George Takei sheds light on a dark chapter of American and Canadian history
Originally published on September 9, 2019
George Takei is the actor and activist best known for working alongside William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy on the U.S.S. Enterprise as Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series.
But more recently, Takei's experience as a child living through Japanese internment has become a bigger part of his work, and he's reflecting on his experiences through illustrations as well as on-screen.
Takei is releasing a new graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, an illustrated account of his experiences growing up in camps where Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians were interned by their governments in World War II.
As an actor and consultant, Takei is also working on the new TV series called The Terror: Infamy that's set in the Japanese-American internment camps.
In a conversation with q host Tom Power, Takei opens up about living through the Japanese-American internment, launching his acting and activism career, and writing his graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy.
Here is a part of that conversation.
On being sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas at the age of five
My parents got me up very early that morning, together with my brother and my baby sister. My brother and I were told to wait in the living room while our parents did some last-minute packing in the bedrooms. My brother and I were gazing out the front window when suddenly we saw two soldiers marching up the driveway. They were carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on them. They stomped up the front porch and with their fists began pounding on the door. It was a terrifying sound. I still remember it as almost making the house tremble. My father came rushing out of the bedroom and answered the door. Literally at gunpoint we were ordered out of our home. My father gave my brother and me little packages to carry and he hefted two heavy-looking suitcases. We followed him out onto the driveway and stood there waiting for mother to come out. When she finally emerged, she had our baby sister in one arm and two huge duffel bags in the other. Tears were streaming down her cheek. That is a morning that I'll never be able to forget.
On exploring the right to equality as a teenager
As a teenager, I became very curious about my childhood imprisonment because I was an innocent child. I was taught the pledge of allegiance to the flag. In the camp, I could see barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window. As I recited the words "with liberty and justice for all" totally innocent of the stinging irony behind those words. But as a teenager, I started reading civics books and learning about the noble ideals of our democracy. All men are created equal - equal justice under the law. This is a nation ruled by laws. I couldn't reconcile that with what I knew to be the reality of my childhood. So I had many after-dinner discussions with my father. He was the only person that I could go to for information. History books had nothing about the internment back then in the '50s. My father told me that our democracy is the people's democracy, but that people's democracy is existentially dependent on people who cherish those ideals and actively participate and engage in a participatory democracy because people are also fallible human beings and mistakes are made.
On being in the original LA cast of Fly Blackbird in 1961 and meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I was a member of the cast civil rights musical of young college students campaigning for equality for African-Americans. We were invited to almost every civil rights rally in the LA County. During that time, the show was a big hit. The biggest rally of them all was held at the Los Angeles sports arena. It held thousands of people. The keynote speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was such an incredible thrill to march into the LA sports arena together with Dr. King. We sang our hearts out and then Dr. King spoke and his words just thrilled us all and transported us to another place. His eloquence had our spirits soaring. Then, the most unexpected and biggest thrill of all - the members of the Blackbird cast were invited to go downstairs to Dr. King's dressing room and meet him. Each one of us had the opportunity to shake his hand and briefly chat with him and that hand of mine that shook his hand didn't get washed for about three days after that.
On using entertainment as a means of inspiration and escape
In the internment camps, we got to see old Hollywood movies after dinner in the mess hall. The tables were dragged away and the benches were lined up and we all sat there looking at the bed sheet that was put up. They screened movies like Charles Laughton as The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Betty Davis, who suffered a lot and cried a lot. These movies transported me beyond the barbed wire fence. It was an escape.
On working with the creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry and the importance of the show
He was a visionary. He envisioned the 23rd-century as one where we are much more enlightened. That huge, vast starship called the Starship Enterprise was really a metaphor for starship Earth. He said that the diversity of that starship Earth was its strength and the power came from that diversity coming together and working in concert as a team. So on the bridge of the enterprise, the Captain represented North America. Europe was represented by a Scottish engineer. The chief communications officer was an African woman and my character was to represent all of Asia. So here we were all working in concert. In the '60s was probably the coldest point in the Cold War. We had a trusted member of the leadership team, Chekov, a Russian and spoke with an anachronistic, heavy Russian accent. That's the future that he envisioned. It was a very optimistic and a very positive view of the human future. I'm proud to be associated with that.
On working on the set of a reconstructed internment camp for his new TV series The Terror: Infamy
It was very compellingly real and my real memories of the camp are those of when I was five to eight years old. So when I saw the barbed wire internment camps set and we were rebuilding the camps on six and a half acres of land. It was done with great research and very authentically. When I saw the crawl space beneath the barracks, it reminded me of the stray dog that we adopted — a black dog that we named Blackie. Whenever there was something frightening or some terrorising event happened, Blackie would crawl under the barrack into the crawl space area. My nostalgia on seeing the internment camp was more of my childhood memories. My adult understanding of the camp is what I acquired after our incarceration. It was a strange mixture of the fond memories I had that are very real and also my understanding of what those buildings meant.
On how he feels about what's going on right now on the U.S.-Mexico border
I certainly see the parallel because it's the same kind of hysteria that put us into those prison camps. We were characterised as potential spies, saboteurs and fifth columnists. Now the stereotypes that are pasted onto the people fleeing violence and poverty on our southern borders, these people are characterised as drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. It's that kind of hysteria that brings about this kind of cruel injustice. Now we are reaching a new, grotesque low because as children we were always intact with our parents. What's happening now on the southern border is young children are being torn away from their parents. This is a horrible new low, emanating from the same kind of wild hysteria and cruelty.
On why he wanted They Called Us Enemy to be a book of hope
I call this book "the book of hope" because the target audience is preteens, teenagers and young adult readers. When I was reading comic books, I just absorbed in everything that I read. It became part of me — it was in my body. If these young people are going to be reading They Called Us Enemy grow up with the knowledge of this chapter of American history, they are going to become the voters of tomorrow. They're going to become the movers and shakers of tomorrow. They will act in a wholly different way from how young people reacted when we were incarcerated and hopefully more enlightened. That hope is of a better and truer people's democracy in the future.
George Takei's new graphic novel is called They Called Us Enemy. His upcoming TV series is called The Terror: Infamy.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with George Takei, click 'Listen' near the top of this page.
Edited by Enrica Ammaturo. Interview produced by Ben Edwards.
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