35 pages 1 hour read

George Takei

They Called Us Enemy

Nonfiction | Graphic Novel/Book | Adult | Published in 2019

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They Called Us Enemy is a 2019 graphic memoir written by author, actor, and activist George Takei and illustrated by Harmony Becker. The story chronicles Takei’s childhood experience in the Japanese internment camps in America during World War II. Takei frames the narrative with a modern-day talk he gives at the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over the country during the internment period. During the talk, Takei tells his family’s story while examining the conflict between his faith in American democracy and the terrible decision to create the internment camps.

George is a child when his family relocates to Camp Rohwer, a detention facility in Arkansas. The galvanizing event that turns America against the Japanese is the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much of the story focuses on how George’s mother and father deal with their new situations, with each throwing themselves into their work. George’s mother does what she can to create a new home in the small barracks cabin. George’s father works to form a community among the internees, serving as the Block Manager.

George’s memories of the camp are not entirely unpleasant. His parents do a good job of protecting him and his siblings—Henry and Nancy—from many of the realities of their incarceration.

In June 1943 camp prisoners are forced to answer a so-called Loyalty Questionnaire. Two of the questions—numbers 27 and 28—ask if they will serve in the US military for combat duty, and if they will forsake any allegiance to the Japanese emperor. George’s parents know that the framing of the questions is unethical and hypocritical; their consciences require them to answer “no” to each question. This gives them the reputation of being “No-nos.” As a result, they are transferred to Camp Tule Lake, a harsher internment facility with more guards, barbed wire, and weapons.

Near the end of World War II, the US government gives the prisoners the option to renounce their US citizenship and repatriate to Japan. George’s mother agrees to give up her citizenship, believing it will be best for the family. The people in the camps worry; when the camps close at war’s end, they will have to return to homes and jobs that no longer exist, in a country that doesn’t want them. An activist attorney, Wayne Collins, manages to bog down the repatriation process with hundreds of appeals cases accompanied by writs of habeas corpus. George’s mother no longer has to leave, although it will take years to regain her citizenship.

The family moves to Los Angeles after leaving Camp Tule Lake. The book then shows George’s rise in the theater world and recounts how he landed the role of Sulu on Star Trek. He uses his growing platform to spread his positive message of tolerance, inclusivity, and the ideals of American democracy. At the end of the book, he visits the Camp Rohwer Memorial Cemetery with his husband.

They Called Us Enemy examines themes of racism, xenophobia, justice, loyalty, patriotism, family, and more. It is highly recommended for students of history, World War II, and those interested in the graphic memoir format.