George Takei at the Japanese American National Museum’s exhibition “Instructions To All Persons: … [+]
George Takei’s new book details his California family’s imprisonment in camps guarded by U.S. soldiers during World War II. The U.S. government did not accuse the five-year-old Takei or his baby brother and sister – or even his parents – of espionage or any other crime. Instead, the Takei family, along with approximately 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were placed in camps solely because of their Japanese ethnicity.
The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II violated civil and human rights on a mass scale. Some individuals who suffered through the internment are still alive to share their experiences.
Famous Star Trek actor, Broadway star and commentator George Takei has written a graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, published by Top Shelf Productions, that tells his family’s story. The book features illustrations and dialogue that provide historical context in a highly accessible way.
The story begins as five-year-old George Takei hears soldiers bang on the front door of his house and order his family to leave. His father provided no explanation but told George to dress quickly. He looked at his mother and saw tears rolled down her cheek. “I will never be able to forget that scene,” he writes.
Norman Takei, George’s father, was an immigrant. He was born in Japan but came to the United States in his teens and went to school in California. George’s mother, Fumiko Emily Takei, was born in California but attended school in Japan. In carrying out the internment policy, the U.S. government made no distinction between immigrants and native-born Americans. It only mattered if the individual was of Japanese ethnicity.
George’s father and mother, Norman and Fumiko, owned a thriving dry-cleaning business in Los Angeles, California. They lost the business and when soldiers came to their home, they also lost their freedom.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the long history of anti-Asian legislation – the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the country’s first major restriction on legal immigration – sealed the fate of Japanese Americans. After the attack, influential columnist Walter Lippmann warned, without any evidence, that everyone of Japanese descent living in America was a possible spy. Lippmann wrote, “The Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without.”
In February and March 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued two executive orders. The first, Executive Order 9066, gave federal authorities the power to remove Japanese Americans from their homes and place them in federal internment camps. The second executive order (9102) established the War Relocation Authority “to formulate and effectuate a program for the removal . . . of the persons or classes of persons designated.”
Approximately 70% of the more than 120,000 individuals interned in camps during World War II were U.S. citizens, born in America, and more would have been citizens if not for immigration laws restricting the naturalization of Asians (as discussed here). Moreover, the policy served no military purpose. It harmed the war effort by reducing available manpower and diverting military resources. “There was not a single American of Japanese descent, alien or citizen, charged with espionage or sabotage during the war,” writes Richard Reeves, author of Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II.
Gen. John DeWitt, Col. Karl Bendetsen and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy drafted the executive orders, insisting to Roosevelt the orders were necessary for the war effort. In his 1944 Who’s Who in America entry, Col. Bendetsen, said he “conceived the method, formulated the details, and directed the evacuation of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from military areas.” The problem with the term “military areas” is the U.S. government defined it as the West Coast of the United States.
Gen. DeWitt and Col. Bendetsen respected no limits on the scope of the order. “Deeming them all to be potential traitors, Bendetsen wanted all American Japanese removed from western states,” writes Reeves. That included elderly men and women in hospitals, children in orphanages and infants adopted by white parents. Bendetsen told a priest who ran an orphanage in Los Angeles: “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to a camp.” How an infant could spy for Japan was never explained.
After being removed from their homes, the Takei family and other Japanese Americans in their area were housed in the stables of Santa Anita racetrack, where the smell of manure remained fragrant in the air. “For my parents, it was a devastating blow,” writes George Takei. “They had worked so hard to buy a two-bedroom house and raise a family in Los Angeles . . . Now we were crammed into a single, smelly horse stall. It was a degrading, humiliating, painful experience.”
After several months, the family was ordered to gather their things. “We were loaded onto trains headed east, but not before being ‘tagged’ to keep track of us like cattle,” writes Takei. “To my parents it was yet another dehumanizing act.”
The family arrived at Camp Rohwer in Arkansas. At its peak, the camp housed as many as 8,500 Japanese Americans, according to Takei. Soldiers patrolled the camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire. (Photos of internment camps taken by Dorothea Lange that were seized by the government during the war and not public until 2006 can be found here.)
George’s parents did their best to keep up the children’s spirits. His mother smuggled a sewing machine in her luggage to make clothes for the children as they grew older, a recognition the family knew government detention could be indefinite. George’s father took on a leadership role – a block manager – to help families acclimate and to be a liaison with camp authorities. That role carried some risk.
