'Ama-Chan' , The Granada Pioneer, 1 April 1944.

Esther Takei (married name Esther Nishio) was an American cartoonist of Japanese descent. During World War II, she was one of many Japanese-Americans incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps. During her stay in the Granada Relocation Center in Amache, Colorado, she drew a short-lived single-panel cartoon series, 'Ama-Chan' (1944). Takei additionally wrote history as the first Japanese-American allowed to leave these camps and reintegrate in U.S. society.

Esther Kazue Takei was born in 1925 in Venice, California. Her father owned several concessions, game booths and rides on the Venice Amusement Pier. Takei aspired a career as a journalist when in late 1941 the United States entered World War II. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese army attacked the U.S. military base Pearl Harbor, causing the U.S. to declare war on Japan. 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 underwent the same fate were Rosie Arima, Chris Ishii, Willie Ito, Jack Ito, Harry Kuwada, Bob Kuwahara, Bennie Nobori, Eddie Sato, Tom Okamoto, Iwao Takamoto and Tom Yabu.

Forced to interrupt her studies, Takei worked as a waitress in the Santa Banita yellow mess hall, before she and her family were relocated to the Granada Relocation Center in Amache, Colorado. There, she was allowed to write her own column in the prison camp newspaper The Granada Pioneer. After a while, she additionally began drawing single-panel cartoons starring a young woman. She named her Ama-chan, a pun on the camp name. Only seven 'Ama-chan' cartoons were made, published between 1 April and 10 May 1944. The 18/19 year-old cartoonist signed them with her first name, "Esther". The cartoons were notable for two reasons. First because Takei, along with Rosie Arima, was one of the few female Japanese-American cartoonists in these U.S. concentration camps. Secondly because the jokes featured a lot of sexual innuendo, unlike the other comics and cartoons printed in these papers.

The editors of the Granada Pioneer. Esther Takei is the girl with the glasses in the middle front.

In September 1944, the U.S. government wanted to send the imprisoned Japanese-American civilians back home. Since the war wasn't over and anti-Japanese sentiment was still high, they weren't sure how people would react to this. Takei volunteered to be sent home, with full support from her father. Because she wanted to finish her college education, she was willing to take the risk. Hugh Anderson, a Quaker activist from Pasadena, allowed her to live with his family for a while. He also paid for her expenses and college funds. Accepting the challenge was a brave move of Takei. As the first Japanese-American ever to return from the camps, she had to endure all the hardships that went with it. Moments after her father waved her goodbye at the station, he suddenly realized in how much danger his daughter was. He had sleepless nights for weeks.

The original plan was to keep Takei's travel and college attendance a secret from the general public. However, after the school paper ran an article about her, the word predictably got out. Soon it became a national "scandal", resulting in public outrage. Angry people followed her to college and her home, yelling, spitting and throwing things at her. Since she received death threats, Hugh Anderson even sent his own family to live with relatives for a while. When another Japanese-American girl arrived from an internment camp to join Pasadena College, a violent mob waited for her at the train station. She was so scared that she quickly took the train back.

To her luck, Takei was accepted by the other students. When the army newspaper Stars and Stripes reported about her situation, many U.S. soldiers expressed support to her case. One East Coast sailor reportedly even hitchhiked across the country to help protect her. The U.S. Army also sent armed soldiers to guard her at home and on her way to school. When the commotion died down, the U.S. government allowed more Japanese-Americans to return home. Thanks to Takei's bravery, this happened even a year earlier than planned.

Later life and death
Unfortunately, Takei still had to leave college. When her parents returned to Pasadena, they discovered all their money and possessions were stolen while they were incarcerated. To support the family, Takei took a job as a cleaning lady. In 1947, she married Shigeto Nishio and had a child. She went to the Sawyer School of Business in Pasadena and graduated as an executive secretary. Until retirement, she worked for Henry Dreyfus Industries and Flying Tiger Freight Airlines. In 1958, her parents returned to Japan. One advantage of working for an airline company was that she could fly for free and visit them.

In 1981, a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was instated. Takei was one of several former detainees to testify in front of congress. In 1988, a bill based on their findings went into effect. In 2010, Pasadena City College held a graduation ceremony for all students who were forced to interrupt their education because of World War II. Many received honorary degrees. Takei was one of them and called it the "happiest day of her life".

In her final years, Takei suffered from emphysema, blindness and cancer. She died in 2019, at age 94.

'Ama-Chan', The Granada Pioneer, 26 April 1944.

Ama-chan on the No No Boy Tumblr blog

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