Miné Okubo was born on June 27, 1912 in Riverside, California to Tametsugu and Miyo (Kato). She was one of seven children,
each of whom were encouraged from a young age to explore artistic careers by their mother. Okubo’s mother was an artist and
her father was a merchant and gardener. She graduated from Poly High School and then attended Riverside Junior College, eventually
earning both her Bachelor of Art and Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1938 she
received the Bertha Taussig Traveling Scholarship, which allowed her to travel to Europe. Okubo was travelling in Switzerland
when England and France declared war on September 3, 1939, with all of her belongings in Paris. She had spent all of her money
on train fare from Budapest to Berne and money she was expecting had not yet arrived at the American Express Office. Mail
services were suspended and the French border closed. Temporarily stranded, Okubo stayed with friends in Berne but was encouraged
to return to the United States as the situation grew worse with the bombing and invasion of Poland. When Okubo received word
that her mother was seriously ill back home in California she decided to secure passage immediately. It ultimately took three
months but she was able to board the last boat leaving Bordeaux.
After docking in New York City, Okubo telegrammed her family for money and made her way to California. Her mother passed away
soon after and she subsequently made her way up to Berkeley to settle with her younger brother. Okubo became active with the
San Francisco Art Association (SFAA) and joined its annual painting and watercolor exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum
of Art, known today as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She was selected to assist Diego Rivera in painting murals
at the Golden Gate Exhibition.
Okubo created mosaics for Fort Ord and the Servicemen’s Hospitality House in Oakland, California as part of the Federal Arts
Program when the United States declared war on Japan. On Sunday, April 26, 1943 she reported to Pilgrim Hall of the First
Congregational Church in Berkeley to register herself and her brother as a family unit of two. Her family name was reduced
to No. 13660 and she was given several tags bearing the family number. Their family unit was scheduled to leave with the next
to last group at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, May 1. Their destination was Tanforan Assembly Center, which was located at the Tanforan
Race Track in San Bruno, California.
After six months at Tanforan, Okubo and her brother were transferred to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. By this point,
the Okubo family was spread throughout various concentration camps in the West Coast. Her father had been arrested and incarcerated
at the Department of Justice camp in Missoula, Montana. Her older brother, Benji, was at Heart Mountain, where he opened an
art school. Other siblings were incarcerated in Poston. Okubo taught art classes while incarcerated at Topaz and helped found
a literary review, Trek, for which she drew cover designs and illustrations. Okubo documented the incarceration experience
through drawings and produced over one thousand sketches depicting camp life. Some of these sketches would be transformed
into formal drawings and paintings.
In 1943 Okubo’s drawing of camp sentries was reproduced by the San Francisco Chronicle after it won a prize in an exhibition
at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The Chronicle’s editors then commissioned a series of camp sketches to use in the newspaper’s
Sunday magazine, The World. This exposure led to a job offer from Fortune as an illustrator, a position that allowed her to
leave camp after two years and relocate to New York City.
During this time Okubo took jobs as a commercial illustrator and focused on her personal creative endeavors, one of which
was to arrange her camp life sketches into a narrative to be published. Her book, Citizen 13660, was published by Columbia
University Press in September 1946. In addition to the book, Okubo’s work appeared in the Time, Life, and the New York Times
as well as books for major publishing companies. She left commercial art and New York briefly from 1950 to 1952 to return
to Berkeley to teach art. When Okubo returned to New York she eschewed commercial concerns in pursuit of her own artistic
Like many other Nisei artists and writers, she was rediscovered by a new generation of Asian Americans in the 1970s and 1980s
as her wartime works were connected with redress efforts. Okubo testified in New York before the Commission on Wartime Relocation
and Internment of Civilians in 1981 and presented Citizen 13660 to the commission.
All requests for permission to publish, reproduce, or quote from materials in this collection must be submitted to the Collections
Management and Access Unit at the Japanese American National Museum (firstname.lastname@example.org).