The demographics of the camp were remarkable: “There were people from many different communities up and down California and a few from Hawaii,” writes Takei. “There were Issei (first-generation), who had come to America from Japan. Nisei (second-generation), who were born in this country. And even Sansei (third-generation), the children of Nisei parents. There were fishermen and farmers, shopkeepers and professionals. We were so diverse. All so different. And yet we were the same. We were all Japanese Americans and we were all in Block 6 at Camp Rohwer. That was our common denominator.”
In January 1943, George woke up to the sound of his mother crying. The U.S. government had formulated a new policy to “test” the loyalty of Japanese Americans. Takei explains that two questions became “infamous.” Question number 27 asked: “Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?” Question number 28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any foreign government, power or organization?”
George’s parents answered “no” to both questions. He explains their reasoning: “Question 27 wanted us to pledge our lives for a country that had upended our families and put us behind barbed wire fences. Question 28 rested on a false premise: That we all had a racial allegiance to the emperor of Japan. To answer ‘yes’ would be to agree that we all had such a loyalty to give up. Yes or no, either response to be used to justify our wrongful imprisonment as if they’d been right to call us ‘enemy aliens’ and lock us up in the first place.”
Takei writes about the bravery of the Japanese Americans who served in the 442nd Battalion, which suffered over 800 casualties during World War II. President Bill Clinton later said at a ceremony honoring the surviving members of the battalion: “Rarely has a nation been so well-served by a people it has so ill-treated.”
Other young men refused to fight so long as their families remained imprisoned in camps. “I am willing to fight, but I will only fight as an American,” said one man. “If I can sign up at my hometown draft board like any American with my family free, I will gladly go. But I will not leave my family locked up behind barbed wire fences to go put on the same uniform as the sentries in those towers.”
On its face, the federal government’s policy was illogical, even ludicrous. On the one hand, young men who were allegedly security threats because of their ethnicity were trusted to take part in important military operations. On the other hand, the wives and children of these young men would remain locked up, even though they could not conceivably cause harm inside the United States. It’s an example of how policies based on prejudice make no sense once scrutinized.
Because of the “no” answers on the survey, federal authorities sent George Takei’s family to Camp Tule Lake, which was surrounded by three layers of barbed wire, machine-gun towers and tanks.
In July 1944, with the end of the war potentially in sight, Congress ratcheted up the pressure and passed a law designed to force many Japanese Americans out of the country. The bill gave Japanese Americans the “opportunity” to renounce their citizenship.
The new law created a great deal of confusion. Families were uncertain how best to stay together. Mothers and fathers did not know when the camps would be closed and whether their safety would be guaranteed once released.
George Takei writes that his mother miscalculated based on her limited knowledge of the political situation. She assumed if many people renounced their citizenship, then it would be impossible for the federal government to remove them. This assumption was incorrect. As a result, George’s mother and thousands like her could be sent back to war-torn Japan.
To prevent Japanese Americans from being forced out of the country, a San Francisco attorney named Wayne Collins sued the federal government. He argued, “Renunciation was not the product of free will but forced upon them by the unlawful detention and the conditions prevailing at the Tule Lake Center for which the government alone was responsible.”
Collins, who worked for the San Francisco branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, won the right for George Takei’s mother and nearly 1,000 others in her situation to receive “mitigation hearings” that could prevent deportation to Japan.
Takei reports the boat was scheduled to leave with his mother only two days before the court ruled. “Wayne Collins saved us in the nick of time.” After several years, George’s mother’s citizenship was restored.
The internment took a heavy toll on all those who lived through it. “Years later, the trauma of those experiences continued to haunt me,” writes Takei. Adults, like George’s father, “were anguished by their memories and haunted by shame for something that wasn’t their fault.”
George Takei went on to a successful career as an actor and writer, breaking new ground for Asian Americans. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to provide a restitution payment to Japanese Americans detained during the war.
Reagan said, “What is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit wrong: Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Unfortunately, George Takei’s immigrant father did not live to see the government apologize for its actions. “That makes an amazing statement about this country. It took a while but it did apologize. That apology came too late for my father,” writes Takei. “He passed in 1979, never to know that this government would admit wrongdoing.”