I entered the first grade in 1956 and I graduated from high school in 1968. During those dozen years, I did not hear one word from my teachers about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. I did not read about it in any of my schoolbooks. I didn’t hear about it from my family, or from newspapers, radio, or television.
Being something of a history freak and heavily under the influence of George Santayana, I initially stumbled across this horror in fairly superficial terms. As time went on and we moved from incarcerating Asian-Americans in America to killing the natives of southeast Asia, I had been able to gather a great quantity of information about the internment camps… but, even so, I had only scratched the surface.
It took George Takei, one of America’s foremost and most erudite political activists, to use his well-earned celebrity as an actor as a platform to provide this illumination. He did so in graphic “novel” form, an autobiographical look at what he, his family and his landsmen endured and the perspective he has on all that today, some 75 years later.
His story is not as overwhelmingly depressing as it might seem. In no way is They Called Us Enemy a happy tale, but it is a story of survival and confronting devastating tragedy. Young George and his even younger siblings discovered all sorts of amazing stuff heretofore unexperienced: massive hogs (“Arkansas dinosaurs”), their first snow fall, the Japanese Santa Claus… I can’t say these were wonderful experiences, but to a child in the midst of such pervasive evil and bigotry these most certainly were wonderful moments that served to punctuate an unfathomable time.
Takei explained a reality that I had not considered: the barbed wire triple-fence that kept them interred also kept the “Jap haters” out. In a cruel and disgusting way, those walls provided protection. This is a lesson that must be learned all over again today, as our leadership works very, very hard to restore and expand these torturous anti-human immigration predilections. We will note for the record that, during the incarceration, children were not ripped from their family’s bosoms and placed in pens.
Equal to the incarceration story is the tale of what happened to these Americans after they were released – after they heard about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the death of FDR and the end of a war in which they played absolutely no part in starting. Some were suckered into “returning” to Japan – a land that most had never seen. Others were given a one-way ticket anywhere in the United States, but the possessions and property that were taken from them were neither restored nor replaced. Having no place to live and no jobs, they could go to any skid row in America and begin anew, from a place far lower than they had started the first time. America’s hostility to its own citizens most certainly did not end on V-J Day.
Indeed, eventually life became pretty good for George Takei. He has excelled as an actor, a playwright and an activist, and, in his paramount achievement, he used these successes to tell this very story. I suspect had he never been Lt. Sulu, few would even know about They Called Us Enemy. So, kudos to Gene Roddenberry as well.
I am very grateful to George for They Called Us Enemy, and I am frustrated that it took anywhere near this long for the story to be told in depth.
While I’m at it, the story lends itself well to this format, following in a recent trend pioneered by Representative John Lewis. I take great pride in being a part of a commercial art form that has attracted the efforts of these truly great Americans.
They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker. Top Shelf Books, $19.99 paperback.
(Note: Our fellow obsessive-compulsives will note that we fixed the column numbering. Thanks to whomever invented Flash Cards. Harvey Flash, I think.)