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“Thirty Minutes Over Oregon” Introduces Children to the Complexity of War and Friendship

When we talk about World War II, it’s often in terms of major milestones: the racist incarceration of Japanese Americans; the bombings of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. But there are infinite smaller-scale stories that many of us will never hear, like that of Nobuo Fujita, a Japanese pilot sent on a mission to bomb Oregon. Because nobody was injured during the bombings, they didn’t become major news in either the U.S. or Japan. Twenty years later, the town of Brookings, Oregon invited Fujita to their Memorial Day festival, sparking a lifelong friendship and a mini cultural exchange program.

Children’s book author Marc Tyler Nobleman learned about Fujita through his obituary in the New York Times in 1997, which called him the “only foe to bomb America.” Along with illustrator Melissa Iwai, Nobleman retold Fujita’s story for a young audience, in a book that empathetically depicts the individuals caught in their governments’ wars. We spoke with Nobleman and Iwai about the making of Thirty Minutes Over Oregon and the conversations they hope it will inspire.

When you read Nobuo Fujita's obituary in The New York Times, what was your reaction and how did you want to tell his story?

Marc Tyler Nobleman: Though I am not a war buff nor had I had much exposure to Japanese culture, Nobuo's story grabbed me immediately, for two main reasons: it was a famous first few have heard of, and it was about redemption, a theme I rarely see in nonfiction picture books. I felt it would be powerful to introduce kids to a story of an enemy who became a friend. It is a complicated issue and so worthy of discussion.

What was your research process like? Was there much information available about Nobuo besides his obituary?

Nobleman: I read two self-published books by local (Oregon) authors; there were no other standalone books on the subject. But I rounded up a wealth of archival articles (primarily from newspapers) that proved invaluable. One article written by Nobuo himself came from a magazine that someone found in between the walls of his house!

What made you want to work on this project?

Melissa Iwai: When I was offered this manuscript, I knew I immediately wanted to illustrate this story. I connected with it on many levels. My Dad lives in Oregon. I am of Japanese descent, and I have lived and worked in Japan for three years during college and after I graduated. I have a strong connection with both American and Japanese cultures.

Most importantly, I was so moved by the story of Thirty Minutes Over Oregon itself. It is amazing that this true story of reconciliation and forgiveness between enemies of war is not more well known. I felt that this story needed to be told, and I wanted to be a part of it.

What is your family background—which generation came to the U.S.?

Iwai: My heritage is Japanese. Both sets of grandparents immigrated to Hawaii at the turn of the century from Wakayama and Yamaguchi prefectures in Japan. My parents, who are Nikkei Nisei, were born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii and were teens during WWII.

What are the stories you grew up with about WWII?

Nobleman: I don't remember! I can't even say for sure if we covered it in grade school. But if so, obviously we would have focused on the turning points, i.e. the big battles. I've long been more interested in the smaller, lesser-known stories, like Nobuo's.

Iwai: I mentioned before that my parents were both born and raised in Hawaii. They grew up in Honolulu, and my mom witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor from afar while walking in the hills of Honolulu as a child. She often tells that story and how she and her mother wondered what was happening. My father also tells story of how he and his brothers helped his father dig their own bomb shelter near their house. He and my mother and other children carried their own gas masks to school.

My family was not interned in camps in Hawaii, but the Japanese language schools they attended on the weekends were closed and they were dissuaded from speaking Japanese. So unfortunately, they do not speak the language. That is why I was compelled to learn Japanese myself when I was in college.

What did you draw on for the look of this book?

Iwai: I was asked to illustrate this book in the style of my daily sketches that I do of people I see in Brooklyn. I sketch in pencil and then paint in watercolor. I then draw some line work in ink on top, but not in a way that is outlining every shape. I try to use the ink line to enhance the watercolor and to also create movement.

I knew I wanted to also use some collage for this story. I wanted to show actual documentation, such as newspaper headlines and letters, that help to show what people were reading and seeing during the war. I also watched several dramatic films that were related to WWII, such as Tora Tora Tora and Kuroi Ame (Black Rain), to get a feel of the period in a visually dynamic way.

You draw people's faces in a very empathetic way. What is your process like as you plan illustrations? Do you have people try out different poses and expressions for you?

Iwai: Thank you very much. Because this story is based on a real person, I felt that I needed to have photographic reference in order to capture the likeness of Nobuo Fujita. I did a lot of research and tried to find as many photos of Nobuo, his family, and the people of Brookings, as I could.

When I painted the characters, as with my daily sketches of people, I didn't try to capture them in a photorealistic manner. I did many sketch studies beforehand, and then when I did the painting in watercolor, I painted very quickly and tried to capture the movement of the figure.

I did have my husband do some poses that I photographed. I had the poses I wanted in my mind, but not the actual photos of the people doing them, so using him as a reference helped me to capture the movement of the pose, but I wasn't actually painting him and HIS likeness. Since I had to paint quickly in watercolor and draw my ink line quickly, I often did many, many iterations of the same scene until I came up with something I liked.

Did you travel to Brookings and Tokyo while researching this book? If so, what was that like?

Nobleman: I wish! But I have since been to Brookings (after the book was underway but before it released). Now that the book is out, I am planning to put together school visit trips to both places. With respect to Japan, it would be international schools, and I am open to suggestions.

Iwai: I did travel to Brookings for this project. It was the first time I made a huge research trip for a book, but it was also the first non-fiction book out of over twenty that I have illustrated. I felt like I really needed to be in the environment to get a feel for it. And I needed so much photographic reference that I was not able to get in NY. I contacted the kind people at The Curry Pilot, which is the local newspaper in Brookings. They allowed me to go through all of their archives and take photos of everything I thought I might need. So I took many photos of Nobuo's visits over several decades that were documented by the paper.

I also was able to visit the bomb site in the mountains and take my own photos there. It was a very moving experience. At the end of my research gathering in Brookings, I drove up the coast to visit my father who lives near the northern coast of Oregon. It was such a gift to be able to see what the color of the dawn's light was on the ocean (I was traveling there during the same month and the same time of day that Nobuo bombed the coast in 1942). It was also the treat to see the lighthouse at Cape Blanco and to imagine what it might have looked like to Nobuo from the air in relation to the coast.

I did not travel to Japan for research, but I lived in Tokyo for a year in 1987-1988 when I was a University of California exchange student. I studied Japanese at ICU (the International Christian University) and traveled all around the area during the year. When Nobuo hosted the four Brookings high school students to Tokyo in the 1980s, it was the same period that I had lived there! So I was able to go back and look at the photos I had taken during that time and see the styles of clothing and remember what it was like to be in Tokyo during the late 1980s.

What do you hope readers will take from this book?

Nobleman: As with any book I write, I am eager to overturn perceptions. I love when readers (young or otherwise) discover that they are grabbed by a story that they at first assumed would not be of interest. Again, because I was not seeking to write a book about WWII or Japan, in this case I fell into that category. In other words, the first reader whose mind I opened was my own. I would be thrilled if kids who read Nobuo's story would realize that, in war, not all combatants are villains and have faith that people do change.

Iwai: I hope that readers will see that people and views can change and that peace between enemies can be attained when both sides are willing. I also hope that the book will spark an interest in Japanese culture and the relations between the US and Japan. Thirty Minutes Over Oregon is also an excellent jumping-off point to explore the experiences of Japanese-Americans during WWII, so I hope that educators and parents can also use it to begin those discussions.


© 2019 Mia Nakaji Monnier

author bombing book children's book oregon Thirty Minutes Over Oregon World War II