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George Takei on challenging the ‘mindless inhumanity’ of U.S. history’s darker chapters

"Star Trek" actor, civil rights activist and social media maven George Takei has now written a graphic novel, "They Called Us Enemy," about the trauma of his family's being rounded up by the U.S. government and sent to internment camps during World War II. Takei talks to William Brangham about why his story still resonates today.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight: Long before George Takei made his name in the TV show "Star Trek," and later became a popular civil rights activist, he and his family were rounded up by the U.S. government during World War II and put in Japanese internment camps.

    As William Brangham learned, Takei's recent graphic novel connects the way some view immigrants today with how his family and over 100,000 others were treated nearly 80 years ago.

    Their conversation starts, just as the book does, on the day Takei's family was taken away.

    It's part of our regular arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

  • George Takei:

    We were at the front window just gazing out, and, suddenly, we saw two soldiers marching up the driveway, carrying rifles with shiny bayonets.

    They stomped up the front porch, and with their fists began pounding on the door. And, that, I can't forget.

  • William Brangham:

    Really?

  • George Takei:

    My father came out, answered the door. And we were ordered to leave the house.

    They were questioning my mother. And when she came out, she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other. Tears were streaming down her face. That was, to us, shocking and absolutely scary.

  • Narrator:

    The beginning of America's war with Japan opened very badly for America's Navy.

  • William Brangham:

    It was 1941. The U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by the Japanese. And now American soldiers were coming for George Takei's family at their home in Los Angeles.

    Fearing that people of Japanese ancestry were potential spies or saboteurs, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and more than 100,000 people across the West Coast were rounded up.

    Can you help us understand why you think America reacted the way it did? I mean, Pearl Harbor was an absolute tragedy and a surprise brutal attack.

  • George Takei:

    Prior to Pearl Harbor, in the media, the characterization of all Asians, we were either buffoons or silent, passive servants, or cruel, evil villains.

    And so that stereotype was turned against us. We were Americans, but we looked like the enemy.

  • William Brangham:

    The world first got to know George Takei when he played Hikaru Sulu on the hugely popular TV show "Star Trek."

  • George Takei:

    Completing the seeding orbit, Captain.

  • William Brangham:

    Forty years later, "Trek" fans still mob him at sci-fi and comic book conventions.

    Takei has also become an influential civil rights and LGBTQ rights activist. But, for years, he's also been telling the story of his family's internment during World War II, in a memoir, on Broadway.

  • Actor:

    They're treating us like animals.

  • William Brangham:

    And now in a new graphic novel titled "They Called Us Enemy."

  • George Takei:

    There have been documentaries now, there have been other books written, and yet to this day there are people that don't know and are astounded when I share this story with them.

  • William Brangham:

    Back in 1941, young George and his family were forced to leave their homes with only the bags they could carry. People lost their homes, their cars, their businesses, either sold in desperation or stolen outright.

  • George Takei:

    There just wasn't time to sell everything. My father sold his car, a Pontiac, dark green Pontiac, for $5.

  • William Brangham:

    Five dollars?

  • George Takei:

    It was better than just leaving it there. People lost everything, things that they couldn't sell abandoned and raided by those vultures.

  • William Brangham:

    Throughout the book, Takei contrasts his parents' anguish about their treatment with his more childlike view, like when they were initially detained at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles.

  • George Takei:

    Later on, I remember my mother saying it was the most degrading, humiliating thing to take their children into this horse stall with the pungent smell of horse manure.

    But to 5-year-old me, I thought it was fun to sleep where the horseys sleep.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • George Takei:

    I can smell the horseys, you know? So two different reactions on the same event.

  • William Brangham:

    Takei and his family were later sent to live behind barbed wire in a camp in rural Arkansas, one of the 10 permanent camps spread across the U.S.

    They weren't hurt or interrogated, but, in some camps, especially when the government tried to get people to sign notorious loyalty oaths, protests were met with violent pushback.

    Takei and his family were kept imprisoned for nearly four years. When the war ended, the camps were closed, and everyone was let go. Takei and his family went back to Southern California penniless. They had to start over again.

    You have been telling this story for years, on stage, in memoirs, in speeches, on commissions, now in this graphic novel. Why is this — why do you keep wanting to tell this story?

  • George Takei:

    Because, today, we are living through another cycle of this story of mindless inhumanity.

    Latinos coming from Central America and Mexico, desperate people fleeing violence and poverty, now children, infants are being torn away from them and put into filthy cages with poor hygiene, human waste, and poor diet.

    This kind of repetition of the same sort of thing that we went through 75 years ago is being repeated. And with this book, I hope that young people are getting this information at that point, and they grow up with it, so by the time they're adults, they are going to be a different breed of Americans, aware of the history of this country.

    We have plenty of glorious chapters. Some of the darker chapters are the lessons that we really need to learn.

  • William Brangham:

    The book is "They Called Us Enemy."

    George Takei, thank you very, very much.

  • George Takei:

    Thank you for allowing me to share.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has to be such a powerful story.

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