They Called Us Enemy, George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott. Illustrator: Harmony Becker. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2019.
Summary: A graphic non-fiction account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2, through the experience of George Takei and his family.
They were American citizens and legal resident aliens. Many of the children had been born in the United States. They lived on the West Coast of the United States when Pearl Harbor was attacked by surprise on December 7, 1941. In the following year over one hundred thousand were removed from their homes to internment camps. They lost their businesses, homes, and any possessions they could not carry. They had not committed any crime, nor been subject to any trial. None of this mattered. They were people of Japanese descent and considered a threat.
One of the children who lived through this experience was George Takei, one of the original Star Trek stars, with a distinguished list of credits on stage and screen and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His parents met and were married in Los Angeles and owned a profitable dry-cleaning business that allowed them to buy a home. Three children followed, the oldest of whom was George. Months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a knock came at the door ordering them to pack and prepare to be transported to a camp. Their first stop was a farm, their home a former cattle stall, still smelling of cow manure. Then they were transported by train to Camp Rowher in Arkansas that would become their home for the next several years. Surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, it became home and George’s father became block representative while his mother used the sewing machine she smuggled to make clothes for the children. It almost seemed fun at times.
Then a crisis arose. The American government, needing troops, went through the camps questioning the adults whether they would be willing to serve and to pledge their allegiance to the US alone and renounce all foreign allegiances. Takei describes the different choices Japanese made from military service to active resistance. George’s parents answered “no” to both, not being able to say “yes” to a country that had imprisoned them. Consequently, they were moved to the strictest camp at Thule Lake in Utah, and George’s mother faced deportation. Only the efforts of a persistent ACLU lawyer saved her and others in her situation. When the war ended, the question arose of whether they could safely return to Los Angeles. They did. It wasn’t easy and George encountered anti-Japanese discrimination.
The story is narrated by George, speaking at an event at Hyde Park on the 75th anniversary of Order 9066. He describes both the irony and wonder of telling the story of his internment in the home of the president who signed the order. That reflects a thread running through this narrative–the flawed but still great character of American democracy. George learned this from his father in his angry younger days. This was a country under President Ronald Reagan that formally acknowledged its wrong, and subsequently paid each interned person $20,000 in reparations. War heroes were honored It was a country where Takei could be portrayed as a strong figure on a television and movie series and have a distinguished career on stage and screen. A moving moment is when George, acting in the play Allegiance is reunited with the elderly woman who had served as his father’s secretary in the camps.
There is both truth and grace in this story and something more. Takei notes the juxtaposed Supreme Court decisions in 2018 striking down its World War 2 ruling against Fred Korematsu who had resisted relocation orders, and upholding travel restrictions banning immigration from certain countries. He portrays a country that continues to fear the “other” and discriminate against them. Will we learn from the experience of the Takei family or will we repeat it with a different group of people? This only occupies a few panels on a couple pages. Takei focuses more on narrative than polemics, leaving the reader to draw the connections.
They Called Us Enemy is a great resource for teaching this history. It is neither anti-American nor a whitewash, threading the needle between these contended spaces in our national discourse. In the words of Takei’s father: “Roosevelt pulled us out of the Depression and he did great things but he was also a fallible human being and he made a disastrous mistake that affected us calamitously. But despite all that we’ve experienced, our democracy is still the best in the world…” (p. 196). Would that more of us could speak in terms of “both-and” as George’s father does.