Book: “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisigner, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Ill.)
Publishing Info: Top Shelf Productions, July 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon — and America itself — in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.
George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.
In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.
They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.
What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.
Review: When I was in grad school, one of our professors asked us how old we all were when we first learned about the Japanese American Internment during World War II. I was in sixth grade, but I remember that was on the early side of things in that straw poll. It is a shameful part of American History when our Government targeted innocent people based on their race, and shipped them off to internment camps based on bigotry and fear. I knew that actor and political activist George Takei and his family were sent to one of these camps when he was a little boy, but didn’t know his full story. “They Called Us Enemy” is him telling that story, but not only is it that, it’s connecting that experience and horrible government policy with more recent policies that are playing out in our country today.
Takei weaves his own personal story together with the broader political climate and maneuvers that ultimately led to Executive Order 9066, which relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. Takei was a little boy when this happened, and his memories are shaped by his age and perceptions at that time. I thought that it was especially effective to tell the stories of how he as a little boy perceived what was going on around him, and how looking back at how his parents were acting during that time now shows him the broader pain and injustice of what happened to their family. Moments like him and his little brother Henry playing on the train that was taking them to Camp Rohwer, where their natural curiosity made their mother nervous that they would get the negative attention of the guards, were especially chilling. He remembers having a fun time with Henry, but then also looks back and sees the unease his mother had regarding their safety, and it hits the point home that their innocence was being slowly chipped away at, even if they didn’t know it. I also liked that he would show other moments of childhood joy and innocence, like seeing their first snow or experiencing a visit from Santa at Christmas, but then would still reiterate that moments of happiness do not outweigh or negate the fact that he and his family were being imprisoned because of their heritage and race and not their actions.
Takei is also really good at presenting the political events and policies that surrounded the Japanese Internment, from putting forth the major players like FDR and Warren Berger in the spotlight to showing how the racism and fear meant more policies and more rules, and more distrust of those who were imprisoned. We see such policies play out on the larger scale, and then see how they impact the Takei family. His parents Takekuma and Fumiko are doing their best to keep their children safe, but as the policies become more restrictive their refusal to declare ‘loyalty’ to America, as to do so would be pledging loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them AND supposed that they were loyal to the Japanese Empire even though they did not live there and hadn’t for most of their lives. This, of course, led to consequences and the Takei family was sent to an even more restrictive camp called Tule Lake. We also see George Takei reflecting upon the conflict between older prisoners and younger prisoners, with older prisoners more likely to try to bow their heads and stay safe, and younger ones more willing to question and openly rebel. This is all seen through hindsight, as Takei has memories of, after the fact when he was a young adult, pushing against and deriding his father for not fighting back, and his father clearly still feeling caught between what was right and what would keep his family safe. It’s clear this still hurts Takei as he looks back on it.
Finally, Takei isn’t afraid to compare the Japanese Internment Camps and Policy to what we are seeing at the border with asylum seekers and the Muslim Travel Ban. The comparison has made some people uncomfortable and indignant, but Takei is more than game to show that the inhumanity of these policies is very reminiscent of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, and that they’re based similar fears and racism that Executive Order 9066 sprung from. It’s a wrenching comparison, and a hard reality to face that we’re falling into the same mistakes and injustices of our past.
The artwork by Harmony Becker is lovely to look at and fits the story well. It strikes a balance between realism, especially when talking about policy and world events, but also has cartoony moments that reflect childhood and childrens’ reactions to various events in their day to day lives.
“They Called Us Enemy” is a story that is upsetting and personal, and it is a familiar situation that many had hoped we had left in the past. George Takei opens up and shares this story with power and grace, and if you want to know more about the Japanese American Internment, this is a good place to start. Learn our history. We’re repeating it now and it’s atrocious.
Rating 9: A powerful, heartbreaking story that shows injustices of America’s past (and present), “They Called Us Enemy” is a stunning and personal graphic memoir by George Takei.
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