Like most publicly-schooled Americans, my education about Japanese internment during World War II consisted of probably a paragraph or two in a history textbook that presented it as an unfortunate outcome of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. In my recollection, the textbook mentioned that eventually the United States government apologized, but there was no direct statement that internment was an unjust imprisonment of American citizens, nor was there a first-person account of what internment was like.
It is always worth our time to reckon with the past, which is one reason why I appreciate the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, with illustrations by Harmony Becker. The novel documents Takei’s internment as a young child, along with his mother, father, and two younger siblings. Families like Takei’s were forced from their homes and forbidden from taking many belongings to the internment camps, and this property was never returned to them. They faced impossible decisions; for example, whether to serve in the US military (despite the US refusing to give them the full rights of citizenship) and whether to renounce the Japanese emperor (an action that implied, insultingly, that prior to this renunciation they supported the Japanese government).
The most compelling aspect of this book is how it captures the paradoxes of Takei’s internment. He has many fond memories of the camps, because he was a child during his time there (memories which also speak to how his family and others forged a semblance of normalcy in the midst of their internment). Takei develops an appreciation for democracy when he speaks to his father about politics within the camps, and the eventual efforts of Japanese citizens to fight deportation. Indeed, the frame narrative of the memoir is Takei’s speech at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library–the same president who oversaw his own internment.
As Americans we can certainly be proud of many elements of our history, but we must also temper that pride with recognition of, and apology for, mistakes such as Japanese-American internment. The tone of They Called Us Enemy is uplifting, suggesting that we can learn from the past by listening to those who experienced America’s darker epochs.