As he strode on to the stage on Tuesday evening, George Takei, author, film star and social justice activist flashed the famous “Live Long and Prosper” hand signal from ‘Star Trek’ to the audience gathered to hear him speak at the Titan Student Union Pavilion. Takei’s New York Times bestselling graphic memoir, “They Called Us Enemy,” was Cal State Fullerton’s One Book, One CSUF program selection for the past year.
Moderated by Sean Walker, associate dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and art student Walter Pasion, Takei discussed why he chose a graphic memoir format for his latest book, his life in the Japanese internment camps after his family was sent there after the Pearl Harbor attack, and his work on social justice issues.
Takei said he chose to write “They Called Us Enemy” in a graphic memoir format to reach a younger audience who may not be aware that Japanese Americans were forced to live in camps during World War II.
“Even with all that has been written about the internment camps, I still find people who aren’t aware of them,” he said. “I had written about my family’s experience in my autobiography but I decided to use this format to reach younger people. As a teen, I loved comic books and noticed that some of the messages of the comics stayed with me.
“I look at young people as the voters of tomorrow,” he continued. “They will set the course for our country. The more detailed knowledge they have, the more likely they are to avoid some of the mistakes and cruel decisions that have been made in the past.”
The book starts when he was 5 years old. Takei, his parents, his younger brother and his infant sister were sent to the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center in Arkansas after briefly staying in a horse stable at the Santa Anita Race Track.
“Following the horrible Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese Americans who had nothing to do with the attacks were imprisoned,” he said. “The Pearl Harbor attacks were devastating. More than 2,400 people killed, 1,000 wounded, 20 Navy battle ships sunk, 300 aircraft destroyed. The war with Japan was declared the next day.
“The hatred also exploded,” he added. “Japanese Americans were called spies, traitors and worse. My father’s car was graffitied, the windows of Japanese storekeepers were broken and the madness of elected leaders helped inflame the hatred.
“The mayor of Los Angeles proclaimed, ‘Japanese can never be assimilated.’ Then California Attorney General Earl Warren, who later became a Supreme Court justice, went so far as to say Japanese Americans should be locked up. There were no reports of spying or sabotage. But Warren, who had his eye on becoming California’s governor, said, ‘The Japanese are inscrutable so it is prudent to lock them up before they do anything.’ Before! He basically admitted they hadn’t done anything…but he later won the election for governor.”
Takei referred to President Franklin Roosevelt as a great president in the 1930s who helped bring the nation out of a depression and who famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
“But he made a human mistake that devastated Japanese Americans,” said Takei. “The entire West Coast of the nation was acting on fear…and the president signed Executive Order 4066 that allowed more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to be sent to 10 different internment camps across the nation without the benefit of due process — the right to know what charges have been filed against you and the opportunity to challenge them. If the charges are not true, then you are free.
“This is a noble ideal but it became vulnerable because human beings can be swept up by fervor and hysteria. A government ruled by law all but disappeared.”
After Japanese American families were finally freed, they asked for an apology and a token redress by the government that had falsely imprisoned them. They wouldn’t see their requests met until 1988 when President Ronald Reagan formally apologized on behalf of the nation. Under the Civil Liberties Act, each still surviving member of those imprisoned received $20,000.
“This was profoundly important and meaningful to those who had been humiliated and lost homes, businesses and opportunities because of the hysteria of that time,” he said.
Takei still remembers his mother trying to keep her children safe and healthy under often unsanitary conditions. For example, in the horse stables, there was a pungent odor and lots of insects. There were also the daily reminders that the families weren’t free — barbed wire fences, guard towers and a lack of privacy.
During the war, the nation also realized they had a shortage of eligible men to be soldiers. Knowing there were healthy men in the camps, the government devised a loyalty oath to justify drafting “enemy aliens” (as they were known) out of the camps.
“There were many incompetents who drafted the 30-question document,” he said. “Two key questions were No. 27: Are you willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered?, and No. 28: Will you swear loyalty to the United States and forswear loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? The government assumed that everyone in the camps had ‘blood ties’ to Japan.”
His parents refused to sign yes to both questions. The first because, as parents, they couldn’t serve in combat without leaving their children; the second because to vote ‘yes’ meant that they had a loyalty to the emperor, which they did not. Because of this, the family was sent to “the cruelest of the internment camps” — Tule Lake in Northern California.
“Where we had soldiers in gun towers in Rohwer, we now had machine guns aimed at us. We had three layers of barbed wire surrounding the camp, and the perimeter of the camp was patrolled by tanks…all to intimidate us,” he said. “The treatment was so bad and included night raids, where young men accused of being radicals were taken and placed in a concrete jail house and often tortured there. Years later, when I toured the jail, I saw faded brown splotches on the concrete and was told they were made when young men’s heads were bashed into the wall.
“Tule Lake was a very scary place for me…and for many others.”
But Takei has hope for the future.
“Several years ago, when President Trump gave an executive order for the Muslim travel ban, the reaction was completely different,” he said. “There were massive protests. Lawyers ran to the airports to provide legal advice to Muslims. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said, ‘I will not defend this executive order.’ We are making progress.”