Words alone fail us when it comes to some parts of history. Sometimes the history books fail us, too.
Now, fortunately, we have resources like “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration.” In the new graphic novel published by Seattle’s Chin Music Press, two local authors and two local artists collaborated on a fuller picture of the incarceration of Japanese American citizens by the U.S. government during World War II.
The book is the second in a series of three proposed graphic novels commissioned by Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum, aided by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“The mission is to connect everyone in learning history through storytelling, and they grasped the power of the graphic novel to do just that,” said co-author Frank Abe, whose decades of work on the topic includes the PBS film “Conscience and the Constitution.” Part of its power lies in its sourcing. From court transcripts to personal interviews, historical photos to a home movie, the research behind the book could practically make up a museum exhibit. (And sort of will — an interactive museum site will provide background materials online. An educator guide is also planned.)
“We Hereby Refuse” twines three stories of Japanese American citizens who challenged what are now widely recognized as the government’s injustices. Their objections took different forms: Seattle’s Jim Akutsu had tried to volunteer for the National Guard before the war but then refused to be drafted from the Minidoka (Idaho) incarceration camp, arguing that he was ineligible because the U.S. had classified him as an enemy alien. Hiroshi Kashiwagi, who was incarcerated at Tule Lake in California, refused to sign a loyalty oath and was pressured into renouncing his U.S. citizenship (it was later restored). Mitsuye Endo, who worked for California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, was recruited as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging incarceration; she declined a chance to be freed from the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah camp to keep the broader lawsuit alive. It went to the U.S. Supreme Court and contributed to the closure of the camps.
Ahead of a June 14 Seattle Public Library event in support of the book, I spoke via Zoom about the story, its history and its implications with Abe, co-author Tamiko Nimura (a Tacoma writer and niece of Kashiwagi) and illustrator Ross Ishikawa. (Co-illustrator Matt Sasaki did not participate.)
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Seattle Times: I think your readers will have the same sense of shock and illumination many experienced this past year reading books like Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste.” I kept asking, “Why didn’t I know this history? Were these stories widely shared in other communities, just not in mine?”
Tamiko Nimura: I think that is part of the answer, but also for a long time I would say that the dominant narrative that our own community pushed was to hide the history of resistance, and see it as a shameful one.
Frank Abe: We call this the story of camp as you’ve never seen it before. So many of the stories of incarceration we’ve heard have been victim narratives. This story is new in that we are looking at characters who have been marginalized and ostracized within our own community, for pushing back against both the government and our own community leaders who urged cooperation with incarceration.
It’s such a complicated story, and at first I thought there were not heroes and villains. Then it seemed pretty clear the government was a villain. There’s some pretty bad stuff here.
Abe: A good story requires an antagonist, and a protagonist. And we have three protagonists who encounter barriers thrown in their way by the antagonists, which in this case is the government and leaders of the Japanese American [community]. So our protagonists must navigate and build strategies for overcoming the barriers thrown in their way by these actions. That’s what drives the story. No, there are no heroes or villains. But there is a clear thread through the story of people who are trying to, not just do the best they can, but to maintain their integrity in the face of injustice, and injustice based solely on race.
Ross Ishikawa: It’s a messy story. It isn’t a “tie everything up in a pretty bow at the end,” and I think that’s its real strength.
You started the process of writing knowing a lot about two characters. (The creators knew Akutsu and Kashiwagi personally; Akutsu was the inspiration for John Okada’s book “No-No Boy.”) How did you learn about Mitsuye Endo?
Nimura: I just published an essay [“Why Don’t We Know Mitsuye Endo,” via Zócalo Public Square] on the research process. She did not really want to be known, and she didn’t testify during the redress process. She gave two interviews and only one is widely published. … We had to dig. I looked at the article on her in the Densho Encyclopedia and there’s a bibliographic citation for an [academic] journal article that really gave a lot of insight into the background behind her story. It gave details into her connections to a larger lawsuit against the state of California for other state employees who were basically fired for being Japanese. It was partly through the eyes of her very good friend, Janet Masuda, who kept in touch with her throughout camp and was at Topaz with her when she got the news of her victory.
Abe: [Nimura] also found letters, [including] an exchange with her attorney, James Purcell, which also revealed her personality. But Mitsuye Endo has been an enigma. She’s been just a name on a court brief before the Supreme Court. To develop her as a character was challenging, to make a real person. I flew to Chicago to talk to her son and he filled in a crucial detail. … I asked her son, does your mother have a nickname? … And he said, ‘Yeah, Mitzi, everyone called her Mitzi after the actress Mitzi Gaynor,’ and that was key to developing her character. I also flew to San Francisco to meet the daughter of James Purcell, and she filled in the inner thoughts of her attorney.
Can you tell me more about the research behind the artwork? (Abe and Nimura noted that they relied on decades of archival material as well as crowdsourcing and contacts in different communities.)
Ishikawa: It’s like a puzzle, just to find each piece. … Some spaces were more of a challenge. We couldn’t find the shoe repair shop for the Akutsus, and that was just long searches in the Densho digital repository. [Densho is a Seattle-based nonprofit archive devoted to preserving and sharing incarceration history.] I was able to find a photo of the shop from like 1935, obscured from the corner. To compose imagery to fit the scene, I used 3D CAD [computer-aided design] software from my architecture days to take photos and basically convert them into a 3D model, and then you could move the model around to the angle that you want for your scene …
I found a 1942 video from a car driving down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. There was a bus coming the other way and [I saw], “Ah, that’s the coloring of the city bus!” That was a fun little detail that I could be accurate about, because it’s hard finding color photos, too. There was an 8 mm movie of someone at the Topaz camp, where Mitsuye Endo was. That was a great resource because we had really accurate colors of the post office and the administrative buildings and [the filmmaker] even climbed up on a roof. I needed an aerial shot where she’s running across the camp, and that shot is basically taken directly from this 8 mm movie [by Dave Tatsuno]. It was fun to discover all these things.
Were there significant pieces of the story that you couldn’t find and had to invent?
Abe: No, no. The focus here is on being as painstaking as we can, to be as historically accurate as we can. Even where conversations have to be re-created … tthey’re drawn from the historical record. Mike Masaoka’s character [a field executive with the national Japanese American Citizens League] is drawn almost entirely from his speeches and his memoirs. Those are his words. Likewise with the conversation between Gen. [John L.] DeWitt and Col. Karl Bendetsen [commander and assistant chief of staff, respectively, for U.S. Army Western Defense Command] as they are mapping out evictions maps, evacuation plans. That conversation was based on telephone transcripts that Gen. DeWitt kept and that historian Roger Daniels published in a book in the 1970s … every scene, every page is drawn from historical records.
Ishikawa: Early in the process when I wasn’t as familiar with Tamiko and Frank’s research treasure trove, there was this dialogue with DeWitt and I was reading and was like, “This is too over the top. No one’s going to believe that. We’ve got to tone that down a little bit.” Then they showed me the actual document, the actual quotes. Oh my God.
Nimura: It’s kind of worse than anyone thought, right? Unless you’re really versed in the history. We kept saying that through the process, “You couldn’t make this up.”
The book ends with a really strong statement that we will not let this happen again. It felt disturbingly relevant to what we’re seeing in the news today. Were you seeing the future?
Nimura: We were hired, really, in February 2017. And right away so many things started to echo, so powerfully. “Fake news.” Family separation. Fears of deportation, travel bans … and now with this heightened anti-Asian racism and attacks on our elders, some of whom were in these camps, have felt just so resonant. And terrifying, honestly.
Abe: It was always intended that we would connect the past to the present.
Ishikawa: The present cooperated, unfortunately.