It’s a haunting start to a compelling true story: 4-year-old George Takei and his younger brother and sister are hurriedly woken from sleep by their father. As they quickly dress and pack a few belongings, there is an abrupt knock at the door and two soldiers with bayonets force them from their home.
It’s the opening to “They Called Us Enemy,” the graphic novel memoir by Takei, the actor known widely for his role as Sulu in the early Star Trek series.
Takei was born in Los Angeles in 1937 to a Japanese American mother (a citizen) and a Japanese immigrant father, who had lived in the U.S. for 25 years.
Two younger siblings soon followed. Their uneventful life — a two-bedroom house and a successful family dry-cleaning business — would never be the same after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Within weeks, Franklin Roosevelt ordered anyone of Japanese descent who was living on the West Coast to be removed to detention camps. Takei’s family was among the 120,000 people who were abruptly moved inland to one of 10 camps.
Takei was a young boy during his family’s four-year detention, and so the story has a double perspective — the innocent confusion of a child and the fear and knowing of his parents. When the family is forced onto a train with armed guards, a train that will carry them across the country to an Arkansas detention center, his father assures him that it’s a “vacation” and his mother has packed small treats and toys to ease the boredom. The book’s ink illustrations are more effective than any words. We see the worried faces, a mother nervously cuddling her child, the look of despair on Takei’s father’s face.
It’s startling how little of this chapter in our history is discussed today. Were people really taken to a former horse racetrack and forced to sleep in horse stalls while the camps were built? Did young men actually serve in the U.S. military while their families were held in these camps?
I hadn’t considered the financial devastation faced by these families when their bank accounts were frozen and their businesses and farms seized once they were interned.
It’s also fascinating to see how many famous figures play a role in Takei’s story. Earl Warren (future Supreme Court Justice), Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Inouye, Martin Luther King and especially Eleanor Roosevelt, all have surprising roles in the story.
Surprisingly the comic-style format of the book is very effective at illustrating this sweeping story. Scenes of the rushed evacuation, the isolated and tumultuous life in the camps and the political turmoil after the war are communicated so vividly through simple drawings of the people who lived these realities.
Don’t let the tough realities of the story scare you off. There’s so much about the Takei family that is moving and tender, so much to admire. And the story is terribly relevant. “They Called Us the Enemy” challenges us with important questions about racism, detention without due process and threats to democracy in times of fear and hate.