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SYFY WIRE Interviews

George Takei's They Called Us Enemy is a book about 'hope' in the face of America's dark history

By Ernie Estrella
George Takei at The Japanese American National Museum

For decades, American audiences knew George Takei only as an actor, playing such prominent roles as Star Trek's Hikaru Sulu, Heroes' Kaito Nakamura and, more recently, Yamato-san in The Terror: Infamy. Takei has lent his voice in legendary guest appearances to series such as Futurama, The Simpsons, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Archer to build a wide career of obsession-worthy genre entertainment.

But Takei has become an icon in so many other ways over the years: He's a social media influencer, an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, an occasional guest announcer on The Howard Stern Show, and much more. With all these platforms at his disposal, Takei has long used his visibility to continue speaking out about the events of his childhood, during which he spent time as a prisoner in American Internment camps during World War II. As detailed in Takei's 1994 autobiography, To the Stars, at 5 years old, Takei, his entire family, and 120,000 Japanese Americans were persecuted and incarcerated for being of Japanese ancestry. From 1942 to 1946, Japanese Americans were forced to live in inhumane conditions on American soil.

Many Americans are still unaware of or even flat-out refuse to acknowledge this dark period of American history, and as systemic racism in all forms pervades to this day, Takei is making sure the persecution and internment of Japanese Americans is never forgotten.

In 2019, Takei adapted this chapter of his life into a graphic novel memoir, They Called Us Enemy, published by IDW/Top Shelf Productions. Co-written by Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, with art by Harmony Becker, They Called Us Enemy cements this story in history and makes it accessible to readers of all ages. Upon its release, They Called Us Enemy became a The New York Times and Amazon bestseller, and recently earned a 2020 Eisner Nomination for Best Reality-Based Work.

Comics can often help initiate hard conversations by opening peoples' eyes to new experiences and forcing them to face those experiences head-on, including the mistreatment of people of color, slavery, the Japanese Internment, the Civil Rights movement, immigrants' struggle at the border, police brutality, and much more. They Called Us Enemy joins other important works such as Maus, March, Nat Turner, and Kindred as reminders of when the human race lost its way and people committed horrible acts of violence and hatred against one another.

SYFY WIRE spoke with the They Called Us Enemy team about telling this story in graphic novel form and balancing the weight of the cruelty with the innocence of a 5-year-old boy.

They Called Us Enemy cover

George, the inside cover of the book shows you and your family members' names listed on the actual registry. Being reduced to a number, it certainly prepares the reader of the story they're about to read.

Takei: It was horrific — for my parents, a harrowing experience. The soldiers came, stomping up our steps with their fists pounding on the front door. My father answered, literally at gunpoint; we were ordered out of our home.

This was in May 1942, a few weeks after my fifth birthday. The camps were being built, so they took us to the Santa Anita [Park racetrack], off-loaded to the trucks, and my family was assigned a horse stall, still pungent of horse manure. We were treated like livestock. No dignity.

My father took us to a mass shower — all men — outdoors where the horses were washed down. That's how dehumanizing that whole experience was. When the construction of the camps were finished, we were transported two-thirds of the way across the country to Arkansas.

How important was it to achieve the right tone, because this is something that needed to be read by younger readers, but could potentially be read by a fellow victim?

Scott: It was very important to us from the start, to create a work that could be easily accessible to the next generation of young readers, and get the message of this story into the hands of tomorrow's future leaders. At the same time, we didn't want to present a watered-down version of that story. So while the events are experienced through the eyes of a child, making it even more relatable to young readers, it is also put into context by the wiser, older George, who is able to properly address the horrific circumstances he and his family found themselves in. George's childhood innocence shielded him from those harsh realities at the time, and we didn't want to shy away from the truth, so we leaned into some uncomfortable territory in order to give the reader the full experience from a firsthand point of view.

There was a major point in They Called Us Enemy, when everyone in the camps who was over 17 had to answer a controversial questionnaire, a test of loyalty, which I found to be a huge moment.

Takei: [It was] one sentence, with two conflicting ideas: "Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America, and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?" For them to presume that we had racial, inborn, genetic loyalty to the emperor was offensive! If you answered, "No, I don't have a loyalty to the emperor and forswear," that "no" applied to the first part of the very same sentence. So if you were loyal to and agreed with that part, then that "yes" applied to the second part, and you were confessing. There was no intelligent way to answer that and win.

To be treated like animals, and after they impoverished and imprisoned you for a year, they come down with a loyalty questionnaire. The gall of this government, demanding it in such an ignorant and illiterate way.

My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles. My parents were American, and we were American. They didn't even get that.

They Called Us Enemy Page 110

This comes at a moment in the memoir when some of those incarcerated enlisted in the military to fight in the war and yet, this was the thanks they received.

