George Takei recounts internment’s long shadow

The actor and activist remembers his childhood detainment by the U.S. government during World War II in a new graphic novel.

The rights of American citizens and immigrants of Japanese ancestry collapsed just weeks after Japanese warplanes planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. West Coast politicians, including California Attorney General Earl Warren and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Brown, urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lock up Japanese American civilians on the false assumption that they were saboteurs, spies and “fifth columnists” loyal to Japan and set on undermining U.S. war efforts. Roosevelt signed the now-infamous Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, authorizing the U.S. military to relocate people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to some 10 detention camps located in remote areas mostly in the West. All told, more than 120,000 people were interned, two-thirds of them American citizens, leaving behind their jobs, schools and homes and selling or abandoning their possessions. Among the uprooted was then 5-year-old George Hosato Takei and his family.

 

Takei, the Los Angeles-born actor who played Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek series and movies, says he often meets people, even those he considers educated and well-read, who are shocked to learn of his imprisonment during another time of crisis, war hysteria and racism. He hopes that his new graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy, will help readers recognize the humanity of others and see the common thread between this historic act of racial injustice and the White House’s current vilification of migrants and its brutal detainment policies.

Written by Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker, They Called us Enemy recounts Takei’s childhood internment at two different camps, following the months he initially spent living in horse stables at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California. At times, the relocation was thrilling: travelling by train as new landscapes flashed by his window, playing with other interned children. But Takei is clear on how dehumanizing his family’s internment was, even as his parents made the best of the situation, carving out a sense of normalcy to raise their three children while protecting them from the ugliness of camp life.

In They Called us Enemy, Takei describes current U.S. immigration policies, which indefinitely intern migrants and asylum seekers and separate children from their families, as a “cruel irony” that echos America’s past racist policies. In 1944, in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, calling the forced detention a “military necessity” that was not based on race. In 2018, in Trump v. Hawaii, three members of the Supreme Court spurned the Korematsu decision as racist, but the ruling likely still stands as a legal precedent. And in the same decision, the court also affirmed President Donald Trump’s “Muslim travel ban,” which bars people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. America’s fears of minority citizens and immigrants seem as potent today as during Takei’s wartime internment.  Kalen Goodluck, editorial fellow

They Called Us Enemy
Written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott
Art by Harmony Becker
208 pages, softcover with flaps: $19.99 (US)
Top Shelf Productions / IDW Publishing, July 2019.
Excerpted with permission.

This excerpt begins after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan. Politicians, shopkeepers, neighbors and everyday citizens, most of them white, watched Japanese Americans with suspicious eyes, suddenly regarding them as enemy hostiles. As Takei recalls, the most popular — and most saddening — reaction was “Lock up the J*ps.”

Author and activist George Takei is co-author, with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, of the New York Times bestselling graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, illustrated by Harmony Becker. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor