MTYT: They Called Us Enemy

By Michele Ebersole, University of Hawaii, Hilo, HI, and Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

Michele and Yoo Kyung continue on the theme of Rethinking Cultural and Physical Borders in Children’s Literature: Understanding Today’s Global Politics Through History. This week, they look at They Called Us Enemy by George Takei.

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MICHELE: George Takei’s personal account of the Japanese American “relocation center” experience from the perspective of a young child is told in this graphic novel. The novel moves back and forth between his personal memories of living in the internment camp and information about injustice political decisions and the effects it had upon his family and other people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. It depicts his journey to understand and seek explanations for what he experienced in his young life. The text tells what happened, and the illustrations persuasively show the emotions behind the events. Through his work in theater and as an actor, “my unexpected notoriety has allowed me a platform from which to address many social causes that need attention” (p. 189).

One of the elements that I find interesting is his relationship with and how he grew to understand his father. As a child, his father was a central figure who “always seemed in command of any given situation” (p. 44). However, after the war and as a young adult he questions his father’s perceived inaction, “Why did you comply with something that was fundamentally wrong? … Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter, into a barbed-wire prison!” (p. 141-142). He later acknowledges, “I spoke up righteously as my father suffered in silence” (p. 142). Through his many conversations with his father and personal reflection, he discovers, “I had been participating in democracy as far back as I can remember” (p. 145). Despite the mistreatment of and injustices suffered by the Japanese-Americans, George learns to embrace his father’s faith and patience in the ideals of the American democracy. He is surprised when father states, “But despite all that we’ve experienced, our democracy is still the best in the world … because it’s a people’s democracy” (p. 195). George learns that while had once perceived his father as passive, over the years his father had showed him how to live through “democracy in action” and George expresses his profound gratitude to his father. I am personally struck by his father’s ability to see beyond his personal experiences and his belief that even though Roosevelt made a “disastrous mistake that affected us calamitously,” (p. 195) he maintains the value of and his regard for the democratic ideals. His father continues to believe and never loses hope.

The epilogue for this weeks book is a quote from former President Barack Obama, “Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other … that my liberty depends on you being free, too … that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress … but must a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.” (p. 203). This quote is a great place to start a discussion between this text and the text for next week, The War Outside (Hesse, 2018) as it helps us think about how we might see ourselves in each other and how we might look to history to help us better understand the world around us.

YOO KYUNG: The history of Japanese internment camps is marginalized compared to the European holocaust, even though Japanese internment camps are a part of American history. I often think it is because the European holocaust doesn’t associate national guilt in the U.S. Instead, Nazi armies and Hitler as the common enemy in WWII history made the unit of European holocaust accessible without creating much discomfort or tension in teaching and learning discourse in school spaces. Japanese internment camp history is different. It is one of the unfair historical events that injustice was practiced for the name of national safety and preventing spy activities. It is not an easy topic to teach in schools in the U.S. when there is an acknowledgment of injustice practiced against particular Americans who have Japanese heritage. Takei’s celebrity in Hollywood works great in gaining attention to this topic. Additionally, this memoir-based story is available in a graphic novel, which is trendy and growing more popular by young readers. They Called Us Enemy can be read as an invitation to knowledge American history during World War II. However, this book needs additional other books or text sets to read with learn and understand about Japanese internment camps. Additional digitally available video and audio resources can be used to support this unit. Takei’s story illustrates an innocent view of George and his brother that they didn’t understand what was going on while the family was forced to transit from home to a camp. The depictions as naïve and innocent, George and his brother appear to be over-protected and it appears as a literary tool to make the internment camp experience more pitiful and unfortunate. One important contribution this book makes is that the book illustrates the post-war transitions. The war ending doesn’t mean the happy ending, but displays deeper and complicating problems and issues to solve. Illustrating the post-war journey for George Takei’s family and the U.S. federal government’s apology actions add familiar yet new perspectives to the WWII literature for young readers.

Title: They Called Us Enemy
Author: George Takei
ISBN: 9781603094504
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
PubDate: July 16, 2019

Throughout August 2020, Michele and Yoo Kyung give their take on books for young people to rethink cultural and physical borders. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!


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