Although we have shelves of them in our home, I don’t normally read graphic novels and memoirs. When I found They Called Us Enemy on the new book shelf at the library, though, I realized that I would make an exception. The principle author, George Takei, is famous as the actor who played the helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the original series of Star Trek and later in the first Star Trek films. I didn’t realize until I read this book that he and his family were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during World War II.
The book opens as Takei, his parents, and his brother and sister are abruptly forced to leave their home in Los Angeles. It then alternates between Takei’s later life and career not only as an actor but as a hard-working proponent of civil rights, the background of his parents, reenactments of government workings that led to the roundup and incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the family’s daily life in the camps.
During the course of the war, Takei and his family were imprisoned in three different locations. After the roundup, they were taken to Santa Anita Racetrack and housed in stables smelling of horse shit. They were then sent in a heavily guarded train to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas. During the train ride, every time they pulled into a station where white people might observe them, they were ordered to pull down the shades on the train. Camp Rohwer was in a compound surrounded by barbed wire. In the summer it was blistering hot, and when the rains came, the entire area became a swamp.
Later, the family was moved to a camp at Tule Lake in northern California. The fences had even thicker layers of barbed wire. In addition, there were battle-ready troops, tanks, and machine guns – all to guard Americans whose only crime was that they had Japanese ancestry.
After the war, the camp was shut down and the family, along with over one hundred thousand other Japanese Americans, was freed. They returned to Los Angeles and had to start from scratch, because when they had been captured and imprisoned, the government had seized all their possessions except what they could carry with them. They had a rough time because there was still a lot of anti-Japanese prejudice among the American populace.
Takei eventually attended acting classes at U.C.L.A. He got a key role in a play and other roles in various TV series episodes, but his big break came when Gene Roddenberry cast him in his iconic role in Star Trek. Besides touching on his acting career, Takei also tells of some of the important highlights of his career as an activist. For instance, he met Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when the cast of the play Fly Blackbird performed a song before one of King’s talks. He was invited to the former home of Franklin D. Roosevelt to talk about the internment and the value of American democracy. An exhibit in his honor opened at the Japanese-American National Museum. All in all, this book, although about a horrendous crime committed against American citizens, is extremely inspiring and edifying.