I never really watched Star Trek, but I know of George Takei because I see his posts a lot on Facebook. So, when I saw They Called Us Enemy by Takei on NPR’s Best Books of 2019, it caught my eye. Although George Takei is the big name on the cover and it is his story, it was also written by Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott. In addition, Harmony Becker did an excellent job with the art. I read graphic memoirs once in a while, and they’re fine, although I generally prefer straightforward text. However, Takei’s memoir about growing up in the Japanese Internment Camps during World War II and it’s lasting impacts was surprisingly moving and memorable. It’s probably my favorite graphic novel that I’ve read so far.
The main topic of this novel is pretty obvious from the cover. George Takei was a young boy when WWII broke out and the United States forced thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent and Japanese nationals living in the United States into “internment” camps. Japanese citizens were labeled an “alien enemy.”
Takei’s mother was an American citizen and his father was brought to the United States when he was a young boy. They had built a life for themselves running a laundromat and had three young children–with George being their oldest. They were forced to leave everything behind, losing their business and their home. Carrying only a couple of suitcases, the family was moved by train to an old race track, where they initially lived in the old horse stables.
Looking back, these decisions were exceedingly racist and unconstitutional. But the hysteria of wartime and the justification of safety proved stronger than the ideals America tries to stand for. It did surprise me that, even though the reasoning behind internment was straight-up racist, they tried to keep race out of it when writing the order. “The order never used the word ‘Japanese’ or ‘camps’–it authorized the military to declare areas ‘from which any or all persons may be excluded,’ and to provide ‘transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations’ to persons excluded from those areas.” For some reason, I found this order infuriating. If you’re going to be racist, then just be racist, don’t try to pretend that you’re not by couching horrible decisions in vague language.
I was also frustrated and disappointed in Justice Hugo Black’s Supreme Court decision declaring Japanese Internment constitutional on December 18, 1944, probably for the same reasons. “Korematsu was not excluded from the military area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire.” (199) Really? We were at war with a lot of countries back in World War II, but we only had internment camps for the Japanese.
But now I’m finding myself going off on a tangent. Takei’s book is primarily him looking back on the innocence of his childhood. At the time, he didn’t really understand what was going on or really see how worried his parents were. It was just his life. At one point on a train journey to another camp across the country, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Many on the train thought they were going to be killed.
Takei’s relationship and admiration of his father is also a large part of this novel. His father worked as a leader in whatever camp they were put in. He loved and believed in Democracy and never gave up on the United States, no matter what the country put him through. Later, as Takei became a young man and understood more about the camps, he was angry with his father for not fighting back more. He couldn’t understand that his father was trying to protect his family under desperate circumstances and there was nothing he could do.
George Takei focuses clear attention on a part of United States’ history that we often glide over or forget. We get to see from his point of view what it was like to lose your home and face hostility and the unknown. Takei also shares the lasting impacts of what that kind of treatment can do to people. But on the whole, it is a positive story. Takei is influential and successful, and he has fought for equality and freedom in his father’s footsteps. This is a short read that I found very moving. Highly recommended.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.