Takei: It was right after Pearl Harbor, these young men volunteered to serve in the military. This act of patriotism was answered with a slap on the face. They were denied military service, were imprisoned for a year, and labeled as "Enemy A." That was stupid and illiterate. They were punished for having integrity.

Then the government realized there was a wartime manpower shortage. Here are all those young people that they could have had, but [the U.S. government] classified them as "enemy aliens." How do they justify drafting them out of a concentration camp? [With] a loyalty question that is insulting, ignorant, and degrading, taking any kind of dignity we had left away from us. Those that went bit the bullet and swallowed the ugly taste of agreeing with those questions.

Another group that I considered equally heroic, in a different way, are the ones who said, "Yes, I am an American, I will fight for my country, but I will fight as an American. If I can report to my hometown draft board with my family back in our home, I will be like any American. I will have something to fight for. I will fight as an American, but I will not go as an internmentee, leaving my family in imprisonment, putting on the same uniform as that of the sentries watching over my families."

That was courageous and gutsy.

That's one of the toughest portions of your memoir to swallow.

Takei: Look, we were always intact with our parents, we were [and remained] a family. What's happening right now on the southern [U.S.] border [with Mexico] is cruel and evil; children being torn away from their parents. People who came out of desperation, literally [fighting for] their lives, and then to be subjected to that conscious, intentional cruelty in the name of our country, America.

It's despicable.

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George, is They Called Us Enemy also a tribute to your parents — and others like them who had to navigate this ordeal — while maintaining sanity for their families and innocence for their children?

Takei: With the exception of the Native Americans and African Americans, it's a universal American experience because we are all immigrants. The immigrant story is one we can all connect with. My father was born in Japan but his mother died when he was a boy. So my widower grandfather decided to emigrate to San Francisco with his two boys. So my father was reared, educated, and went to college in San Francisco. He was American in every way except birth. It's an immigrant story we can all connect with, it's the story of America.

Your mother snuck her sewing machine into the camp. There were these moments of love and support throughout. Tell me about reliving those emotional memories.

Takei: [My mother] was a tough lady. You know, when my father was a block manager and worked with camp command, he borrowed a jeep and we were able to go on one Sunday drive. My father was once a baseball player in the San Francisco area, playing on a team that played other Japanese American teams all around the Bay area like Berkeley and Oakland.

[On that drive] he wore a Panama hat, but once he started driving faster, to keep it from blowing off, [my mother] took off that hat and she put his baseball hat on his head backward. Even back then, my father was a hip guy thanks to my mother. Thinking about that, the simple way in which they expressed love for each other, it brought tears to my eyes as I was working away at [the book].

When I was writing my autobiography, I was thinking of a way to tell that story. This was one of the happiest experiences. To see Harmony capture it in the way she did, with the bill in the back... I've had so many moving moments, writing the autobiography then, and now to see Harmony's work visualizing it has been heart-warming and other times, a heart-wrenching experience.

Becker: A lot of the emotion came through the script, like the love that they had for each other, the resilience of his parents in shielding them from the horrors of camp. So much of that came from George's story and Justin and Steven's script, so I really had my work cut out for me.

They Called Us Enemy Page 39

George and Harmony, could you describe what it was like collaborating with each other, taking George's memories and visualizing it for the audience in Harmony's style?

Takei: There are many ways of telling stories in comics... but this is a five-year-old kid's experience and my real memories of my incarceration when we were taken from Los Angeles to the swamps of Arkansas was a fantastic experience on the level of fantasy.

We were right by the bayous, trees grew out of the water and their roots snaked in and out. It was a whole different world. There were wiggly little black fish in the nearby creek that I could catch and put them in jars, and watch them grow legs, which would grow stronger and the tails fell off. Eventually, they crawled out and hopped away. Magical things were happening.

Yes, there were barbed wire fences and the sentry towers — but children are amazing, they're adaptable. So we wanted to capture that sense of adventure, discovery, and learning on the part of this 5-year-old kid, and we wanted to have a spacious, open feel of innocence, as well as [express] the horror of the situation. Harmony was the perfect artist; what she does with a line or a squiggle on that boy's face, capturing wonder, horror, and terror. She's able to capture light, spaciousness, and the fun.

Becker: My contributions were a bit more subtle and detail-oriented. Like Japanese couples don't really hug that much as it was originally depicted in the script. My research was all visual-based, so it was [going through] a lot of archival photographs and going to the Japanese American National Museum, walking through the aisles and crying. I went to the Santa Anita racetrack, which is insane to go to because there's no trace or evidence that this was ever a place where people were herded like cattle. I had to learn how to draw things I was unfamiliar with, like 1940s canteens, trains, and coffee cans, so it was very much a period piece.

