They Called Us Enemy
by George Takei
Tule Lake, Topaz, Poston, Minidoka, Amache, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Manzanar, Rohwer, Jerome. How can we say we know our history if we don’t know these names? After reading George Takei’s graphic novel, these names are as important to me for our history as those of Washington, Jefferson and Madison. These are the 10 internment camps set up by the US Government in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, to imprison American citizens and others of Japanese descent. Most of us know this happened, but George's writing makes it so real, and shares with us so many aspects that we may not think of; especially when much of it is told through his eyes as a child experiencing the relocation (which in truth, was indeed, imprisonment).
Let that sink in. American citizens imprisoned on American soil just because of their lineage. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, Commander of the Western Defense Command, was one of the most responsible people for creating the hysteria and instilling generalized fear of Japanese people. FDR’s Executive Order 9066 stemmed from John DeWitt’s statements.
Happily, there were heroes, and good people, too. I would put George’s parents in that category; his father’s strength and actions, in spite of such ill treatment, including living here for 25 years and being denied the chance to even take a citizenship test, were certainly heroic to me. As George’s father said, “ It is a people’s democracy and the people can do great things.” Perhaps a read of this book will inspire civic engagement. I hope so. You will also meet Herbert Nicholson, a Quaker missionary who delivered books to the camps each month, and devoted his life to advocating for Japanese Americans. Wayne Collins, an ACLU lawyer, who represented 935 plaintiffs in a challenge to order 9066 is someone we should all know more about.
It is important to know and learn this history so that we can indeed learn from our mistakes. George’s work itself (beyond Star Trek) is worth knowing, and I have added the memorial to the Rohwer Relocation Center (Arkansas), and the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles) to my future travel plans as “must see” sites. I hope also, to be able to find a film copy or script of the play “Fly Blackbird”, a musical about social justice, which George performed in. I'm working on committing those 10 prison names to memory, too.
A graphic novel can pack a powerful punch. I encourage adults to give this genre a try. Takei’s would be a good choice.