In “They Called Us Enemy,” George Takei takes us through his childhood in the Japanese internment camps of World War II America, starting from a pivotal moment on December 7, 1941.
As his family decorates their Christmas tree, a radio bulletin announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, marking the U.S.’s entry into the war.
This news casts a shadow of fear over the Takei family, as anti-Japanese sentiment, fueled by figures like California Attorney General Earl Warren and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, escalates. The hysteria culminates with President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, establishing the internment camps.
The Takei family, comprising George, his parents, and his younger siblings Henry and Nancy Reiko, find themselves forcibly removed from their Los Angeles home and relocated first to the Santa Anita Racetrack, where they live in a horse stall, and later to a camp in Arkansas. Despite the grim circumstances, five-year-old George perceives the journey as an adventure, unaware of the reality guarded by soldiers on their train.
Settling into Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, the Takeis adapt to their new life. George’s mother smuggles in a sewing machine to make their cabin feel like home, while his father takes on a leadership role in the community.
George and Henry explore their surroundings, their childhood innocence buffering them from the camp’s harsh realities. However, the absurdity of internment comes into sharp focus in 1943 when the U.S. military, desperate for soldiers, demands loyalty oaths from the very people it has imprisoned.
The narrative takes a darker turn as the Takei family moves to the high-security Camp Tule Lake following their refusal to answer the loyalty questionnaire satisfactorily. Here, tensions mount among the internees and between them and the guards, leading to frequent confrontations and arrests.
In a shocking twist, legislation allows Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, a decision George’s mother makes to keep the family together, facing deportation to Japan.
Yet, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki signals the war’s end, and a lawyer, Wayne Collins, steps in to prevent the deportation of those who renounced their citizenship under duress, including George’s mother.
Returning to Los Angeles, George’s curiosity about the internment experience grows. Through conversations with his father, he learns about the complexities of protest and resilience.
George’s activism takes shape as he pursues an acting career, eventually landing the role of Sulu in “Star Trek,” using his platform to highlight Japanese American contributions and injustices.
The U.S. government’s formal apology and reparations in 1988, followed by the recognition of Japanese American veterans in 2000, mark significant milestones.
However, George reflects on the cyclical nature of injustice, citing the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018 as a failure to learn from past mistakes.
George Takei’s story, from internment to activism, underscores the importance of remembering history to prevent its repetition, all while celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the potential for democracy to evolve and improve.
As the protagonist and narrator, George Takei guides us through his experiences with a unique blend of childhood innocence and mature reflection. His journey from a young boy in internment camps to a successful actor and activist showcases his resilience, curiosity, and growth.
George’s character illustrates the impact of historical injustices on individuals and the power of personal agency in overcoming and educating about those injustices.
George’s mother, referred to as Mama, emerges as a figure of strength and adaptability. Her efforts to smuggle in a sewing machine and beautify their internment camp cabin symbolize her determination to maintain dignity and normalcy for her family under dire circumstances.
Her decision to renounce her citizenship, albeit under duress, to keep her family together, and her subsequent legal battle to remain in the U.S., highlight her protective nature and resilience.
Daddy is portrayed as a pragmatic and compassionate leader, both within his family and the interned community.
His role as a block manager in the camps and his efforts to organize and uplift the spirits of his fellow internees underscore his leadership qualities and commitment to community well-being.
Daddy’s nuanced discussions with George about the internment, democracy, and activism demonstrate his wisdom and influence on George’s path to activism.
Henry and Nancy Reiko
George’s siblings, Henry and Nancy Reiko, are minor characters in the narrative, primarily serving to underscore the family dynamics and the broader impact of internment on children.
Their presence reinforces the innocence lost and the varied experiences of Japanese American families during this period.
Earl Warren and Fletcher Bowron
As real-life historical figures, California Attorney General Earl Warren and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron are depicted as antagonists who fueled anti-Japanese sentiment, leading to the internment.
Their roles in the narrative serve to illustrate the systemic racism and political maneuvering that contributed to the injustices faced by Japanese Americans.
Wayne Collins is a key supporting character, representing hope and legal advocacy. His efforts to save nearly 1,000 Japanese Americans from deportation, including George’s mother, showcase the impact of committed allies in the fight against injustice.
Collins symbolizes the power of legal action and the importance of standing up for civil rights.
1. The Fragility of Civil Liberties in Times of Fear
“They Called Us Enemy” delves deep into the precarious nature of civil liberties, particularly during periods of national crisis. The narrative vividly illustrates how fear and hysteria, fueled by geopolitical events like the attack on Pearl Harbor, can lead to the rapid erosion of rights for specific groups.
Through the experiences of the Takei family, the book showcases the dangerous precedent set by Executive Order 9066, which stripped Japanese Americans of their freedoms based solely on their ancestry.
This theme serves as a stark reminder of the ease with which democratic societies can compromise the principles of justice and equality in the face of fear, highlighting the need for vigilance and the protection of civil liberties for all, regardless of the prevailing social or political climate.
2. Identity and Loyalty Under Scrutiny
Central to the memoir is the exploration of identity and loyalty, particularly the suspicion cast upon Japanese Americans regarding their allegiance to the United States.
The loyalty questionnaire, with its infamous questions demanding a renunciation of any allegiance to the Japanese Emperor and requiring a declaration of loyalty to the U.S., encapsulates the absurdity and racism of questioning the Americanness of citizens based on their heritage.
Through George and his family’s refusal to answer these questions in the manner expected by the government, the book critiques the binary view of loyalty that fails to acknowledge the complexity of identity.
It highlights the struggle of Japanese Americans to assert their identity as patriotic Americans, despite being treated as enemy aliens, and challenges the reader to consider the nuances of national identity and the unfair demands often placed on minority communities to prove their loyalty.
3. Resilience and the Power of Advocacy
Throughout the harrowing account of life in the internment camps, the book also celebrates the human spirit’s resilience and the transformative power of advocacy.
Despite the dehumanizing conditions of internment, the Takei family and their fellow internees find ways to create a sense of community, maintain dignity, and foster joy amidst adversity.
George’s father’s role as a community leader and the family’s eventual fight to reclaim their rights underscore the importance of leadership and activism within oppressed communities.
Furthermore, George Takei’s journey from a child in the camps to a prominent activist and public figure exemplifies how personal experiences of injustice can fuel a lifelong commitment to advocacy.
The book not only honors the resilience of the Japanese American community during World War II but also serves as a call to action, encouraging readers to engage in the ongoing fight for justice and to ensure that the lessons of the past inform our approach to contemporary social and political issues.
“They Called Us Enemy” is a powerful memoir that offers a deeply personal glimpse into a dark chapter of American history through the eyes of George Takei.
It’s not just a recounting of past injustices but a call to action and awareness, reminding us of the resilience of the human spirit and the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.
Takei’s narrative is a testament to the importance of storytelling in the fight against forgetting and the effort to ensure such atrocities are never repeated. His life, marked by activism and advocacy, illustrates how personal experiences can fuel a lifelong commitment to combating injustice and promoting a more inclusive and empathetic society.