers
demonstrates the uncomfortably close scrutiny of the states gaze, re-
vealed by the proximity of the internees to each other and, in turn, of the
reader to the internees. The initial image in the sequence depicts a large
group of women washing and brushing their teeth. The images that fol-
low alternate between depictions of women sitting on toilets and bath-
ing and large groups of people primarily women waiting in long lines to
use the toilets. The arrangement of the toilets is highly unconventional:
the mens latrines, Okubo writes, were lined up in two rows back to back,
while the womens followed the same arrangement, except, Okubo
archly notes, that a halfpartition separated the toilets conversationally
in pairs Okubo 1946 1983, 72. In spite of this opportunity to chat,
Okubo depicts a woman sitting miserably on the toilet, covering her ears
see g. 4.
A child walks past her, and Okubo lingers on the right edge
of the image, watching the woman out of the corner of her eye. The top
of another gures head can be seen over the partition, and although this
persons eyes are not depicted, there is a clear suggestion that she too is
watching the woman on the toilet.
In this tight net of intersecting gazes, women use their hands to cover
their noses Okubo 1946 1983, 74 and their faces and bellies 75. In
one image, Okubo, wearing a slip rather than her typical checked shirt and
jeans, puts up both of her hands in a defensive posture as she steps over
a dirty footbath 77. The women sought privacy by pinning up curtains
and setting up boards 74, Okubo explains, but all of her drawings sug-
gest that these efforts were in vain. They cannot shield their bodies from
view, as Okubos presence in each image demonstrates. While in some
images she seems to rush hurriedly past, carrying a towel on her arm, per-
haps trying not to look 76, in others she stands in the corner for no
apparent reason, her hand on her chest, watching 72, much as she did at
the political meeting. In some instances, Okubos gaze is explicitly linked
with the guards: in one image, a hideous Caucasian guard in a wide-
Reading this image, Chin writes that, even in what seem to be the most devastating
deprivations of internment, Okubo injects humor. . . . By describing the toilet placement as
conversational, she suggests that the private act of relieving ones self could easily become
shared and public 2004, 31.
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 317
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brimmed hat crouches, putting his eye to a knothole to watch two men
playing cards and smoking. Behind him, Okubo crouches as well, perhaps
to watch him watching but perhaps conspiratorially to watch with him. In
reading, we too spy on the men; rather than peering through the knothole,
we see them through the window. This multiplication of perspectives and
the lack of privacy that they imply signal the internees constant subjection
to scrutiny.
Okubos depiction of the atmosphere of surveillance is humorous, but
intensely rueful. In one image of the camp post ofce, she depicts two
long queues of internees waiting for their mail while other internees mill
about between them. In yet another crowd scene, Okubo provides a long
Figure 4 Okubo depicts an opportunity for conversation. Mine Okubo, Citizen 13600
1946 1983.
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view of the camp, in which many barracks, enclosed by fences, are visible
Okubo 1946 1983, 61. She stands in a long queue, waiting for her
mail. The angle of her chin, tilted upward, directs the readers gaze off into
the distance at the barracks and at the American ag in front of the post
ofce. The text on this page reads: The Tanforan post ofce was one of
the busiest places in the center. All packages were inspected. Many of
them contained goods ordered from the indispensable Montgomery Ward
and Sears, Roebuck catalogs. The infrequent letters from my father were
always post-marked from a new camp in a different state. Letters from my
European friends told me how lucky I was to be free and safe at home
61. Okubos irony is bitter, but it is funny. Especially in the context of
contraband and suspicious actions and spying by Caucasian camp police,
which is established on the previous page, her syntax sets up the expec-
tation that many of the packages contained something suspicious, even
dangerous 6061. Instead, the discovery of mundane orders from pop-
ular catalogs proves humorously anticlimactic; the excessive security in-
volved in examining these packages matches the comic exaggeration of
the Caucasian guards hideous face on the facing page. The mention of
Okubos father and her ongoing uncertainty as to his whereabouts, how-
ever, takes Okubos irony beyond mere humor. Given the atmosphere of
surveillance, it is impossible to believe that Okubo is free, safe, or at home,
even if she is gazing at the ag of her own nation.
