They Called Us Enemy
“A riveting story of a horrible injustice enacted with careful, logical cruelty in the name of national security. In the wake of similar stories happening now, the publication of They Called Us Enemy could not be more timely.”
They Called Us Enemy is a stunning example of how the graphic novel format can make tough subjects accessible. Not only does George Takei present his family's personal story with intensity, he and his co-authors set out the political and social context that made it possible for President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066, ordering every person of Japanese ancestry “excluded” from the entire West Coast, newly declared a “military area” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war that followed. This exclusion didn't mean simply ousting these families, but also rounding them up and imprisoning them after forcing them to sell their homes and businesses for practically nothing.
Takei and his co-authors do a brilliant job of telling this story from several perspectives —from his own as a child, where the internment starts as an adventure. “We get to sleep where the horses slept! Fun!” he exclaims. “As a kid, I couldn't grasp the injustice of the situation.” Even the way the family is tagged like cattle, though to his parents “another de-humanizing act,” to him “was just my ticket for the train.” This balance is essential and shows how normal the abnormal can seem so long as families can stay together. Later, young George writes, “I thought everyone took vacations on a train with armed sentries at both ends of each car. It was an adventure.”
Takei presents his father's viewpoint, as well, showing how he “threw himself into being part of the community,” becoming manager for the entire block of people, helping everyone manage, acting as translator and go-between. “At thirty-nine years of age, Daddy bridged the gap . . . between the community elders, and the younger American-born Nisei . . . his experience earned him credibility . . . but he was still young enough to relate to those in their teens and twenties.” Much of the book is told through conversations the now older Takei had with his father, trying to understand his childhood from an adult perspective.
His mother is an equally strong character, coping with exile and prison by lugging a heavy sewing machine into the camp. She knows it's forbidden, but as she explains, “children going to be needing new clothes.” She tries desperately to make a comfortable home wherever the family is sent. And succeeds so well that Takei has happy childhood memories of the most miserable places.
The official reasons and the ugly laws responsible for the internment camps are carefully portrayed, evoking echoes with current forms of demonizing “others” as national security risks. Fletcher Bowron, then mayor of Los Angeles, testified before Congress that Japanese-Americans were “nonassimilable.” Despite being born in this country or having been here for generations, he declared, “Undoubtedly many of them intend to be loyal . . . but when the final test comes, who can say but that 'blood will tell'?”
These same tropes are leveled against Jewish-Americans now, who can't be trusted to put American interest before Israeli ones. The notion of how well immigrants “assimilate” is also weaponized against people from Mexico and Central America, the impetus behind all the English-only laws that sprouted around the country in the last decade.
The text walks a careful balance, giving enough bureaucratic language to evoke the full cruelty of the new law without burdening the reader in too much information. When the internees are later forced to either sign a loyalty oath or lose their citizenship, the most nefarious questions are quoted in their entirety: “No.27. Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty whenever ordered? No.28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any foreign government, power, or organization.”
The questions by themselves are chilling. In the context of people who have been mistreated by their own government, they take on a horrific cast. The second question reads almost like a tricky way to get someone to admit guilt to a crime they hadn't committed, assuming the signer had such loyalty to begin with.
For Takei's father, who had lived in California since he was a teenager but having been born in Japan hadn't been allowed to become an American citizen, answering “yes” would have made him stateless. For his mother, it would have meant admitting that the government was right to treat them as it had. Like many in the camps, Takei's parents checked off no to both questions, joining the ranks of the “no-no's.” The family was sent to a much harsher camp in Tule Lake as a result.
The final bill attacking Japanese-Americans was drafted by Attorney General Francis Biddle, “a bill that would expatriate certain persons . . . who have openly avowed their disloyalty to the United States . . . and have disclaimed loyalty to the United States, although they were born in this country.”
Congress quickly passed it and the president signed it into law, turning citizens into “enemy aliens” overnight. Japanese Americans were told they could sign away their citizenship and stay in the camps until deported, protected by the barbed wire, which kept out angry mobs. With the camps closed at the end of the war, these people had no homes to go back to, no communities. As Takei writes, “To many, it [citizenship] already seemed worthless.” Takei's mother was one of them, signing away citizenship to a country that had treated her like a criminal.
Fortunately there were some people outside the Japanese American community who stepped up to defend them. A San Francisco lawyer, Wayne Collins, filed a suit on behalf of all the Japanese Americans who were forced to give up their citizenship under duress. “Our legal defense was led by Mr. Collins and the San Francisco branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Less comforting is the fact that they were the only branch of that national organization . . . to take a stand against the unlawful imprisonment of American citizens.” Collins' efforts worked, keeping the Takei family from deportation, but it was years before Takei's mother's citizenship was restored.
There's justifiable anger and outrage in this book, but the writers let the facts speak for themselves. Describing the all-Japanese-American 442nd brigade, the most decorated unit of its size, President Truman honors its members with the Distinguished Service Cross. “You fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice—and you have won.”
President Clinton later awards the surviving members the Congressional Medal of Honor. “Rarely has a nation been so well-served by a people it has so ill-treated.” Takei honors all of the Japanese Americans in the camps. Those who chose to fight, those who chose to go to prison rather than serve a tyrannical government, those who stayed with their families rather than abandoning them to prison. “They proved that being American is not just for some people. They all made difficult choices to demonstrate their patriotism to this country, even when it rejected them.”
The art by Harmony Becker serves the story well. It's spare, evocative, and emotionally powerful, just as the text is. Together, this book presents a riveting story of a horrible injustice enacted with careful, logical cruelty in the name of national security. In a chilling parallel, the Trump administration has just ordered migrant children to be held in a former Japanese American internment camp in Oklahoma. Only a government blind to its own history could make such a decision.
A riveting story of a horrible injustice enacted with careful, logical cruelty in the name of national security. In the wake of similar stories happening now, the publication of They Called Us Enemy could not be more timely.
A copy should be sent to every member of Congress and the Justice Department.