Actor George Takei has told the story of his childhood incarceration in an autobiography, a TED talk and a Broadway musical. With his new graphic memoir, “They Called Us Enemy,” he hopes to reach a generation that may know little of how 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up during World War II and imprisoned for years in internment camps.
Takei, a cultural icon forever associated with his role as Mr. Sulu on the original “Star Trek” TV series, said he “grew up on comic books” and remembers the enormous impression they had on him.
“Perhaps by going the graphic memoir route, the comic strip route, we can reach the young people at a point in life when they are sucking in information,” says Takei, who joins the Los Angeles Times Book Club on Sept. 10.
“They Called Us Enemy” vividly details the twists and turns of the family’s nearly four years behind barbed wire. The bestselling book also has plenty to offer adult readers who may have only a vague understanding of the nightmarish odyssey endured by ethnic Japanese residents of California and other West Coast states.
Takei’s journey began in 1942, shortly after his fifth birthday, when bayonet-toting soldiers banged on the door of his family’s Boyle Heights home and swiftly took him away, along with his parents, his two younger siblings and the few belongings they could carry. They spent their first few months of captivity in the hastily cleared horse stalls of the Santa Anita Race Track, still redolent with the smell of manure.
After a few months at Santa Anita, the family was sent by train to the Rohwer relocation camp in rural Arkansas. Takei remembers Arkansas as a “fantastical, magical” new landscape where trees grew out of swamps and he saw his first snowfall. But the illustrated book exposes the humiliation and financial hardship suffered by his parents as they struggled to adjust to their new lives and survive intact as a family.
“There are two parallel stories,” Takei says. “I wanted to capture the reality of this strange new world that I was transported to, but at the same time how my parents felt and the anguish that they were going through.”
In 1944, the family was moved to the high-security Tule Lake Segregation Center in remote Northern California after Takei’s parents were declared so-called disloyals for refusing to answer two notorious questions in the affirmative.
Almost 75 years later, Takei is still angry about it. “Think of that: the arrogance of demanding loyalty when they have, first of all, impoverished you, and then imprisoned you, and now, because it fits their need and convenience.”
Takei expresses disbelief at how government bureaucrats mangled the questionnaire that landed him and his family in a prison camp surrounded by three rings of barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by tanks.
He specifically cites Question 28, which was worded in an ambiguous way that forced Japanese Americans to either admit they had been loyal to the emperor of Japan or be labeled as “disloyals.” “It was an outrageous and ignorant question,” Takei says. “They obviously didn’t know the English language.”
Takei is an optimist who sees progress since those wartime years when there was little resistance to President Franklin Roosevelt’s order to lock away thousands of Japanese American citizens and legal residents. It was a punishment that did not apply to residents of Hawaii, where they were crucial to the economy. Nor did it apply to citizens of German or Italian origin, “because they looked like the rest of America,” Takei says.
But while he is heartened by progress toward racial equality, Takei is outraged by the current treatment of asylum seekers at the southern border, and particularly by the separation of families and children. “It’s a new low,” he says, noting that during his years of incarceration, “we were always intact as a family.”
“Now, their children are torn away from them as examples, so that other desperate people won’t follow in their footsteps,” he says. “This is beyond wartime hysteria. This is intentional evil.”
Such views will not be surprising to Takei’s millions of fans on social media, where he expresses his opinions daily and sometimes hourly. At 82, he is a savvy mogul of digital media, with 2.9 million Twitter followers, 10 million Facebook followers and his Oh Myyy network of digital properties, which offers a mix of news, politics and videos.
Takei marvels at how smartphones have put instant communication at our fingertips, far surpassing the future imagined by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry half a century ago. “Then, we had this amazing device that we wore on our hip, and whenever you needed to talk to someone we would just rip it off, flip it open and start talking. That very fact was the amazing thing that astounded people. And now we think of all the things we do with that device. We don’t even flip it open anymore.”
This summer, Takei has been busy promoting not only the book but also his new TV series, “The Terror: Infamy” on AMC, for which producers built a scaled-down replica of the Manzanar internment camp in Central California. Takei plays an elder in the Japanese American fishing village at Terminal Island, which was wiped away by the internment order after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Takei has been crisscrossing the country between the homes he shares with his husband, Brad, in Hancock Park and New York City, and is making plans to travel to England for a lecture at Cambridge University.
It’s all part of his mission, he says, to boldly create a world that will be “a much more enlightened one than the one we are now tolerating,” and will adhere to “the fundamental, noble ideas of our democratic system.”
Book Club: If You Go
The Los Angeles Times Book Club welcomes author George Takei
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10
Where: The Montalbán Theater, 1615 Vine St., Los Angeles.
Ticket info: latimes.com/bookclub
George Takei at a glance
Born: April 20, 1937, in Los Angeles
Education: After graduating from Los Angeles High School, he attended UC Berkeley, then transferred to UCLA, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater arts.
Career: Best known for his role as Starfleet officer Hikaru Sulu in the original “Star Trek” TV series and first six “Star Trek” movies. Currently plays Yamato-san, a community elder in the fishing village of Terminal Island in the AMC series “The Terror: Infamy.” Also starred in the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” based in part on his experiences in the internment camps.
Books: “To the Stars” (1994), an autobiography, and “They Called Us Enemy” (2019), a graphic memoir written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker. Also has written two books about social media, “Oh Myyy! There Goes the Internet,” and “Lions and Tigers and Bears: The Internet Strikes Back.”
Activism: Ran for Los Angeles City Council in the 1970s and briefly for State Assembly in 1980. More recently has become known as an activist for gay rights and other social justice causes. Chairman emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum, former chair of East West Players.
Honors: Received a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. Asteroid 7307 Takei named in his honor.
Social: @GeorgeTakei on Twitter.