TAKEI, George et al. They Called Us Enemy. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2019. 205p. Resenha de: HUGHES, Richard. Teaching History – A Journal of Methods, v.45, n.2, p.62-65, 2020.
In 1946, Miné Okubo, a Japanese American from California who spent much of World War II in the Topaz Relocation Center, an internment camp in Utah, published Citizen 13660. An accomplished artist, Okubo included almost 200 black line drawings in her memoir which she described as a rare glimpse of daily life inside an internment camp. Citizen 13660 debuted just 12 months after Japan’s surrender and, while many American readers may not have been ready to face the disturbing realities of American wartime decisions, the book review in the New York Times described the memoir as an “objective and vivid” account of the impact of “hysteria that finally led the Federal Government into acceptance of racial discrimination as an instrument of national policy.”
George Takei, most well-known as an actor on the television show Star Trek, was only four years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Seventy-eight years later, Takei, along with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and artist Harmony Becker, provides a comparable visual memoir to Citizen 13660 in the form of a powerful graphic novel entitled, They Called Us Enemy. While Takei struggled as a young man to find any information about Japanese internment in his formal education, much has changed since Okubo’s memoir. The last fifty years have included a growing historiography on internment, the creation of the Japanese American museum in Los Angeles, and the inclusion of the history of Japanese Americans during the war in textbooks, content standards, documentary films, art exhibits, and even children’s literature. In 1988 the same federal government that enforced Executive Order 9066 in 1942 formally apologized for the internment camps through the Civil Liberties Act which included minimal restitution to surviving victims such as Okubo and Takei.
Despite the age of its author during the war, They Called Us Enemy provides a surprisingly comprehensive account of the experiences of Japanese Americans during the period. Takei’s father was an Issei, born in Japan before immigrating to California, while his mother was a Kibei, a Japanese American born in the United States but, in part due to the realities of racial discrimination in California at the time, educated in Japan. Born in Los Angeles, George and his younger brother and most individuals sent to camps were Nisei and therefore American citizens. Takei’s accessible family history takes the reader from life in Los Angeles in the 1930s, a feature often missing from wartime narratives, to temporary housing at a makeshift assembly center at the Santa Anita racetrack, where George started first grade in 1942. After a long train ride across the West that thrilled the children while their parents and other adults remained terrified, the Takei family arrived in Camp Rowher in Arkansas only to return to California in 1944 as inmates at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center. Along the way Takei illustrates some of the period’s unique cultural conflicts through families who faced additional challenges because family members taught Japanese language or served as a Buddhist minister.
Two specific aspects of They Called Us Enemy are especially valuable to students in understanding how Japanese Americans navigated the dangers and unknowns of war, race, and persecution. First, George’s parents were labeled “No-Nos” in 1944 because they refused to volunteer for U.S. military service or to renounce any allegiance to the Japanese emperor. This decision led to the family’s forced reassignment to Tule Lake in northern California and a community that included an array of political positions ranging from principled nonviolent resistance in the face of American hypocrisy to the dramatic role of protesters, some of whom completely rejected the United States and Takei describes as “radicals.” Fearful of postwar violence, George’s mother even renounced her American citizenship in the hope of keeping the family relatively safe in the camps and, after deportations started, joined other internment survivors in successfully reversing the decision and reclaiming their American citizenship. All of these and other features of the graphic novel provide students with a more diverse portrait of the many ways Japanese Americans navigated the period.
Second, not unlike Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel Maus which explored the history and legacy of the Holocaust, Takei’s family history sheds light on enduring generational conflicts within Japanese American communities. In contrast to many histories that focus exclusively on the war years, Takei’s narrative, not unlike the documentary film Rabbit in the Moon (1999), includes important later discussions between George and his father as the family attempts to deal with the trauma of internment. George’s father dealt with personal guilt over his relative passivity during the ordeal while George used his formative experiences to shape a larger activism that included sharing the stage with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at a civil rights rally in 1961. George and his family’s struggles with cultural assimilation, identity, and social change in the years after 1945 provide an accessible complement to both Citizen 13660 and many of the issues raised in Greg Robinson’s After Camp: Portrait in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics (2012).
Of course, Takei’s memoir is incapable of addressing all the issues that have emerged in the historiography. There is no hint of the important political discussions from California to Washington, D.C. between Pearl Harbor and February 1942, nor does Takei address the significant political divisions associated with the Japanese American Citizens League. Although the graphic novel includes brief references to historic documents such as Executive Order 9066, evacuation posters from California, and the controversial loyalty oath in 1944, failing to fully include these seminal primary sources in the book is a lost opportunity for students and teachers. Elsewhere, readers may find themselves wishing for more historical context in such as areas as the larger history of conscientious objectors or, because They Called Us Enemy includes an intriguing image of African Americans sitting near the railroad tracks in Arkansas, a broader discussion of internment and race that includes the Jim Crow South. Regardless, They Called Us Enemy succeeds in providing a compelling graphic narrative of life in the internment camps and the ongoing journey, of both Takei and his nation, to make sense of the complex intersection of race, public policy, and historical memory.
Richard Hughes – Illinois State University.