Eisinger: George was very concerned with visual accuracy, obviously, and that proved to be challenging for Harmony. There's a wealth of photography captured from the internment. Ansel Adams himself shot for the government, Dorothea Lange did too, and there were also bootlegged underground cameras that were taken but not always labeled very well. Harmony would say she found a photo of Tule Lake or Camp Roar, but then George would say he specifically remembers it another way. In that situation, you're going to defer to George.

Steven and Justin, how much did George share with you, and what was cut out?

Scott: George was incredibly open about his experiences and while some of those childhood memories stick out better than others, we were able to uncover some new ground previously not covered in either his autobiography or talks on the subject.

One thing that didn't make the final cut, which George details in To the Stars, was a family dog they looked after in one of the camps. But we wanted to keep the focus on the core family unit as much as possible without getting too sidetracked.

They Called Us Enemy Page 143

After reading George's autobiography and then having the deeper discussions with him, how did you figure out what to filter?

Eisinger: A lot of that has been inspired by current events but without being overly referential. The Trump travel ban and the overturned Korematsu decision is the only time we interject current events to show this is a window of today. It's all very subtle, sort of a subtweet. If you see a talking head on TV say something you don't agree with, you can't just ignore it.

That's the line between participatory democracy that George hammers to us in the book. If you don't plug in and tune into what it is the talking heads are saying, this is what can happen. It means you got to lean in, you confront it, you run for office whether it's city councilman, congresswoman, it doesn't matter, you just have to participate.

Scott: George also gave this amazing TEDx Talk regarding his time in the camps and he was able to distill the entire experience down to 16 minutes. They Called Us Enemy is inspired in part by this powerful speech and so the goal was to take that and expand upon it, telling the whole, uncompressed story. To the Stars helped to fill in many of those gaps and George himself was the most valuable resource of all, having lived it.

George has lived an incredible, multi-faceted life and we knew going in that we wanted to keep this particular story focused on his childhood imprisonment, and really give each experience room to breathe so the reader is on that journey with him as our guide.

Takei: There's a technical thing to a comic book, and while I've read comics as a child, I wasn't conscious on how to tell it and break up the story visually in blocks. For example, they had blank squares, and I wondered [initially] why they were there when we could be telling more stories. They said it's like a blackout in a movie, a transition to go from the time you were talking about to a flash-forward to Roosevelt's home, Hyde Park. So there's that technical aspect to comics storytelling, and these guys helped in that.

Eisinger: We knew to tell the story of hope. George and his family already achieved the American Dream: a single-family home, the yard. [Then] everything is taken away, the [internment] camps for four and a half years, and here's $35, a train ticket, and go back to where you came from, whether it was [Los Angeles], Oklahoma, or back to Japan and leave the country — that would've been [the government's] ideal.

But George's family went back to Los Angeles and rebuilt their lives and when George was ready for higher education, he went to UCLA. That's amazing! That's two American Dreams in one to one-and-a-half generations. That puts a lot of people to shame, which is one of the reasons Japanese Americans were so targeted at the time, because of resentment toward the inroads they made in American culture or society — whether it be farming, business-owning, in all staples of life, they had succeeded. We experience scapegoating today, and it was big scapegoating then.

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From your work as an artist, your outreach and charity work, you've even tried to tell this story on The Howard Stern Show multiple times –

Takei: [Bursts into laughter] It was hard because you have a lot of hurdles in front of you.

And you later turned it into a musical with Allegiance, but They Called Us Enemy has a chance to have a widespread effect, like other thought-provoking graphic novels. So in light of what we're facing today, why was using sequential storytelling — the power of comics — a format you wanted to use to tell your story once more?

Takei: When we did Allegiance on stage, we heard the sobs in the crowd while on stage. We founded the Japanese American National Museum to institutionalize that story because I'm the last generation that experienced that internment; I want it to live on beyond the last generation, for the young people to read They Called Us Enemy and having a museum where it is part of the American storytelling and resource for researchers and historians to know this story — to be a part of America.

Living in these fraught times as we are now, I've become mindful of the fact that there are informed adults, well-read people whom I share my childhood imprisonment with and they're shocked. They don't know this story.

So I've finally realized what is important is to reach young people, when they're hungry for information and absorbing it in. That's the teenager I was. I loved comic books. I absorbed information that I am still using today. So, what a wonderful way to reach young people with this information. It's going to be a part of their knowledge of what America is, that we have a very diverse history.

I call this a book of hope, to have more Americans who know this history. Because of their numbers in the future — just by the vote — they'll outnumber the vote of the kind of people that support our current orange orangutan, so it becomes a genuine American action. It's a changed America, hopefully.

They Called Us Enemy is still available in comic shops and wherever books are sold.