They Called Us Enemy
by George Takei
Famous for his Star Trek role as Commander Sulu, George Takei tells the real-life story of his family’s experience as Japanese Americans during World War II. The book is in the format of a graphic novel.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. “The order never used the word ‘Japanese’ or ‘Camps’—it authorized the military to declare areas ‘from which any or all persons may be excluded,’ and to provide ‘transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations’ to persons excluded from those areas.”
The result was that 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to “internment camps” set up in remote areas of California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas. Their bank accounts were frozen. “In 1943, California passed a law that any farm equipment left behind could be seized by the state… We were forced to sell our property for a fraction of its worth.”
Takei’s family was taken by train from Los Angeles to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, along with other 8,500 Japanese Americans. The camp was guarded by armed soldiers. It is noteworthy that the Nisei and Sansei (second- and third-generation Japanese Americans) were U.S. citizens. Takei’s father was an Issei (first-generation). “My father loved this country and had lived here for twenty-five years, but the U.S. had never allowed him to apply for citizenship.”
Takei was a small child at the time, and while he shares the ominous context in retrospect, not all of his memories are negative. He writes about the train trip as an adventure. And he recalls the excitement of first experiencing snowfall: “It felt like pure magic.”
While initially Japanese Americans were not allowed to join the military, this policy was reversed on February 3, 1943. “Japanese Americans would now be allowed into the military—if they were ‘loyal citizens.’” To determine loyalty, all adults in the internment camps were required to complete a questionnaire including two notorious questions:
“No. 27. Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”
“No. 28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any foreign government, power, or organization?”
“Question 27 wanted us to pledge our lives for a country that had upended our families and put us behind barbed-wire fences. Question 28 rested on a false premise that we all had a radical allegiance to the emperor of Japan. To answer ‘yes’ would be to agree that we all had such a loyalty to give up. Yes or no, either response would be used to justify our wrongful imprisonment—as if they’d been right to call us ‘enemy aliens’ and lock us up in the first place.”
Some answered No-No on principle. They were transferred to maximum security camps.
Others answered Yes-Yes “to prove their patriotism.” The 442nd regiment was comprised of Nisei from Hawaii and the internment camps. On October 26, 1944, “the segregated soldiers of the 442nd were sent to break through German lines.” They rescued 211 men from the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment of the 36th Texas Division. The 442 suffered 800 casualties and 42 of them were captured and sent to a POW camp in Bavaria.
President Roosevelt signed Public Law 78-405 into law on July 1, 1944. This “gave us the ‘right’ to give up our rights as U.S. citizens. If we did, we would officially become the enemy aliens they already believed us to be.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on December 18, 1944 that Nisei couldn’t be held in camps. “The irony was that the barbed-wire fences also protected us… Prejudice against Japanese Americans still raged on in the west coast and elsewhere.” So, thousands—including Takei’s mother—renounced their citizenship in order to maintain safety and keep the family together.
Arguing that renunciation was not of free will, attorney Wayne Collins prevented Takei’s mother from being deported, “though it took many years of tireless dedication to restore Mama’s citizenship. But in 1945, courtroom success meant we were cleared to relocate anywhere in America.”
On July 15, 1946 President Truman honored the 442 members with the Distinguished Service Cross. On July 21, 2000 President Clinton awarded them the Congressional Medal of Honor. Among the honorees was Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who lost his right arm in a battle in Italy.
In 1988 President Reagan apologized on behalf of the U.S. government and signed legislation providing a $20,000 restitution payment to each of 60,000 surviving internees. “For here we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Takei, George, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott. Illustrated by and Harmony Becker. They Called US Enemy; Top Shelf Productions, 2019. Buy from Amazon.com
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Additional books on this topic:
Citizen 13660 by Mine Okubo (author, illustrator). A graphic memoir originally published in 1946.
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston (2002)
Beyond the Betrayal: The Memoir of a World War II Japanese American Draft Resister of Conscience by Yoshito Kuromiya and Arthur A. Hansen (December 1, 2021) 236 pages
Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura by James Matsumoto Omura and Arthur A. Hansen (2018) 424 pages