George Takei, an actor, author and human-rights activist but better known as Hikaru Sulu from the original Star Trek TV series, recently published a graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, that documents his experience in US concentration camps during World War II.
“I know what concentration camps are,” Takei tweeted to his nearly 3 million followers. “I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again,” he added in reference to immigration detention facilities along the US-Mexico border.
While a little boy in World War II, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Takei and his family were among 120,000 Japanese-Americans kept in prisons. In 1942, at the order of president Franklin D Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the US west coast was declared an “enemy alien,” rounded up, and shipped to one of 10 “relocation centers” throughout the country.
These became known as “Japanese internment camps” – a term Takei believes is a misnomer that suggests Japan had run the camps, or that the US government held exclusively Japanese people and not Japanese-Americans like himself.
In an interview with TV talk-show host Seth Meyers, Takei clarified why he rejects the term. “Well, ‘Japanese internment camps’ … will lead you to think they were run by the Japanese government. We were American citizens of Japanese ancestry ordered by the president of the United States to be imprisoned in the United States.” Takei underscored that in effect, “They were American concentration camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry.”
Co-written with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker, They Called Us Enemy is thus Takei’s first-hand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his father’s unswerving faith in democracy, and the way those experiences shaped his views and his future.
The book is a testament to what stoked-up fear and government-sanctioned racism looks like within America, and raises the questions: What does it mean to be American? Who gets to decide? What can one person do when the world is against you?
In today’s divisive political climate, nativism and increasing discrimination against Americans of Hispanic and Chinese ancestry, Takei challenges Americans to look at how past humanitarian injustices speak to current political debates, and serve as a cautionary tale for the future.
Indeed, while the history of slavery and racism against Americans of African ancestry is widely known, what is perhaps little known is that decades before the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese labor immigrants for 10 years, and prevented granting citizenship to Chinese living in the US.
The act was a turning point in US relations with Asian immigrants and their descendants, and was in effect an example of government-mandated racism.
During the 19th century, Chinese immigration to the US was a result of European and American colonialism in Asia on the one hand, and a response to labor demands on the other. Because of increasing political instability and lack of opportunities in China, Chinese laborers began to arrive in large numbers in the US as both voluntary and coerced laborers – in a way similar to Syrian refugees currently leaving their homes from failed Western regime-change wars and arriving in large numbers in Europe.
The Chinese immigrants worked on the trans-Pacific railroad, dug for gold in California, and worked on sugar plantations in the south as cheap labor after the Civil War – when there was an additional incentive to replace African slaves on plantations. However, the growing number of Chinese and “otherness” stoked nativist anger, culminating in passing the Exclusion Act in 1882.
Now, creating “otherness” of the Chinese is manifested in a new Red Scare washing over Silicon Valley. Bloomberg reporter Shelly Banjo just last week observed the worrying factor of “how much China-bashing I found bordered on racism, causing the US to create this sense of other and retreat deeper inward.”
Likewise, seasoned China veterans in the US – those who have spent decades pursuing diplomacy with China – fear their approach could face extinction, according to a Politico article. They are wary about the rise of a younger foreign-policy generation that, never having experienced the impoverished, isolated country that was once China, are taking a hardline stance that could unravel decades of relationship-building and raise the risk of a military confrontation.
Douglas Paal, who was once the de facto US ambassador to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan, told Politico, “People … tend to focus on the last 10 years but forget the last 40,” in reference to the hardliners.
Now, with a new Red Scare over China and Chinese-Americans caught in the crossfire, as well as Hispanic Americans being scapegoated for domestic economic woes, one ponders if Takei’s book may provide a timely reminder not to repeat history’s mistakes.