Bookshelf: Those who forget the past…

Before yesterday, I knew some bare-bones facts about America’s wholesale imprisonment of people of Japanese lineage during World War II. And then I read George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy. (Available here.)

Takei, best known as Sulu on the original Star Trek, was one of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were ripped from their homes in the western U.S. and sent to distant “camps” for the duration of the war. I knew that the internment order was a terrible thing; Takei’s book taught me two important lessons.

First, it wasn’t just a single act. There was a whole series of barbaric actions by the U.S. government that are hard to fathom by modern standards — even given the cruelty of our current administration. And second, the human cost of internment continued long after the war. The story of a single family, told in pictures, brings to life the human dimension of this awful period. Seeing forced relocation through a child’s eyes provides a perspective you can’t get in a history book.

Takei’s story begins with a harsh knock on the door, and an order for his family to vacate their home within ten minutes. They could only take whatever they could carry. Everything else — homes, businesses, possessions — was left behind and lost forever.

America made no effort to determine which people might actually be a threat. All were treated as enemies. Politicians who would become celebrated for their devotion to American ideals — Franklin Roosevelt, Earl Warren — were willing participants in the demonization of ethnic Japanese, fanning the flames of prejudice and advocating legislation that would rob people of their lives, livelihoods, dignity and freedom.

“They cannot be assimilated,” U.S. Sen. Tom Stewart said. “There is not a single Japanese in this country who would not stab you in the back.”

That wasn’t a fringe viewpoint; it was the consensus of American opinion. And it made no room for those who had fled Japan and come here by choice, or who had lived in America for decades and didn’t even speak Japanese. “It’s in their blood,” was the common refrain.

Of course, this was a time when Asian-Americans were prohibited from becoming citizens of the U.S., no matter how long they lived here. The prejudice was deeply ingrained in our culture.

In the war’s early days, patriotic Japanese-Americans who volunteered to fight for their country were rejected because of their ancestry. By 1943, the worm had turned; the war was dragging on, and the U.S. needed fresh blood. Japanese internees were offered the chance to join the armed forces — if they were willing to obey any order and to renounce, in writing, any allegiance to their home country.

Many made this difficult choice, and served with distinction. Others saw it as a grave insult: Why should we swear obeisance to an authority that had imprisoned us without indictment, trial or conviction?

Those who refused to sign, including Takei’s parents, were considered doubly suspect from that point on. In fact, his mother was one of thousands who faced postwar deportation to Japan — and were saved only by the dedication of a small team of lawyers who fought against the order.

After the war, Takei’s family, just like all the other internees who had survived to this point, were simply let go. Their prewar homes were gone. They essentially had nothing, and nowhere to go. Each individual and family was left to fend for themselves.

They Called Us Enemy is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. It effortlessly covers a long and complicated subject with clarity and grace. It is, despite its subject matter, an easy read. And an enlightening one.

We Americans are proud of our heritage. Our democracy and our ideals have been won the hard way, through years of struggle — political, personal and military. But we have often fallen short of — or even, by our own actions, betrayed those ideals. We should not forget those times, any more than we should forget the times when Americans have fought the good fight. Takei’s memoir is a gift to his nation, from a man who remains a grateful American despite what his own country did to him and his family.

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