“I know what concentration camps are,” George Takei, the actor-activist turned social media rock star, tweeted last month to his nearly 3 million followers. “I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.”
Takei was speaking, of course, of the immigrant detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Takei has no patience for muddied political semantics. While a small boy, during World War II, the Los Angeles-born Takei and his family were kept behind barbed wire for four years, in what became known as “Japanese internment camps” — another term that he cannot abide. According to the publisher of Takei’s new book, he believes such verbiage incorrectly suggests that Japan ran the camps, or that the U.S. government held exclusively Japanese people and not Japanese Americans like himself.
Takei, still best known for playing Sulu in the Star Trek franchise, has turned his experience into a riveting graphic novel-memoir. “They Called Us Enemy”— co-written with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker — arrives Tuesday as a necessary testament to what stoked fear and federal racism looked like eight decades ago within America’s own borders.
“They Called Us Enemy” poignantly paints how Takei’s father, a longtime U.S. resident, and Takei’s mother, a Sacramento-born American citizen, suddenly were declared an “alien enemy” by a presidential proclamation that doomed thousands shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“Enemy” might draw some comparisons to the graphic novel “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning epic about his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. Yet in many ways, “Enemy” more strongly echoes another American icon’s memoir: “March,” Rep. John Lewis’s illustrated trilogy set during the civil rights movement.
“March,” also published by Top Shelf, proved popular with educators and became the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award for young people’s literature. The publisher appears to be positioning “Enemy” as a similar hit: It is written in a way that is accessible to older grade-schoolers, and Takei is not only appearing at pop-culture conventions (he’s scheduled to appear at San Diego Comic-Con this month) but also at American Library Association conferences (he was a star speaker last month in Washington).
This is a sage strategy, because “Enemy” deserves to be a popular recommendation at school libraries across the land — humanizing a brutal chapter in U.S. history that even many adults seem to understand only vaguely.
Takei wants us to feel, even smell, the inhumane treatment as he relives spring 1942, when his family of five was among those herded like livestock to the Santa Anita racetrack — living in small stalls that reeked of horse manure — before being “tagged” for eventual relocation by train. The pictures are heart-rending and the prose is stark as the author begins his schooling in the shadow of guard towers.
On one hand, children are remarkably adaptable, and Takei notes how his youthful lens can make him an unreliable narrator when it comes to his own small adventures: “Childhood memories are especially slippery . . . they can often be a misrendering of the truth.” (Becker’s monochromatic art depicts that aptly; there is light in her lines, reflecting young George’s playful buoyancy.)
Yet Takei also pulls back to reflect the sweeping scale of the tragedy, as unrecoverable assets are frozen and seized; strict curfews are enforced; and FDR’s infamous Executive Order No. 9066 sends more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent to relocation centers. He details how Japanese immigrants, despite long U.S. residency, had no path to citizenship; some Japanese Americans who entered the military before Pearl Harbor were even forced to surrender their weapons. And he spotlights the sentiment of Sen. Tom Stewart, who says publicly: “There is not a single Japanese in this country who would not stab you in the back.”
Takei’s family is sent to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, where more than 8,000 people are held, and later to a center in Tule Lake, Calif., after his parents fail to agree to philosophically twisted “loyalty” questions on prisoner questionnaires.
And yet Takei, despite such a bitter experience, holds on to his father’s words. He “taught me the power of American democracy — the people’s democracy,” Takei writes, even if human fallibility can at times mar American ideals. (Takei also makes a point of spotlighting two “outside heroes” during his internment: Quaker missionary Herbert Nicholson and San Francisco lawyer Wayne Collins.)
At 82, Takei has evolved into an increasingly powerful voice for oppressed communities, and “Enemy” finds him at peak moral clarity — an unflinching force in these divisive times.
Young readers would do well to learn his story of a childhood set against a historically racist backdrop, told in clear and unmuddled prose. As our politicians trade semantics, “They Called Us Enemy” calls upon readers to see past the walls, cages and words that divide us.
Michael Cavna, creator of the “Comic Riffs” column, covers comics and illustration for The Post.
By George Takei with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker
Top Shelf. 208 pp. $19.99