This graphic novel geared toward young readers is an eye opening first hand account of the Takei family’s experience in the US’s Japanese internment camps during WWII. World renowned actor George Takei relates his childhood memories of being uprooted and shipped across the country with his family and reveals his subsequent struggle to come to terms with the injustice and trauma of those years. Even though many of us may have heard about the camps before (thanks in part to the hard work of people like Takei who spoke up and eventually convinced our government to acknowledge its unjust wartime actions and attempt reparation), detailed firsthand accounts seem to be relatively rare.
Takei was only 4 years old when Pearl Harbor occurred. A few months later, he and his family, like all other Japanese American families, were rounded up under FDR’s Executive Order 9066 and shipped to facilities in the interior US and in the east. Their homes and businesses were forfeited. After spending some time living in the stables at the Santa Anita racetrack, Takei’s family (mother, father, little brother and little sister) were imprisoned at Camp Rohwer in Arkansas. As a child, Takei did not fully understand all that was happening; he could see that his father and mother were very worried and sad, but he also knew that they worked hard to keep their children safe and happy. Takei has some pleasant memories of engaging in childhood shenanigans, but he also reminds the reader of what was really happening in the US at the time. Politicians in California and Washington made it clear that Japanese Americans were not really American, that they were suspicious and most likely loyal to Japan even if they had been born and raised in the US. Takei was lucky in that his father was never separated from the family. Some men were arrested due to their positions, such as Buddhist priests or teachers of Japanese.
As the war progressed, the US government inflicted further indignities upon Japanese Americans. The government needed men to fight, but remained suspicious of Japanese Americans’ loyalty. Thus in 1943, adults in the camps were given loyalty questionnaires. Takei explains the offensiveness of this mandatory questionnaire for his parents and others. Among the questions, numbers 27 and 28 — will you serve in the US armed forces and will you swear allegiance to the US — became a flashpoint for activism. Some readily answered yes to both questions, and Takei goes on to tell of the valiant actions of Japanese American soldiers in Europe. Others were willing to fight but made it clear that they would not do so as long as their families were imprisoned. These “principled objectors” wound up imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth. Still others, the “no-nos” like Takei’s parents, answered no to both questions. They were offended to be asked to “pledge our lives for a country that had upended our families and put us behind barbed wire fences” and they believed that the questions “rested on a false premise: that we all had a racial allegiance to the Emperor of Japan.”
“To answer ‘yes’ would be to agree that we all had such a loyalty to give up. Yes or no, either response would be used to justify our wrongful imprisonment….”
“No-nos” like the Takeis were uprooted from Camp Rohwer and sent to a heavily militarized prison camp in northern California, Camp Tule Lake. Their treatment at this camp was much harsher, which led to inmate protests and then to more harsh treatment. Later, in his teen years, Takei understood that even in the internment camps, Japanese Americans were insisting on exercising their democratic rights. Meanwhile, the US government continued to push Japanese Americans away, passing a law in 1944 to expatriate those disloyal to the US and later in the same year announcing a plan to close the internment camps. This posed a serious problem for Japanese Americans who now had no homes or jobs in the US to return to. Should they officially renounce their citizenship and be shipped to Japan, or take their chances in the US, where the bigotry and hatred were on full display? This is an aspect of internment that I had never heard of before and it would have serious implications for the Takeis and many others later. The 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hit many Japanese Americans hard, as they had relatives in those cities. Takei’s maternal grandparents lived there, and while the war was now coming to an end, their troubles were not.
With the end of the war, Takei’s family’s situation became complicated and precarious. George’s mother was part of a class action lawsuit to keep her US citizenship, and upon returning to California, the family lived on skid row and in seedy hotels until they could get back on their feet. George, upon returning to school, still faced discrimination and bigotry. As a young adult involved in theater and acting, he became involved in the civil rights movement and even had an opportunity to meet Martin Luther King.
They Called Us Enemy is a riveting story and makes a good companion to Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic. It’s a reminder that many of us didn’t get a complete picture of our history when we were in school and that the voices of the oppressed must be heard and will be heard. Through them the meaning and power of American democracy shine forth.