Regardless of whether you like Star Trek, whether you’re Japanese, or whether you read graphic novels, you should pick up this book. George Takei never fails to impress me with his humor, his knowledge, and his passion for telling a story. He brings all of those things to this graphic depiction of his childhood experiences in two Japanese internment camps during World War II.
In They Called Us Enemy, which was co-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker, Takei vividly describes how he experienced the camps through the eyes of a child. He describes how it was home for him and his siblings, and how his parents made them feel cared for and safe. At the same time, he’s also telling the story of what his parents endured. He depicts what it must have felt like to lose their home, their friends and neighbors, their possessions, and even the ability to cook for their family. Takei shares both what he remembers as a child and what he came to understand later as an adult.
Takei incorporates quite a lot of historical and legal detail, which makes the book much more powerful, because I learned more than I expected to. As with many books, we may think we know the story, yet there’s so many details I wasn’t aware of. For example, I didn’t know about the legal acts that led up to the internment, like imposing travel restrictions and a curfew on all Americans of Japanese descent. I wasn’t aware they had to complete loyalty questionnaires and volunteer for military service even while their families were imprisoned, or that they were pressured to renounce their citizenship even if they were born in this country. I was particularly moved by Takei’s description of how afraid the families were when the camps were about to close. They didn’t know where to go, or whether their former neighborhoods were safe. The camps were the only home their children had known for four years.
Takei has told this story before, but he brings it to life in this book. At first I found the drawings a bit simplistic, but they brought a child-like perspective to the book, which really brings home the fact that Takei spent four years as a child imprisoned in an internment camp. And it means the book is suitable for all ages, which is important; it’s being read widely across schools.
It’s important for us to understand this period in our country’s history. I have always wanted to visit one of the camps to learn more, although none are near where I live, and very little has been preserved. Takei stayed in the Rohwer camp in Arkansas, which does have a museum in McGehee, Arkansas. In 2013 he spoke at the museum’s dedication ceremony. And there are tours at the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, which is maintained by the Park Service.
But since most of us will never visit one of these places, and we learned very little about them in school (I certainly didn’t), I think everyone should read this book. Takei is someone I admire greatly, for the risks he takes, for his honesty, his commitment to causes, and his passion for educating others. This book gave me a new understanding of what he and so many other families went through, and how it shaped him as a person.
Note: I read this book for the Read Harder 2020 Challenge (a graphic memoir) and for the Nonfiction Challenge (history).