SAN JOSE — Jack Matsuoka, a Nisei cartoonist whose drawings of camp life have helped educate the public about the Japanese American internment experience, passed away on Monday morning at his residence in San Jose with his family present. He was 87.
He had been in poor health since suffering a stroke while attending the opening of the Congressional Gold Medal exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on June 29.
Matsuoka may be best known for his 1974 book “Camp II, Block 211,” which featured scenes of life at the Poston camp in Arizona. A revised edition, titled “Poston Camp II, Block 211,” was published in 2003.
In the introduction to the original, the late community activist Edison Uno wrote, “Behind the comic laughter of each cartoon is a genuine story of Americans living under adverse conditions, without guilt, attempting to survive by living each day as best they knew how. Between the laughter and the sadness of these cartoons … you will be exposed and educated to a whole new segment of history … a terrible mistake of a kind that must never recur.”
Born on Nov. 6, 1925, Matsuoka grew up in Watsonville. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, his father — like many Issei community leaders — was picked up by the FBI. Matsuoka spent his late teen years behind barbed wire, first at the Salinas Assembly Center and then Poston.
He later relocated to Ohio, where he spent one semester at the Cleveland School of Fine Arts before being drafted into the Army. After serving as an interpreter for the Army’s Military Intelligence Service in occupied Japan, he attended Hartnell College in Salinas and then transferred to Keio University and later Sophia University, both in Tokyo.
Matsuoka struggled through these schools on the GI Bill and became one of the few who experienced postwar life in Japan both as a member of the occupation forces and as a student. During this period, he contributed many sports cartoons to The Japan Times and Japanese sports magazines. In addition, he did political cartoons for The Yomiuri News, drew humorous illustrations for books about Japan, and published his first cartoon book, “Rice-Paddy Daddy.”
Upon returning to the U.S. and working for Marubeni, an import-export business, he drew cartoons on the side for the Cal Bears and The Berkeley Gazette. In 1969, he took the big step of becoming a freelance cartoonist. “With cartooning as my whole source of income, it was difficult, but I managed to get by,” he recalled.
In addition to doing PR work for a bank and doing exhibitions and demonstrations at Obon festivals throughout the state, he was the editorial cartoonist for The Pacifica Tribune (1974-2000) and worked for the San Francisco Examiner, San Mateo Times and San Jose Mercury News, then became a regular cartoonist for The Hokubei Mainichi in San Francisco. Being bilingual, he did illustrations for both the English and Japanese sections of the newspaper.
Matsuoka also created a comic strip, “Sensei,” that ran in The Hokubei for years and was published in book form in 1978. He based the character on Rev. Koshin Ogui, who was resident minister at Buddhist Church of San Francisco at the time and later became bishop of Buddhist Churches of America. The purpose of the strip, Matsuoka said, was to give Issei, Nisei and Sansei readers “something to chuckle about, something about the daily Japanese life.”
He was a familiar face at events like the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and later San Jose’s Nikkei Matsuri, where he drew caricatures.
A sports enthusiast, Matsuoka drew cartoons celebrating the accomplishments of local teams like the San Francisco Giants and 49ers as well as milestones in Japanese/Japanese American sports history, such as Kristi Yamaguchi’s Olympic gold medal and Ichiro Suzuki’s baseball records. He knew Wally Yonamine, who played for the 49ers before becoming a baseball player and manager in Japan, and Masanori Murakami, who became the first major-leaguer from Japan as a pitcher for the Giants in the 1960s.
Matsuoka’s cartoons also recorded important moments in Japanese American history, such as the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. He was recognized in “Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment,” published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, for a political cartoon he drew in the ’70s to support the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions in San Francisco Japantown.
“Camp II, Block 211” was a collection of sketches Matsuoka had done in camp. He left them in a trunk for decades until his mother, Chizu, found them and suggested that they be shared with the public. This led to an exhibition sponsored by Bank of Tokyo at the Japanese Trade and Cultural Center in San Francisco.
He saw the need for public education when a Caucasian couple from Arizona saw the exhibit and claimed that there never was a place called Poston in their state.
The book was reissued nearly 30 years later by Asian American Curriculum Project thanks to a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and the efforts of Matsuoka’s daughter Emi Young, a public school teacher. The new edition featured additional sketches, some paying tribute to the Nisei soldiers of World War II, photos of camp, and an afterword by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Some of the new drawings showed the latrines, which Matsuoka called “one of the most hated places in camp.”
Matsuoka visited Bay Area schools with his daughter and talked about his experiences. In addition, Megumi, a bilingual storyteller, worked with Young to create “Sketching Justice,” a lesson plan for eighth-grade teachers based on the book; Megumi did a performance piece based on Matsuoka’s cartoons; and the Japanese American Museum of San Jose presented a youth-oriented project titled “Just Like Jack,” in which children from the Boys and Girls Club of Silicon Valley drew pictures showing how they made the best of adversity.
“Jack’s cartoons invite everyone gently, with humor, to understand how and why Japanese American internment happened, and how the Nikkei, as a people, made the best of it,” Megumi said.
Matsuoka relocated from Pacifica in San Mateo County to San Jose Japantown, where he lived in the Fuji Towers senior housing complex and donated his talents to such institutions as the Japanese American Museum of San Jose and San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin. His drawings could be seen on banners for this year’s San Jose Obon, and an exhibit of his works is currently on display at JAMsj.
He did cartoons for The Hokubei Mainichi up until its final issue in October 2009, then contributed to another Northern California paper, NikkeiWest.
Matsuoka was recognized by such organizations as the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and San Jose JACL. At the latter event, he helped the organizers out by doing portraits of all of the honorees to be engraved on the awards.
In his hometown of Watsonville, then-Mayor Luis Alejo honored him in 2010. After being elected to the Assembly, Alejo honored Matsuoka again at the State Capitol in 2012.
A member of the National Cartoonists Association and the Northern California Cartoonists Association, Matsuoka won awards from the California Newspaper Association and the San Mateo County Fair for his cartoons.
He was also among veterans of the MIS, 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team honored at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in San Jose last year.
One of his last public appearances was at last year’s Day of Remembrance program, held at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds, where he and his family were interned in 1942.
He is survived by his daughters, Yoko Matsuoka of Menlo Park and Emi Young of Fremont; sons-in-law, Mike Butler and Russell Young; grandchildren, Peter, Jessica, Matthew and Jennifer; great-grandson, Wesley; sister, Ruth Inouye; brother-in-law, George Inouye; and nephews, Ron, Steve and Rick.
A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 3 p.m. at Willow Glen Funeral Home, 1039 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. For directions, call (408) 295-6446.