George Takei Recalls Time in an American Internment Camp in 'They Called Us Enemy'

George Takei, 'They Called Us Enemy.' (IDW Publishing)

"Shame is a cruel thing," writes George Takei in They Called Us Enemy, his new graphic novel about his childhood years in an American concentration camp during World War II. "It should rest on the perpetrators, but they don't carry it the way the victims do."

This irony becomes most evident at the conclusion of Takei's book, where he depicts the U.S. government's tardy attempts to establish a sense of collective shame about America's wartime internment of Japanese Americans. "Here we admit a wrong: Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under law," President Reagan is shown saying in 1988. But no matter how polished his words — or how many zeros on the restitution check Takei receives in 1991 — such attempts at official remorse ring hollow. What the government did to Takei and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans can't be undone, no matter how many speeches public officials deliver or how many checks they send.

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The very structure of Takei's narrative underlines this fact more than a political speech ever could. It's young George's point of view that shapes the story, imbuing it with childlike energy. Even as the Takeis are wrenched from their home, transported hundreds of miles and forced to live in camps, young George's openness and curiosity are unflagging. His outlook provides a striking contrast to government officials' stale attempts to explain, excuse and ultimately seek forgiveness for the evil they've done.

In fact, despite the grimness of its subject matter, They Called Us Enemy is a lively, vibrant book. After years spent acting on stage and screen (he's best known for his role as Star Trek's Lieutenant Sulu), Takei has clearly learned a lot about shaping and directing his audience's emotions. He's helped by his co-writers, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, and artist Harmony Becker. It's a shame Becker's artwork isn't in color, but she provides a master class on what one can do in a black-and-white format. By incorporating textures ranging from fine hatching to Ben Day dots, she demonstrates how digitally created drawings can have all the dimensionality of work drafted on paper.

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Becker also helps dramatize the contrast between George's and his parents' experiences of their ordeal. It's spring of 1942 when Takei's family is first taken from their Los Angeles home. Allowed to keep only what they can carry, Takei's parents must sell off their belongings for next to nothing. At one point they're forced to sleep in horses' stalls, but George views this as an adventure: "We get to sleep where the horses slept! Fun!" For his parents, of course, it's no such thing. "It was a devastating blow," Takei writes. "They had worked so hard to buy a two-bedroom house and raise a family... Now we were crammed into a single, smelly horse stall."

That's the first of numerous occasions when young George's innocence protects him. When everyone is forced to wear tags — "to keep track of us, like cattle" — he thinks it's just another train ticket. "I saw people crying and couldn't understand why," he remembers. At one camp, another boy tells him the barbed wire is there to keep dinosaurs out. For Takei's parents, meanwhile, it's a constant struggle to maintain a sense of order and humanity. Takei's father helps other families settle in and serves as a translator and mediator, while Takei's mother sews clothes and makes curtains and rugs.

The family's ordeal doesn't end in the camps. Once the Takeis are allowed to return to Los Angeles in 1945, they have to live on the street. Enrolled in public school, George endures discrimination from a racist teacher and begins to feel the shame his parents felt. "I was old enough by then to understand that camp was something like jail, but could not fully grasp what we had done to be sent there," he remembers. As he grows up and becomes an actor, he fights a two-pronged battle: to overcome shame and to reconcile his experiences with America's stated ideals.

It's a struggle that can probably only be fully understood by a survivor of internment — and probably not by politicians seeking exculpation for acts of bureaucratic evil. But Takei hopes some of those politicians will try. He concludes They Called Us Enemy with a critique of our current government's policies treating certain people as "Enemy."

Takei closes with a quote from President Obama saying, in part, that "history ... must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past." It may be too late to undo what was done to Japanese Americans almost 70 years ago, but Takei suggests it's not too late to learn from it.

Copyright NPR 2019.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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