Throughout my education in art history, an area which has always struck me is how imagery can be used by marginalized artists to express and define their perception of self. In my senior thesis, I examine the single-panel “Lil Dan’l” comics of Japanese American cartoonist George Akimoto, who was incarcerated at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas during the Second World War. During his time at Rohwer, he served as one of the staff cartoonists for the camp newspaper, The Outpost. His titular character became a mascot for the newspaper and a figurehead for Rohwer’s young people. The photograph here shows the Lil Dan’l Club, a social organization for young adults. In addition to Akimoto’s cartoons, The Outpost itself was both a tool and an example of the resilience and community of Japanese Americans in the face of hardship.
For Japanese Americans incarcerated during the war, camp newspapers were central to establishing a sense of community and normalcy. At Rohwer, The Outpost was published biweekly and delivered to each apartment free of charge. Within its pages, readers could find content including announcements from camp administrators, notices of events held across camp, and reports on the amateur sports leagues. Special sections relayed news from other camps, allowing internees to maintain a sense of connection to one another, and, as people began to receive permission to leave camp, a column was established informing readers of the destinations of their community members. Throughout much of the newspaper’s run, readers could also enjoy Akimoto’s cartoons.
Akimoto’s “Lil Dan’l” brings a humorous perspective to the everyday annoyances of camp life, providing a medium through which readers were not only entertained, but also saw their own experiences reflected and validated. Furthermore, examination of the cartoons points to issues of intersectionality and the impact of white supremacist pressure on the ways marginalized groups define themselves and others. Inherent in the design of Lil Dan’l are tropes emblematic of the settler colonialist frontiersman figure, adding yet another layer to the entanglement of self-definition and the pressure that Japanese Americans faced to assimilate to American culture. Dealing with the intertwined logics present in Akimoto’s cartoons and throughout the pages of The Outpost, we see the ways in which art expresses the experiences of one marginalized group while adopting visual tropes based on the stereotypes of another. The resulting healing and harm intersect in ways which parallel the complexities of Japanese Americans’ history and experiences.
During the course of my research, I found traces of my own family’s history preserved in many of my source materials. Rediscovering the photograph shown here was exciting because it entailed two levels of recognition. I saw not only the character who was central to my research, but also my great-grandparents, Fred and Maggie Yamaguchi, who stand at the center of the image. They were around my age when the picture was taken. I hope that through my research, I can know them better.