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A new graphic novel draws parallels between wartime incarceration and modern-day America

A new graphic novel is being released called “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese Resistance to Wartime Incarceration.” It’s part of a three-part series of graphic novels from the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle about the Japanese American wartime incarceration.

It’s the story of three people who refused to submit to imprisonment in American concentration camps without a fight in the 1940s and presents a vision of America’s past with links to the American present. 

I talked to co-author Tamiko Nimura, who lives in Tacoma, about the book and the parallels to things going on today. She starts by introducing us to the three Japanese-American protagonists in the book.

Tamiko Nimura
Tamiko Nimura

Tamiko Nimura: We have Jim Akutsu, who challenged the draft based on the government's changing his citizenship status. We have Mitsuye Endo, who challenged the constitutionality of incarceration and refused to leave so that her case could be heard at the Supreme Court. And we have Hiroshi Kashiwagi, who refused to sign a loyalty oath demanded by the United States government and then renounced his United States citizenship under pressure. And he's my uncle. My dad and his family were incarcerated at Tule Lake, and that's where my aunt had originally met my uncle.

People like to talk about Pearl Harbor as the inciting incident for the incarceration. But a lot of historians now say that the incarceration was really the culmination of decades of anti-Japanese sentiments and, in some cases, violence and anti-Japanese legislation. And so the incarceration then really was just a chance to kind of capitalize on all of those things after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Kevin Kniestedt: Are these stories of incarceration … are these stories that those who were incarcerated don't talk about much? Is it something they don't like talking about? Or is it something that is the exact opposite of that, where they wish more people knew what it was really like?

Tamiko: It varies. For a long time, the first and second generations, the Issei and the Nisei, they did not like to talk about it at all. It was so – it felt so shameful, so traumatic. They'd been in jail. Right? And a lot of them didn't necessarily know why they had been incarcerated. And those who did, did the very best just to survive. Right? A lot of them left camp with very little to return to. I think those who are younger survivors, who were perhaps born in the camps, feel, I think, emboldened by things like the redress movement and the civil rights movement to talk about their legacies and the legacy of camp, but especially things that have happened lately. But also in the last 20 years or so, people have felt more supported in coming forward with their stories of how traumatic camp was and to try and ensure that it never happens again to anyone else.

Kevin: One thing that you had mentioned earlier was that a lot of people associate the incarceration with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But you said that, you know, it really stems from decades of anti-Japanese sentiment. I'm wondering how relative that is to current times where we're seeing, you know, this awful hate against Asian-Americans right now. This didn't just start in 2020. We're dealing with probably the same thing, where it is decades, and it's just more visible now. Is that fair?

Tamiko: That is absolutely fair. Yes, there are heightened attacks on our elders, and some of them are those who are frightened, who have experienced camp themselves in the larger Asian-American community. We're talking about folks who are refugees, folks who experienced genocide at home, then have come here to experience things like racial profiling and surveillance, the China virus rhetoric, the Muslim travel ban, family separation at the border. So many of these things still exist today. The camp still is with us, very much so.

Kevin: Can we talk about that a little bit more? I mean, the timing of this book seems really relevant, obviously. You know, and I'm wondering what from the book, what kind of takeaways can people who read this have and apply it to what's going on and what they're really seeing right now?

Tamiko: A lot of what I hope that people take away from this is that so many of our actions for today can have long-lasting repercussions on the people who we are incarcerating, who we are vilifying, and that can last for decades. There is intergenerational trauma in the making today, and it needs to stop.

I think the other thing that I would love for folks to know about is that Japanese Americans were not tragic, passive victims of incarceration. Not only did people refuse and resist on levels like Akutsu and Endo and Kashiwagi, but there were also mass protests. There was organizing. There were petitions done by first-generation Issei mothers to the president. There were hunger strikes. They were not necessarily the tragic victims that perhaps the photos of Dorothea Lange would have us accept.

Working on this book has reminded me of the human stakes of incarceration. That's not just sepia photos from the past. Right? This is my family history. This is my community history, and I want people to know just how long that history lasts and how relevant it is to today. For example, when the Muslim travel ban broke out, one of my first emotions was a deep sense of apology to my community and my ancestors and just thinking, 'I'm so sorry. We have not done enough to make sure this could not happen again.' And of course, my generation was not necessarily responsible for ending things like anti-Asian racism. But I felt this deep sense of anger and a deep sense of hoping to contribute to the social justice work that's happening today around issues that, again, we have inherited from history.

Tamiko Nimura is one of the co-authors of the new graphic novel “Japanese Resistance to Wartime Incarceration.” She collaborated with co-author Frank Abe and illustrators Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki. You can find the book, among many other places, at King’s Books in Tacoma starting May 18.  

Kevin Kniestedt is a journalist, host and producer who began his career at KNKX in 2003. Over his 17 years with the station, he worked as a full time jazz host, a news host and produced the weekly show Sound Effect. Kevin has conducted or produced hundreds of interviews, has won local and national awards for newscasts and commentary.