by Mark Van Streefkerk
The upcoming graphic novel We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration offers a new take on the history of World War II — one told through the resistance of three people. Revolving around the experiences of Jim Akutsu, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and Mitsuye Endo, We Hereby Refuse weaves their acts of refusal into one overarching plot. A result of a collaboration between co-authors Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura, illustrated by artists Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki, the 160-page graphic novel is co-published by the Wing Luke Museum and Chin Music Press. The book is slated for release on May 18.
In telling Akutsu, Kashiwagi, and Endo’s stories, “We decided not to do it as three different chapters but as one timeline, one story arc that would interweave these three characters. The focus is not ‘These are three heroes of camp resistance.’ No. There’s an overarching narrative of the incarceration experience,” said Abe. “We call it the ‘story of camp as you’ve never seen it before.’”
Abe, a South Seattle resident, has devoted 45 years to researching and preserving the history of American Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) wartime internment and resistance. An award-winning reporter, he produced and directed the PBS documentary Conscience and the Constitution. He also helped launch the original Day of Remembrance events in Portland and Seattle in 1978, now an annual reminder of the impact of World War II internment and an opportunity to educate people on the importance of protecting human rights, especially in times of crisis. Though he has written extensively about these topics, including co-editing the book John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy, this new collaboration called for a different approach.
We Hereby Refuse is “more of an original vision that shows three figures who refused to play the role of victim and rejected the government violation of their civil and constitutional rights,” Abe explained.
Each character’s story shows a diversity of resistance tactics and the complex experiences of internment. Akutsu was the inspiration for John Okada’s No-No Boy, a novel about a Japanese American man living in Seattle who was imprisoned at the camp at Minidoka. When Akutsu, upset over the violation of his rights as a citizen, refused to be drafted from camp into the U.S. military, he was ostracized by much of the Nikkei community after the war.
Through Kashiwagi, the reader learns about the camp at Tule Lake, “America’s worst concentration camp,” where the government segregated those who refused to answer a loyalty questionnaire. Congress later gave them the choice to voluntarily renounce their American citizenship. That renunciation led to the deportation of many Japanese Americans. “They were so traumatized by then and confused that they made this crazy decision to renounce their U.S. citizenship,” Abe said. “The graphic novel breaks down that whole process of how you get to this strange outcome, which is still misunderstood in the Japanese American community to this very day.”
Endo was a California state employee interned at Tule Lake and later at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Fired after Pearl Harbor along with all Nisei state employees, she became a reluctant recruit to a lawsuit concerning the legality of imprisoning admittedly loyal U.S. citizens. At one point, Endo was offered her freedom to settle her habeas corpus case, but she refused to leave camp so that her case could continue all the way to the Supreme Court. “Endo’s case was a very subtle refusal. She refused to leave camp,” Abe said.
The Supreme Court ruled it illegal for the government to detain loyal U.S. citizens. The Roosevelt administration got wind of the decision and suspended Executive Order 9066 a day before the court ruling was announced in December 1944.
Writing the script for the graphic novel was one challenge, but conveying the circumstances through visual storyboards was another. Collaborating with artist and animator Ishikawa and illustrator Sasaki, the team had to become set designers of sorts in order to accurately portray historical events.
Ishikawa combed through aerial photographs of the camps, using his background in architecture and the help of 3D software to reconstruct some of the camp buildings. When it came to illustrating the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Ishikawa “wanted the actual 1940s-era prison ferry that took them there.” So he connected with someone who “found me the actual ferry boat I could use as a model,” he said.
We Hereby Refuse is not only a graphic novel about historic events within Nikkei and American history, it’s an important look at how quickly the U.S. government legislated the forced eviction and imprisonment of a group of people based on race alone.
The book connects the past to the present by showing the Kashiwagi character joining a protest against the family separation policies of the last administration. “It was wrong for America to put families in camps solely because of their race in WWII, and it is wrong to put kids in cages now,” says Abe. “We’ve seen this before. No children should be separated from their parents, just as after Pearl Harbor many of our fathers were separated from their families. I was pleased to see Japanese Americans standing up, in Seattle and nationwide, to be the friend we didn’t have when we needed one the most.”
Abe, Ishikawa, and Nimura will speak at a virtual book launch June 14 at 6:00 p.m., presented by the Seattle Public Library, Densho, and the Elliott Bay Book Company. Details will be posted at SPL.org.
For up-to-date information on the release of We Hereby Refuse, visit the Wing Luke Museum’s website.
Special thanks to Frank Abe for his contributions to this article.
📸 Featured Image: A scene from the new graphic novel “We Hereby Refuse.” Artwork by Ross Ishikawa/Chin Music Press.
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