Tom Okamoto, also known as Tom Mako or Tom Oka, was a Japanese-American animator and comic artist. He started his career as a Walt Disney animator. After the Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), he was one of several Japanese-American citizens interned in U.S. concentration camps as a preventive measure. In December 1942, he briefly replaced Chris Ishii as the cartoonist of the humor comic strip 'Lil' Neebo' which ran in camp newspapers for the amusement of fellow inmates. Later in his career, he drew the pantomime newspaper comics 'Deems' (1951-1980) and 'Little Brave' (1956-1957).

Early life and career
Sadayuki Thomas Okamoto was born in 1916 in Kent, Washington, into a family of Japanese origins. However, Alex Jay of Stripper's Guide researched the Washington birth records and discovered the boy and his parents still lived in Hiroshima-ken, Japan, in the year of his birth. The Okamoto family didn't arrive in Seattle, Washington, until 16 March 1918. Between 1920 and 1927, Okamoto appears to have lived in Japan again, and then the 14 November 1927 records show him back in Seattle again. During the 1930s, Okamoto studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (nowadays Cal Arts, Valencia, California) in Los Angeles, which led to a staff animator position at the Walt Disney Studios. He was one of the company's several Japanese-American animators at that time period, alongside other legends like Wah Ming Chang, Gyo Fujikawa, Chris Ishii, Masao Kawaguchi, Bob Kuwahara, Milton Quon, James Tanaka and Tyrus Wong. However, in May 1941 he joined several other Disney animators in a strike, demanding higher fees and the right to unionize. These demands were eventually met, but afterwards, some animators, like Okamoto, chose to seek a different job.

Little Neebo and the war years
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese army attacked the U.S. military base Pearl Harbor, causing the U.S. to declare war on Japan and officially enter the Second World War. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Executive Order 9066, all first and second generation Japanese-Americans were interned in the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Santa Anita, California. There were no exceptions for people born on U.S. soil and naturalized citizens. Over 2,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to this detention center. Other (future) Japanese-American cartoonists who were incarcerated at that time were Rosie Arima, Chris Ishii, Willie Ito, Jack Ito, Harry Kuwada, Bob Kuwahara, Bennie Nobori, Eddie Sato, Esther Takei, Iwao Takamoto and Tom Yabu.

Okamoto arrived in the camp in April 1942. During captivity, he taught art at Amache adult night school in Santa Anita, alongside Ishii. In 1942, his colleague Ishii created the 'Lil' Neebo' comic strip (1942-1945) for the camp newspaper Santa Anita Pacemaker. This feature about a Japanese orphan boy was popular enough to appear in camp puppet shows as well.

When the camp closed in September 1942, all prisoners were transferred to the Granada Relocation Center in Amache Colorado, where Ishii and Okamoto continued their art lectures. Lil' Neebo's adventures were continued in the camp newspaper The Granada Pioneer. When creator Chris Ishii signed up for military service in December 1942, Tom Okamoto succeeded him as Neebo's cartoonist for one of two strips, when he too joined the U.S. Army. The comic strip was drawn by Jack Ito from late December 1942 until at least late 1944. From 1943 until 1947, Tom Okamoto was a master sergeant stationed at the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. During this period, he designed the school emblem.


'Deems' in the Sapulpa Daily Herald, 15 December 1954.

Deems
Back in civilian life, the former sergeant studied at the Art Center School in Los Angeles until 1951. Okamoto created a pantomime comic titled 'Deems' (1951-1980), which he signed with the pseudonym Tom Oka. The comic stars a young boy named after Okamoto's oldest son. In most gags, Deems is a contemporary white boy with a dog sidekick, but in some he appears to be a Native American boy interacting with a bear. 'Deems' was syndicated by the Al Smith Service, a syndicate set up by cartoonist Al Smith in 1951. Most papers ran it on a weekly basis, but the Pasadena Independent published it on a daily base for a while in 1952. In the final years of its run, 'Deems' resorted to reruns, continuing until two years after Okamoto's death in 1978.

Little Brave
Near the end of 1955, Okamoto won a talent contest organized by the United Feature Syndicate. He not only won the 10,000 dollar prize money, but his comic strip 'Little Brave' also debuted in The Sunday Herald in Connecticut on 12 February 1956, appearing the pseudonym Tom Mako. The pantomime comic once again starred a Native American boy, and continued until 30 November 1957.

Death
Tom Okamoto passed away in 1978.

Ink Slinger profile on the Stripper's Guide

Series and books by Tom Okamoto in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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