I just got done reading George Takei's graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy recounting his experiences as a child torn from his home in Los Angeles and then thrown into internment camps for the crime of simply being born Japanese.
The tale is moving and provides real insight into the lives of Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII. However, not only does Takei shed light on the experiences of the internment camps, but he gives us a window into the lives of first and second generation Japanese Americans and the role of language in their lives.
The use of Japanglish in the book cements Takei's identity as Japanese, yet the majority of the dialogue in the book reflects the fact that he is indeed a native born, English-speaking, American.
If you're learning Japanese, this book contains hardly enough Japanese to really help you with your overall comprehension, but there are a few moments where you can see the power of graphic novels in learning a new language.
One funny moment during the book occurs when a young Takei is told to say "Sakana Beach" to the guards in order to have his wishes granted. If you don't know any Japanese, you wouldn't realize at first that sakana means fish, but you might be able to hear the resemblance to English swear words. When Takei runs home after the guards began chasing him, his mother says, "Sakana means fish. And beach mean kaigan. No magic. Just Japanese and English all mixed up." Right in that small dialogue bubble, we just learned that sakana means fish and that kaigan means beach. But because it was introduced to us through this story, the vocabulary sticks with us much stronger than had we simply looked it up in the dictionary. The context of the situation provides stronger imagery ingraining that image in our heads.
Takei also gives us understanding of cultural specific words such as benshi, which he explains are people who voiced over silent films. He also covers words more particular to Japanese Americans, than Japanese citizens such as the use of issei, nissei, and sansei which are terms used to indicate what generation of Japanese Americans they are.
What's interesting to note is that the Japanese used in They Called Us Enemy varies between both kanji and romanization. For example in one scene, they show an actual business with both the English and Japanese writing on the window. "Hollywood Nihongo Gakuin" or "ホリウッド日本語学院." The English writing was actually just romanization of the Japanese wording, allowing the reader to read the kanji without actually understanding. However, there are times where no explanation is given whatsoever either through context or a footnote such as the time they were told to exit the train cars and an older lady says, "あの人達、降りろってよ。" The fact that the proper reading or the meaning was not explicitly given in this situation almost helps convey the meaning of the situation better than had they written it in English or in romanized Japanese. The Japanese used in this instance highlights the confusion and fear Japanese Americans likely felt as they were told to exit the trains, entering into the unknown. For Japanese Americans who did not understand English, I'm sure the situation was exacerbated. But for a reader who doesn't understand Japanese, they'd likely have some uncertainty and confusion as to the meaning of that phrase despite the fact that the phrase does not need to be fully understood to comprehend the larger message.
George Takei's They Called Us Enemy will not teach you Japanese, but it's definitely worth the read. English Language Learners will also benefit from the graphics that accompany the text, increasing the amount of comprehensible input. However, even if this book won't teach you Japanese, it's undeniable that language is inseparable from the culture that molds it and is molded by it. And through They Called Us Enemy, we can see the powerful role that language can play as a part of our identity.