stephanie takaragawa holding black and white portrait of young boy
Stephanie Takaragawa poses with a photo of her father taken inside an incarceration camp.

Art From the Inside: Comic Art Offers Intimate Look at Japanese Incarceration A new exhibition explores life inside the Japanese incarceration camps from the point of view of the people who lived there.

History is always personal, but sometimes it can hit very close to home.

That was the case for Stephanie Takaragawa, Chapman University associate professor of cultural anthropology, when she was a college student and first learned about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government during World War II.

In 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom had been born in the United States, were evacuated from their communities and transported to relocation camps around the country due to unfounded concerns that they might pose a public threat in a time of war. Living conditions in the camps were grueling, with communal housing, little privacy and insufficient insulation against extreme temperatures. Entire families lost their homes, their livelihoods and their freedom.

“I learned about it and then I went home and I said to my parents, ‘I learned about the Japanese American internment and it makes me wonder where our family was during this time.’ And my parents were like, ‘Do not ever talk about this to your grandparents. They’ll be very upset. Yes, the family was interned,’ and that was it,” she remembers.

More than three decades later, Takaragawa still regularly encounters students in her classes who have never heard about the incarceration or have only the barest notion that it occurred. Even though the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated instruction about the incarceration as part of school curricula, it is still a largely overlooked topic in primary and secondary education.

collage of illustrated exhibit catalog
Artwork and displays for the exhibition, including a brochure designed to resemble a comic book, were created by Chapman graphic design student Henry Littleworth ’23. He drew inspiration from the work of Dorothea Lange, whose photographs documented life in incarceration camps and can be seen throughout the exhibition. Littleworth says, “I wanted it to be realistic and accurate, and I felt like those photos held a certain amount of power. I wanted the comic book to also kind of hold a certain amount of power.”

Putting History On Display

In 2022, Takaragawa was awarded a $124,906 grant from the California State Library’s California Civil Liberties Public Education Program to produce an exhibition that tells the story of incarceration using art created by the internees themselves. The exhibition, “Images and Imaginings of the Japanese American Internment: Comics and Illustrations of Camp,” can be visited in several locations on the Chapman University campus, and it includes an online resource that is designed to teach about the Japanese incarceration through photo galleries, interactive features and discussion questions.

The project evolved from a discussion in one of Takaragawa’s courses at Chapman. As the class delved into biased depictions of Japanese Americans in WWII-era comic books — Superman, for example, once visited an incarceration camp to root out “anti-American” activities — Winston Andrews (MA ’21) asked about comics produced inside the camps. The question turned into a class project for Andrews, and that project turned into the exhibition of incarceration art currently on display on Chapman’s campus.

A Firsthand Look At Japanese Incarceration

The comics and other artwork featured in the exhibition offer a unique, firsthand glimpse into what life was really like behind the barbed wire of the incarceration camps.

“The comics that were in the different camp newspapers are ways in which people could enact some form of resistance,” Takaragawa says.

The comics were a way for people to communicate a feeling of community while simultaneously acknowledging the situation they were in, without being outwardly critical of the government and being potentially identified as disloyal.

Jan Osborn, associate professor of rhetoric and composition studies, and Jessica Bocinski, registrar of Chapman’s Escalette Permanent Art Collection, worked with Takaragawa and Andrews to develop the online curriculum and design the virtual exhibition. Early versions of the site were presented to focus groups consisting of teachers and students at nearby schools.

“I was genuinely surprised that they knew so little,” Osborn says. “I knew I had never learned about this in my own education at all, and I thought that had changed … It’s just not a history that has made it into the curriculum in a meaningful way yet.”

Takaragawa hopes that featuring comics will make it easier for students to connect with what can be a difficult subject.

“Sometimes it is easier to have a conversation around images than it is around a textbook,” she says.

Some of the Japanese American artists whose work is featured in the exhibition include:


Miné Okubo helped to establish an art school in the Topaz camp and created illustrations for the Topaz Times. She made over 2,000 drawings depicting everyday life in the camp, and her 1946 book “Citizen 13660” was the first published account of the experience of an internee.

Jack Matsuoka, a teenager during the incarceration, published “Poston Camp II, Block 211,” which is based on sketches and comics he created for the camp newspaper, The Poston Chronicle.


Bennie Nobori, who worked as a Hollywood animator prior to the incarceration, drew weekly comic strips called “Jankee Reporter” and “Zootsuo” for the camp newspapers at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah and the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in California.

Graphic novels continue to be a powerful means for Japanese Americans to examine the ongoing impact of incarceration, including titles such as “Displacement” by Kiku Hughes, “Stealing Home” by J. Torres and David Namisato, and “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven R. Scott.

The “Images of Internment” exhibition will be on display at Chapman University through December 2023. View the online version.

Read more articles from Forward Magazine.

Staci Dumoski

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