Book Reviewed: They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott. Illustrated by Harmony Becker.
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel
Published By: Top Shelf Productions in 2019 ($19.99 for the traditional paperback; $25 for the expanded hardcover edition)
Nearly everyone who has been around a television knows who George Takei is—he played the famous character known as Hikaru Sulu, found on the USS Enterprise in the famed hit sci fi classic Star Trek. Even those who might’ve missed the series will undoubtedly have seen the actor online, with millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. The son of Japanese immigrants and himself a native-born US citizen, Takei has formed himself as a strong role model for younger generations, as well as a loud and beaming voice for political causes. Yet while he’s most well-known for his acting and social media engagements, George Takei has also proven to be an inciteful and subtle comics writer—the book They Called Us Enemy is evidence of that fact.
You’ve no doubt heard Takei give his Ted Talk about his family’s experience with the Japanese internment camps; you probably heard him discuss parts of it in talk show interviews. But here we have the full story as one man could tell it (with the collaborative help of his fellow artists, as listed above), and it is a beautiful, gut-wrenching story indeed. Juxtaposing the events of his years in the camps along with his own career highlights, Takei goes on at length about his own troubled optimism concerning the democratic ideals of a country that has failed his own family. This optimism was in its own way shared by his father, Takekuma Takei, a man whose own ability to speak English and Japanese in equal fluency led him to become the block manager of the camp, thereby using this small position to better help his fellow detainees. These were first, second, and third generation Japanese Americans, many of them born in the United States and who had no allegiance to the country from whom came the attack on Pearl Harbor—and yet here they all were, house in one of several camps across the country by orders of Franklin D. Roosevelt and popularized by politicians such as Fletcher Bownan and Earl Warren. George Takei was only a child when this was going on, hardly able to comprehend the full scope of this horror—how can children such as he be made to pay for the sins of those who came from countless thousands of miles away, whose only connection to him was a shared ethnic background?
No doubt the United States was put in a strange and unique position upon entering World War 2, and our country’s leaders had to make decisions which would seem impossible to us today. In this matter they clearly made the wrong decision, and for several years at least they continued to double-and triple down on that mistake. When the time came to call upon young men for service the US decided that they may need to lessen their racial divide in order to supply more bodies to the frontline, but they had to continue piling on the insult with a loyalty pledge and questionnaire, asking those of Japanese ancestry to revoke their heritage and swear complete allegiance to the country that had imprisoned them without having ever committed a crime. For people like George’s father, a man who had been born in Japan but raised in the US, this posed a far greater insult, for the same country asking him for his service had been the one that had denied him citizenship. Between that and the pressure to swear off his ancestral home, Takekuma Takei was essentially being asked to become a man without a country. What kind of thing is that to ask of someone, especially one who is made to suffer such indignities—along with his own immediate family?
And yet George’s father still upheld the striking ripe-hot optimism in the ideals of American democracy, emphatically passing them along to his son in many frank discussions over the years after their family’s release. Only one other man in history can I think of who placed such strong faith in the institutions of democracy, and George himself walked with that man in one of many demonstrations that were held across the various places in the country. I am of course talking about the Reverend Martine Luther King, Jr.
The comparison between the treatment of the Japanese and African American communities was just one of many eye-opening aspects of this brilliant graphic novel. I myself would like to think I love my country, but that love also comes with a great shame for my country’s sins. We must not forget that while we are a great country we are also an imperfect one; we must forever stand against these atrocities, so that they may never happen again.
George Takei is known for many things, his iconic roles over his decades-long career being one of them. But I would venture to say that this story is perhaps his crowning achievement, if for no other reason than for the fact that he has made me see the need for a better, more unified America. Thank you, Mr. Takei, and may you Live Long and Prosper.