Academic journal article MELUS

Spatial Construction of the "Enemy Race": Mine Okubo's Visual Strategies in Citizen 13660

Academic journal article MELUS

Spatial Construction of the "Enemy Race": Mine Okubo's Visual Strategies in Citizen 13660

Article excerpt

"Space is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power."

--Michel Foucault, "Space, Knowledge, and Power" (252)

"It is not just that the spatial is socially constructed; the social is spatially constructed too."

--Doreen Massey, "Introduction" (6)

Mine Okubo's Citizen 13660 is the first published memoir of the Japanese American internment experience during World War II. (1) It consists of 189 pen-and-ink drawings, one per page, accompanied by brief verbal texts. (2) In the preface to the 1983 edition of the book, Okubo writes, "Citizen 13660 began as a special group of drawings made to tell the story of camp life for many friends who faithfully sent letters and packages to let us know we were not forgotten. The illustrations were intended for exhibition purposes .... I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again" (ix). Okubo's reference to the letters and packages no doubt acknowledges the friends' kindness, and perhaps even courage in daring to maintain friendship with those who were confined in a camp with thousands others labeled and treated as the "enemy race." (3) But there is something unsettling about this apparently kind and courageous gesture which seems to imply a sense of normality about, or rather an acceptance of, where the unforgotten friends were. (4) What was Okubo trying to tell through her drawings to her friends and other Americans on the other side of the barbed-wire fences? Stories of hardship might result in more care packages, which could not address the violation of the human and civil rights of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. What strategies, then, does Okubo employ in her drawings in order to prevent another possible internment? I contend that Okubo's visual representation of the raced bodies' relation to space--both public and private--hauntingly captures the magnitude of the racial injustice of the mass expulsion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Through spatial-corporeal visualization of the scale of such injustice against an ethnic population on the basis of their ancestry, Citizen 13660 exposes and protests the racism underlying the Japanese American internment. Okubo's use of pictorial autobiographical narration and her deft combination of images and words provocatively reveal the process by which Japanese Americans' identity as the "enemy race" was spatially constructed along with the spatial production of fear by state power.

Critics have noted the complex effects of Okubo's visual narrative, but not enough attention has been devoted to the visual representation of the significant role of space in the production of fear and in the construction of the "enemy race." Essays in a special issue of Amerasia published in 2004 rightly emphasize Okubo's powerful images as counter-narratives that reveal the dehumanization of camp experience, and undermine official accounts of camp life, intervening in the representation of Japanese Americans as either untrustworthy or passive and compliant. (5) Drawing on personal experience and participant observation, Okubo's visual depiction of everyday life in the camps serves as eyewitness testimony of one of the most extreme examples of social injustice in American history.

Other critical writings situate Okubo's book historically within American popular media. Kimberley Phillips, for instance, examines the ways in which Okubo's pictures subvert racist stereotypes of Japanese Americans and challenge representations of life in the camps offered by state-sponsored documentary films and photographs, and by stories found in humor magazines and editorial cartoons (22). Phillips notes that even though the Office of War Information promoted positive images of women during World War II, "officially sanctioned messages rarely portrayed women of color and did not fundamentally challenge ethnic and racial stereotypes of non-whites in the larger popular culture. …

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