George Takei is well-known as the actor who portrayed Sulu, the physicist on board the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek series. Now in his 80’s, his graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy chronicles points in his life connected to his years in the WWII Japanese internment camps. So how does one go from being an ostracized child surrounded by barbed wire to a beloved TV star? The graphic novel answers that question, but it does much more. It gives a window into the complex history of the internment camps and how one family of five weathered the four-year journey that started in the spring of 1942 with the forced move from their Los Angeles home to the Santa Anita racetrack horse stables. They then spent two years at Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, and finally two years in Camp Tule Lake in Northern California from where they left in March of 1946 to return to Los Angeles.
Complexity is the strength of the book. The narrative describes the historical background of US-Japanese relations, the family history of Takei’s parents, and the wide array of actions taken by Japanese-Americans. They responded differently to incarceration. Some chose to show loyalty by enlisting in the military; others actively protested their civil rights and ended up in heavily guarded facilities; still others (like Takei’s parents) tried to carve out the best life they could for their families while living in primitive barracks. But even more powerful is the emotion rendered through the black and white drawings. The book describes the soul-searching the adults went through as they tried to answer the loyalty questionnaire, or make the agonizing decision whether or not they should renounce their U.S. citizenship as a way of protecting their families from hate-inspired actions. Parallel to the adults’ tough decisions is the camp-like happiness of four-year-old Takei and his younger brother as they experience new landscapes moving from camp to camp.
The narrative does not end with the Japanese surrender in August 1945, but continues to describe how Japanese Americans slowly rebuilt their lives. At one time Takei and his family were homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. Takei also had to deal with the continued post-war prejudice against Japanese in schools along with questioning how something like this could happen. Takei describes quizzing his father about their experience, wrestling with the question of civil rights. While filling in parts of the story for his son, his father remained rock-solid in his faith in democracy–not perfect because of what happened, but better than any other form of government.
The graphic novel ends with a quote from President Obama that sums up Takei’s motivation in telling this story. “History… must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past” (p. 203). –Recommended by Susan Corapi, Trinity International University.
They Called Us Enemy was featured in My Take Your Take (August 2020).
Title: They Called Us Enemy
Authors: George Takei, Jusrin Eisinger, Steven Scott
Illustrator: Harmony Becker
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
PubDate: July 16, 2019
Each month a committee of Worlds of Words advisors recommends a book published within the last year. Our hope is to spark conversations on our website and on social media about the book that expand global understandings and perceptions. Please join us by leaving a comment. You can also share your thoughts with us by using the hashtag #WOWRecommends on social media.