They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
A harder Trek
May 24th 2021
Co-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker.
Top Shelf Productions 2019, 204 pages
I first learned of the Canadian internment of Japanese-descended people in British Columbia—some 90% of the Japanese and Japanese-descended residents in that province—when I was 12 years old. My father told me of it. It wasn’t taught in schools. Later, I learned that it was suppressed by two sides of the quiet debate: those who felt a deep shame over the mistreatment of loyal Canadians based solely on race, cowardice and ignorance, and those who felt they should have just shipped all the “Japs” back “home” or simply exterminated them or made them slaves.
There weren’t many Japanese—either actual Japanese or Canadian descendants—in eastern Canada, but it did make one minor change in my outlook towards people. I had shied away from anyone with a Germanic name. In both the UK and Canada I had been taught that Germans were the most horrible people on Earth, who killed millions. Aside from the fact that kids in the playground who had “German-sounding” names (about half of them were probably Ukrainian) had nothing to do with Hitler and it was patently absurd to assume they killed Jews for the fun of it (and I would talk about a bad trade as having been ‘Jewed’ or ‘Gypped’ with absolutely no sense of irony), there was the realization that outrage over mistreatment of one group of people didn’t justify similar mistreatment of other groups of people. (I don’t think I actually ever mistreated any kids with eeevil surnames—I just avoided them). How could I hate Germans for what their leader did to innocent people when Canada was doing a milder version of the same thing and there were Canadians—some in military uniform—willing to say “we should have just exterminated them.”
It was a few years later that I learned that a similar mistreatment of people based on nothing more than the shape of their eyes also occurred in America. While not quite as vicious as the Canadian internment, it was on a much greater scale—some 220,000 people, many of whom had been born in America, were American citizens. I actually felt a bit of relief when I learned that; I had treated the internment as a nasty family secret, and didn’t want my new American friends to learn what a loathsome country I was from. Obviously I still had some thinking and processing to do.
History eventually caught up to the self-comforting lies we told ourselves about how pure and noble we were in the war, fighting ultimate evil and so on, and in both Canada and America, the realization that we had done something horrible led to regret, and to some extent, redress.
One of the youngest victims of the anti-Japan hysteria in the wake of Pearl Harbor was George Takei, now the noted actor and social advocate. Not yet five years old, he and his family were rounded up and sent off to live in the horse stables of Santa Anita racetrack, their home, business and assets seized and sold. Only his father, Takekuma Norman Takei, had actually ever lived in Japan, from his birth in 1902 until he came to the United States in 1914. George Takei’s mother and siblings were all born in America and never set foot in Japan. They had done nothing wrong. In fact, nobody of Japanese descent had done anything wrong. The Attorney-General of California, future Chief Justice Earl Warren, said, “We have no reports of spying, or sabotage, or fifth column activities by Japanese Americans, and that is ominous, because the Japanese are inscrutable.” If any element of this hysteria summed up the unreasoning fear and moral cowardice of the leaders of America (and Warren went on to become a champion of civil rights despite this), that statement encapsulated it.
It was the only time blind hatred and abject fear put the victims of the internment in a Catch-22 position. Long after Takei’s family was moved from the piles of horse manure in Earl Warren’s California to the swamplands of Camp Rohwer, Arkansas, the government demanded that those they had capriciously robbed and imprisoned sign an oath swearing to fight for America if so asked, and to abjure allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, an insulting demand and an even more insulting assumption. Americans whose families had lived in America for three generations or more felt no more allegiance to Hirohito than I do to Bonnie Prince Charles. Most refused to sign on moral principles, and the Supreme Court upheld a government directive deeming such principled Americans to be “enemy aliens.” Later, when the war ended, the government announced they would tear down the camps, and the internees were free to go where they pleased—in a land where looking Japanese could and in all likelihood would get you lynched. Or, the government added slyly, admit to being enemy aliens, renounce citizenship, and eventually get deported to Japan (where over 100,000 children starved to death in 1946, so you can imagine the welcome Americans who couldn’t even speak Japanese would get). Or they could remain in the camps, safe from the lynch mobs. The Supreme Court struck down that agreement as unconstitutional two days before Takei’s mother, who was born in LA and had never been to Japan, was due to be shipped out.
Takei’s graphic novel is full of pathos and pride, dignity and assault, big and small. It’s a fantastic effort, and I would love to see it as a book to be studied in middle-grade level schools in the US and Canada. He shows the monumental injustice that happened, but more importantly, shows what needs to be done.
In a heated argument with his father, Takei, then adolescent and judgmental, responded to a remark the elder Taakei made that “…of all the forms of government that we have, American democracy is still the best.” with “Daddy, how can you say that? After all you went through, losing everything you and mama worked for?” His father replied, “Roosevelt pulled us out of the Depression and he did great things. But he was also a fallible human being, and he made a disastrous mistake that affected us calamitously. But despite all that, our democracy is still the best in the world because it is a people’s democracy.”
Fascism has corruption and cruelty built in as a feature. Theocracies are even worse. The only reason monarchies work these days is because they keep the monarchs sedated and in fancy cages. Takei Senior was right.
But horrors like the internments, mild as they may seem next to the routine horrors of fascist regimes as existed in Germany and Japan at that time, are not to be tolerated in a people’s democracy, and while it took time, it didn’t take the utter destruction of the nation and years of occupation by democratic forces to get America and Canada to admit to their crimes. Time is a poor excuse: Takei’s father didn’t live to see the eventual efforts to right a terrible wrong. Takei, I’m happy to say, has.
Takei is a social advocate, not just about hate crimes against people who look different, but against gays and the dispossessed. And while his book would be important and necessary at any time, we now face a new wave of anti-Asiatic bigotry, based on the incredibly flimsy notion that COVID-19 may have originated in Wuhan, China. Weak and cowardly people think that’s a good excuse to beat up people who look Chinese. But America has a resurgent, paranoid and angry fascist movement, one whose gullible fools believe the Chinese engineered the virus in some way and use that to justify pogroms against Japanese, Chinese, and everyone else they hate, which is most of the country.
Takei’s book, compassionate and unyielding at the same time, is a badly needed antidote to the ongoing madness.