Despite this disidentication, Okubos depictions of her role as docu-
mentarian suggest a strange collusion with this atmosphere of surveil-
lance. She demonstrates that there is nothing much to see in camp, that
there are no really appropriate targets for the governments surveillance,
but what we do see, constantly, is her own gure watching. If the guards
can only detect catalog orders, Okubos surveillance of her fellow intern-
ees records much more. It is precisely in this regard that Okubos humor
at once solicits readers sympathies for the internees and glosses over what
Nishi calls the disillusioning torments of internment Nishi 1947, 464.
While Nishi is rightly cautious about the pleasures of Okubos text, Oku-
bos depictions of the humorous aspects of internment counter the im-
pulse to isolate the prison from meaning, consequence, or correlative in
the outside world Kunzel 2008, 14. Okubos attention to the absurdi-
ties of internment as a perversion of citizenship constantly gestures out-
ward, in a solicitation to the reader. Further, it is through these humorous
absurdities that Okubo demonstrates the internment camps continuity
with daily life as it was and as it was supposed to be lived in America: their
purpose was to instruct the internees in the most normative manifesta-
tions of American citizenship. Okubos apparent quiescence, what might
S I G N S Winter 2014 y 319
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initially appear as her failure to resist, is more accurately a demonstration of
the normality of life in the internment camps, a documentation of the lived
experience of a paradox, citizenship dened by incarceration. This para-
dox, it seems, structures lives of those who are incarcerated as well as those
who are not.
Extended hands
Since the 1980s, symptomatic reading has been a core methodology of
the text-based disciplines Best and Marcus 2009, 1. According to this
conception of scholarly activity, interpretation entails the unveiling of a
hidden meaning, one that is repressed, deep, and in need of detection
and disclosure by an interpreter 1. This hidden depth, a textual un-
conscious so to speak, is unveiled through careful reading; we discover
that what is apparently absent from its pages is made manifest in the texts
silences, gaps, style, tone and imagery 6. Symptomatic reading has
been roundly criticized for its suspicion of textual surfaces as well as for
its reliance on the subtle ingenuity of well-trained experts who discern
and then display a truth that others cant or wont see 2. Alternative
methodologies, however, have long been available. In her essay Against
Interpretation, for example, Susan Sontag suggests that the function of
criticism should be to show how it is what it is . . . rather than to show
what it means 1966, 5. It is this route that I have attempted to pursue
in reading Citizen 13660. Rather than ignoring its humorous surface in
favor of discovering a hidden depth of true anger or sadness, and rather
than fully insisting on the signicance of the texts humor at the expense
of its rage, taking this as a kind of true surface, I have attempted to trace
the relationship between Okubos humor and the imprisoned condition
out of which her jokes are formed. Her occasional mockery of other in-
ternees should not outweigh her description of them as bewildered and
humiliated Okubo 1946 1983, 62but nor should our own critical
piety prevent us from laughing with her when she sarcastically calls an ama-
teur ute player a creative soul and depicts another internee covering his
ears at the racket 64.
The stakes of Okubos humor for contemporary critics are these: it is
not our task to presume to decide that a primary rhetorical strategy of a
prisoners text is unworthy of consideration, particularly when that strat-
egy forms the basis of the texts appeal to its not-yet-imprisoned reader.
New methodologies of just reading and surface reading recently articu-
lated by feminist and queer critics such as Sharon Marcus, Rita Felski,
Heather Love, and others have particular relevance for reading the pris-
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oners curse: by attending to the texts overt and apparent meanings, we
allow ourselves to be led by the textwe do not presume to know more
about it than it knows about itself, and we do not presume to diagnose its
truth from an unaffected and separate vantage point. Instead, this meth-
odology encourages us to open our reading to the knowledge generated
by the imprisoned, which may contradict our own expectations and mores.
This methodology demands that we recognize, honor, and take seriously
the right to theorize that is seized in myriad ways by those captured
subjects who have graciously extended their hands toward us.
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