By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
The graphic novel “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” focuses on the real-life experiences of Jim Akutsu, a Minidoka War Relocation Authority camp draft resister; Mitsuye Endo, a Central Utah (Topaz) WRA inmate who challenged the incarceration through a habeas corpus petition; and Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a Tule Lake WRA/Segregation Center no-no and renunciant.
The stories of Akutsu and Endo are straightforward. Akutsu refused to serve in the U.S. military as long as he and his family were imprisoned in a U.S. concentration camp.
Endo successfully fought her imprisonment all the way to the Supreme Court.
Kashiwagi’s story is a little more complex since the Tule Lake story is complicated, and this graphic novel packed a lot into this section. Perhaps the story might’ve been easier to tell had it been told through the eyes of a Kibei.
As a graphic novel, the drawings are wonderfully done. Ross Ishikawa illustrated the segments that included color; Matt Sasaki, the black-and-white sections.
Ishikawa’s characters are drawn in a style reminiscent of that era, and the color palette is muted and drab, which is exactly how the mood should feel. He even included a cameo appearance of John Okada, a nod to another book by Frank Abe about the author of “No-No Boy,” who modeled the main character, Ichiro, after Akutsu’s experiences but made up all the psychological head trip that Ichiro goes through. In this graphic novel, readers will be introduced to the real Akutsu.
Sasaki uses simple but strong lines and any splashes of color lend power to that scene. Some may recognize Sasaki’s drawings of a well-known archival photo of a young man standing in front of barracks. His drawings definitely captured the intensity and tension of Tule Lake.
One minor problem with the Tule Lake segment is the chosen font. For one, the words could be printed a bit larger and some of the letters such as the “d” are distorted to the point that it could be distracting.
It’s obvious writers Abe and Tamiko Nimura did a lot of research since they were able to parse each story down to the basics without losing the important points.
Those unfamiliar with archival documents may find some of the narrative and dialogue outlandish, but Abe and Nimura utilized actual memos, letters and governmental documents to tell the different stories.
For example, not only did Mike Masaoka, national JACL field executive, offer up the Nisei men to form suicide battalions but he also suggested that camp inmates be branded, similar to what the Nazis had done to the Jews.
There is also a scene where Masaoka is talking with a government official and volunteers to “name names.” Unclassified FBI documents have since confirmed that many of the JACL leaders had been government informants, as had some artists and a few others.
The graphic novel also highlights some of the racist denouncements spewed out by elected officials, and what is included is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is also refreshing to see strong Issei women recognized in the book. Until now, few books have highlighted the fighting spirit of the Issei women. The only other book that comes to mind is Cherstin Lyons’ “Prisons and Patriots,” where she recognized the Topaz Issei women, while in this book, it is the Minidoka women.
Overall, this graphic novel is a great introduction, not only to the different World War II resistance stories, but also to what occurred inside the camps. Worth the read.
This book was partly funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program.
Full disclosure: I am acknowledged in the book; I am a friend of the writers; and I knew the late Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Gene Akutsu.
“We Hereby Refuse:Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” by Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura; illustrated by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki
Chin Music Press/Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
151 pages, $19.95 softback