Legacies of Internment

George Takei

George Takei is one of the more remarkable figures in American public life. He owes his fame to his long-running role as Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek universe.

His character in the original series was one of the first really positive representations of Asians in American media.

He has parlayed this fame into a platform for a range of worthy causes, from LGBTQ rights to racial equality.

He has been outspoken about the injustices visited upon refugees at the southern border, and with better reason than most. As a boy, he was among the roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly deported to concentration camps far from their homes.

These experiences are the basis of a new memoir published in graphic novel form. Illustrated in beautiful black and white by Harmony Becker (Himawari Share, Love Potion, Anemone and Catharus), They Called Us Enemy tells the story of the Takei family’s uprooting from their comfortable life in Los Angeles and their journey from converted horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack, to the swampy environs of Rohwer, Arkansas, and then to even grimmer conditions at Camp Tule Lake in California’s high desert. Told from the perspective of Takei’s boyhood self, They Called Us Enemy manages to be both a heartwarming story of a family struggle to hold itself together in terrible conditions, and a blistering indictment of one of the most inhumane policies promulgated by the U.S. government in the course of the 20th century.

The treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War was one of the darkest incidents in the history of the United States during the 20th century. The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 resulted in an intense racist backlash against Japanese Americans. Racism toward Asians in American culture was certainly nothing new. In the 19th century, Chinese came in significant numbers to work on the railroads, their otherness had repeatedly been made an issue. Unlike immigrants from Europe, those from Asia were never given the opportunity of integrating. Kept segregated and forbidden from acquiring citizenship, people from Asia were made part of a continuing and self-reinforcing loop.

Even before Japanese immigration was almost completely formally closed off by the Immigration Act of 1924, the US government had sought to limit the numbers of Japanese, as of all Asians coming into the country. Concentrated mostly in Hawaii and the West Coast, Japanese Americans were subjected to xenophobic treatment from private citizens and by government agencies that tended to view Asians as intrinsically foreign and, quite often, as vectors of disease.

Anti-Japanese feeling ramped up dramatically after Pearl Harbor. In California, it was instrumentalized by politicians like Attorney General Earl Warren, then angling for governor and later a member of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. “Lock up the Japs!” became a rallying cry, promoted and intensified by men like Fletcher Bowron, the Mayor of Los Angeles, who publicly asserted that people of Japanese origin were “unassimilable.” Their supposed disloyalty was a matter of blood, thus reflecting in a particularly creepy way the anti-Jewish claims of the Nazis.

On 19 February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued the now-infamous Executive Order 9066 mandating the incarceration (euphemistically designated as “internment”) both those born in Japan and those of Japanese ethnic origin. At a stroke, tens of thousands of American citizens guilty no crime whatever were stripped of their rights, robbed of their property and consigned to concentration camps with no legal remedy whatever. The situation was particularly Kafka-esque for people like Takei’s father who, although he has arrived in the United States as a child, was forbidden from applying for citizenship and thus classified as an “enemy alien.”

Takei’s narration of his family’s story is complex and intensely moving. While his parents struggled to keep things together and to provide whatever sense of continuity and normalcy possible under the circumstances, Takei and his siblings viewed their situation as a kind of adventure. But they knew that something was different and that their parents were under strain, although they could not gauge its full depths.

Takei details his father’s attempts to organize his fellow internees, to cope with intolerable conditions by working to improve them. But he also notes the legitimate anger that was felt by people imprisoned outside the normal judicial processes, people for whom any expression of this anger was read by their captors as further evidence of disloyalty.

In the course of the war, as the need for soldiers became more intense, the US government gave internees a chance to serve in the US Army. Some did, and the distinction and heroism of their service can be read in the history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most highly decorated units to serve in the Second World War.

But the price of this service was filling out a questionnaire which included the willingness not only to serve in the armed forces but also to “foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor.” For many, this was a step too far. Having had their rights brutally trampled, they were unwilling to serve. To demand that they foreswear obedience to the Emperor of Japan seemed to imply that they must intrinsically have felt some sort of allegiance to begin with.

Those, like Takei’s parents, who responded negatively to these questions were referred to as “no-nos” and were subjected to more severe conditions. Takei and his family were transported from the Arkansas swamps to Camp Tule Lake in northern California near the Oregon border. There, surrounded by three rings of barbed wire and under the barrels of tanks, they were forced to wait out the balance of the war.

Some of the most moving sections of Takei’s story relate to his experiences after the war. He and his family struggled to reintegrate into American life. As a teenager, Takei also struggled to understand why his parents had reacted the way that they did. It took time for him to understand the choices that his parents were forced to make and to come to terms with the fact that they had done the best that they could when faced with circumstances beyond their control.

Takei’s story is powerful, and one that is particularly important in our current circumstances. The current administration’s policy of depositing asylum seekers in concentration camps on the southern border is a bitter reminder of the way that racial coding continues to shape American interactions with the rest of the world and with its own populations. One sometimes hears attempts to excuse the treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War by reference to their supposedly alien status. Yet, neither Germans nor Italians were subjected to the same sort of judgment en masse. Similarly, consignment to concentration camps and travel bans are fates reserved by this government for people from “shithole countries” (i.e. those who aren’t white).

They Called Us Enemy is important because it is a stark reminder of the consequences of racial segregation and the willingness of governments to act in synergy with (and to promote) the basest inclinations of public opinion. But this is also a work that stands on its merit as a piece of art, once again illustrating (so to speak) the capacity of graphic novels to tell stories compellingly, persuasively, with the full measure of complexity. The internment of Japanese Americans is one of the darkest chapters in America’s 20th century. They Called Us Enemy is an eloquent history of this tragedy, but also a forceful demand that it not be repeated.

Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Published under a Creative Commons license.