Finding the Angel in the Enemy

Take an inside look at one of the NASH English Department’s most impactful reads!

This moving graphic novel tells a tragic story of American history.

"Winter break book #9 - They Called Us Enemy. A timely and necessary read by @georgehtake

This moving graphic novel tells a tragic story of American history.

Ava DiGiacomo, Staff Writer

In Honors English 3, North Allegheny students read the inspiring story of George Takei in the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy. 

The novel encapsulates the trials and tribulations of navigating through America as a Japanese-American in the 1940s, along with the messages and morals Takei gained from his time imprisoned. Most inspiring, we see how Takei took the utmost violation of human rights and used it as an opportunity to spark progress—making sure to continuously act in a way that broke racial stereotypes on and off screen while simultaneously being a catalyst to change. 

Born April 20, 1937, Takei was taken away to an internment camp at the age of five years old due to FDR’s Executive Order #9066. This order followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, authorizing the “relocation” of 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Anyone of Japanese descent was unjustly deemed a threat to national security. 

Nativism in the country increased as well as racist propaganda, which further vilified Japanese-Americans—painting them in a negative light with cartoonish drawings and qualities such as untrustworthiness, further playing into offensive racial stereotypes.  

Takei witnessed horror and disaster throughout his four years in the camp. Abuse towards the detainees was extreme, along with internal conflict that eventually grew as tensions rose between inmates with differing stances on the conflict between Japan and the US. 

Violence was not the only horror of this camp. The Japanese were forced to survive on little to no resources, privacy, and knowledge of the outside world. Takei talks about the men in his camp having to build pathways to avoid walking through swampy land to get to the bathroom. His mother expressed concerns regarding the lack of privacy the families faced as the neighboring families were simply separated by nothing but a thin wall. 

When the United States bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, many Japanese-Americans had no idea about the conditions of their family members in Japan. Distrust of the US government had festered among the detainees, leading them to question what they were hearing.

Takei and fellow Japanese-Americans were forced to make life-altering decisions, such as renouncing their US citizenship in order to save themselves. Renouncing their citizenship meant staying behind the barbed-wire fences, which, given the current attitude towards Japanese-Americans, was actually safer than being free. However, when the war was over, this meant that thousands of Japanese-Americans—many who had been born and raised in the United States—were going to be sent to a country where they had no life to continue. 

Had it not been for lawyer Wayne Collins who defended their case to the Supreme Court, these innocent civilians would have been forced to start over in a somewhat foreign place.  Arguing that they were manipulated into this decision and that their situation was due to the prevailing internment safety conditions, Collins changed the destiny of many scared and unknowing Japanese-Americans.

The lives they knew at home had been completely upended. 

Though the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the horror for Japanese-Americans was far from over. Takei and his family were lost. The reality of going back to Los Angeles was scary. The attitude towards them on the West Coast was significantly worse than anywhere else in the country; however, they had no other place to call home. 

Takei’s father left the family for several months to go back to LA and test the waters for his family’s safety. Ten weeks later, when the Takei family was reunited, they moved to the Alta Hotel on the Los Angeles Skid Row. Takei and his siblings, Henry and Nancy, experienced even more trouble. Surrounded by drunkards and derelicts, the children longed for the place they knew as home—behind the barbed-wire fences and guarded from the rest of civilization. 

As they adjusted to their new life, they moved to a home into a Mexican barrio in East LA. Takei grew up and acquired a more solid understanding of what had happened to him. After-dinner talks with his father further enforced his strong-held views on upholding democracy and political accountability.

George Takei continued to face discrimination in school and found that that brutal chapter of history that hurt so many people like him was barely mentioned in history classes. But he did not let this get him down. In fact, he used it as motivation to further educate himself and the people around him through learning more about his people’s past and sharing his personal stories.

Takei became an active member in American democracy. He found himself at campaign headquarters and protests. Meeting influential figures such Eleanor Roosevelt and MLK Jr were formative experiences in his political involvement.

However, George and his father had very different feelings towards these circumstances. His father held much more resentment towards the US government and the people associated with it. While Eleanor Roosevelt is known for making strides for minority groups, all Takei’s father could think about was the pain her husband had caused his family.

This interesting difference between father and son duo shows the way this tragedy affected different generations. While traumatizing for both, their future endeavors were shaped in very different ways.

Takei’s activism also carried into his artistic success. He started studying theater in college at UCLA.  Fly Blackbird was his first big experience on stage. The musical circled around social and political injustices. The opportunity was life-changing for Takei, as it introduced him to many like-minded people who were rooting for his success.

The most memorable encounter for him was meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King thanked Takei for his contributions. Those words would stay with him for the rest of his life.

George Takei is best known for his role in Star Trek as officer Hikaru Kato Sulu. This role was no doubt a physical manifestation of Takei’s dreams and hard work.  Hollywood had long been a key contributor to the offensive Asian stereotype often found in film. People of Asian descent were portrayed as buffoons, menials, and menaces. Untrustworthiness and deceitfulness were qualities that frequently came paired with these characters.

Officer Sulu was none of these things. He was portrayed as a likable character who was smart, strong-willed, and significant in the story. To Takei, this was the best opportunity he had ever been given. The chance to finally portray his heritage with pride to millions of people was something that had rarely been seen on screen before that time.

Takei continued to use his experience to further educate audiences on a large scale about the Japanese Internment camps. His advocacy continues to bring him to courts, Broadway stages, and even to people’s homes through National Public Radio.

They Called Us Enemy is a timeless book that sheds light on a tragic story of American history and further tells the story of a man who continued to grow and bring change despite severe opposition.