It’s a peaceful domestic scene on a Sunday in Los Angeles, 1941: 4-year-old George helps his father trim the tree, as carols curl out of the radio. Mother nurses a baby, while another tot plays with a train set. Before “Silent Night” ends, though, the program comes to a jarring halt, with news of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately declares that all Japanese in the United States must register as “alien enemies.” The next day, Dec. 8, America enters World War II.
By the following autumn, as a result of Executive Order 9066 the family will be on a real train, tagged “like cattle” and bound for Fort Rohwer, Ark., the easternmost of the 10 internment camps established by order of President Roosevelt. “I thought everyone took vacations on a train with armed sentries at both ends of each car,” George remembers later. “It was an adventure.”
George’s family, of course, is Japanese-American — his mother born here, his father unable to apply for citizenship despite living in the country for a quarter-century. And George will grow up to be none other than the “Star Trek” actor George Takei, now 82. His new graphic memoir, THEY CALLED US ENEMY (Top Shelf, 204 pp., $19.99), gives a detailed, wrenching account of what happened to thousands of Japanese-Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The experience has been evoked powerfully in works such as Julie Otsuka’s beautifully spare “When the Emperor Was Divine,” John Okada’s “No-No Boy” and Miné Okubo’s “Citizen 13660,” a 1946 memoir in proto-comics form, each page divided between expressive illustration and text. But with its evocation of Takei’s childhood, “They Called Us Enemy” should prove the most potent introduction for younger readers to this ignoble chapter in our history. The book touches on the highlights of Takei’s long career, but it’s movingly clear that his artistic and moral compass was formed by his childhood incarceration in Arkansas, as well as in two camps in California.
Takei is arguably one of the most recognizable Asian-American figures alive. If his role as Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series (which ran for three years in the late ’60s, then in eternal reruns) could feel underwritten, at least he was there — a competent, brave, respected member of the Starship Enterprise, with its mandate to boldly go where no one has gone before. Early in the book, Takei connects this spirit of adventure to the story of those like his parents living in America in the early 20th century, puzzling out how to survive and thrive in a land where they were literally marked as aliens.