‘They Called Us Enemy’ by George Takei is a graphic memoir that brings home the horror of racism and judging people by their race and is a must-read for teenager readers

I’ve read about the internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII, and there are many historical fiction books for children that are set in those camps (see some listed at the end of this review), but George Takei’s powerful memoir instilled in me a broader sense of what this country was like when this atrocity was implemented — taking away the property and rights of American citizens because of their ancestry and separating them from their homes.

What Takei and the able writers who assisted him in this endeavor are able to do is share the emotion and experience of Takei as a child and at the same time bring in the historical information that makes clear the extent of the horror that was perpetrated on people of Japanese descent during this shameful time in our past.

Four-year-old George lived in Los Angeles with his parents and his younger brother, Henry, and their baby sister, Nancy. They lived in a small house, and his parents had saved their money to provide for their children. George’s mother was born in America,  an American citizen, and his father had come to America from Japan and grew up here. He had a lucrative dry cleaning business in Los Angeles in the Wilshire area, and George’s mother did tailoring for the customers. Although George’s mother was born in America, her parents sent her back to Japan for school because they didn’t want her attending a segregated school in California.

The Takei parents cherished their three children, but when Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor, people began to demonstrate their anger at Japan by lashing out at Japanese Americans. Words spray painted on cars said, “Get out,” and Takei writes, “In California at that time, the single most popular political position was ‘Lock up the Japs.'”

Many of us  will find those messages uncomfortably like the verbiage being used in our country at this time. Messages of hate and exclusion. Takei goes on to explain that Earl Warren, the Attorney General of California, wanted to run for governor, and that “he would do anything to get that office.” Being aware of public sentiment, Warren made a statement about the situation:

“He 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. You don’t know what they’re thinking. So it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything.”

They froze the bank accounts of those of Japanese ancestry regardless of whether they were citizens or not. At that time, Japanese had not been allowed to apply for American citizenship. The financial assets, property, and businesses of nearly all Japanese Americans were seized. The graphics and text depict little vignettes of the cost: the closing sale of a business where someone offers ten cents for an item selling for two dollars saying, “Two dollars? I don’t think so, Jap. I’ll give ya ten cents.”

We learn that “Japanese American farmers who didn’t maintain their crops until relocation would be treated as wartime saboteurs.” But when their crops were harvested? Takei explains they were seized by private individuals. We learn about the tagging of families as if they were cattle while they were being relocated to the internment camps where they could only bring as much of their household goods as they could carry. They were housed in horse stalls at first and lived in primitive surroundings.

While Takei shares the horrors, the indignities, and the cruelty of the internment, he also shares wonderful stories about how his parents shielded their children from much of the horror, always trying to maintain an apparently positive attitude and never complaining to the children or spewing anger at the United States. He shares the dilemma faced by those in internment camps when the US military, in need of soldiers, decided to allow those of Japanese descent to join the military if they swore allegiance to America. He points out the absurdity of the questions about allegiance. His father was born in Japan but raised in America, a country that didn’t allow Asian immigrants to apply for citizenship. If he answered “yes” to that question about allegiance, he would, in effect, be stateless.

Takei points out something that many of us may not be aware of. In 1944, the US Supreme Court decided in Korematsu v. United States that the internment of Japanese Americans was constitutional, and that ruling was not overturned until 2018, in the Supreme Court case Trump v. Hawaii. The ruling that struck down the Korematsu decision upheld the ban on immigration from Muslim countries. Justice Sotomayor pointed out the cruel irony and said that by doing so, “…the court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu…and merely replaces one gravely wrong decision with another.” Takei and the other authors deftly marry past and present from the beginning of the piece, as Takei visits Franklin D. Roosevelt’s house and starts his reflections on his history, to the ending, as the story shows, disappointingly, how little our country has grown in terms of acceptance of “the other.”

This graphic novel was created by many who worked with Takei, and other writers are Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott. The illustrator who managed to show emotion on faces and details of the story’s setting is Harmony Becker.  This book would be a great choice for a teen book club or for any teenager who is interested in civil rights and history. It’s also a wonderful read for adults because it’s quick but surprisingly informative. And there is nothing, really, that would stop me from sharing this with middle grade readers. There is one mild expletive, but otherwise, it’s suitable for any reader.

For those interested in other books with a similar setting, a young adult novel that is set in an internment camp is the heartbreaking “The Light Between Us” by Andrew Fukuda. For middle grade readers interested in Japan and the effect of the nuclear bomb, there is the historical fiction “The Last Cherry Blossom” by Kathleen Burkinshaw. And a gentle introduction to internment camps is provided by Cynthia Grady’s  picture book “Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind.”

Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by the publisher, Top Shelf Productions, for review purposes.