The Actor and Activist

“I began school in the Arkansas camp, and the first thing the teacher taught us was the Pledge of Allegiance. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my window as I recited ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ too young to feel the stinging irony in those words.” —George Takei, Actor

Asian American actor George Takei is famous for his starring role on the TV series Star Trek.  But as a child, he was wrenched from his home with his family and wrongfully imprisoned in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. Takei discusses what being American means to him and what gives him hope for the future. Part 4 of our 5-part series be/longing: Asian Americans Now.


Episode 4: The Actor and Activist  

George Takei: On February 19th, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, approximately 120,000 of us, to be summarily rounded up and imprisoned in ten barbed wire prison camps with no charge, no trial, no due process. Overnight, after Roosevelt declared war on Japan, neighbors, total strangers, would yell at my parents, spit at them. It was horrible. In California, we had an attorney general named Earl Warren. He had his eyes on the governor’s seat and he needed a strong, hot issue to run on. He made a statement: the Japanese are inscrutable. You can’t tell what they’re thinking. So, it would be prudent for us to lock them up before they do anything. Lock them up BEFORE they do anything. The absence of evidence was the evidence for this attorney general. And then he went on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. And he never owned up to that stained history.  

We were put on a truck with many other Japanese-American families and their luggage, driven out to Santa Anita racetrack, and each family was assigned a horse stall to sleep in. Then it was announced that we’re going to be moving again. I began school in the Arkansas camp, Rohwer. And the first thing the teacher taught us was the Pledge of Allegiance. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my school’s window, as I recited “with liberty and justice for all,” too young to feel the stinging irony in those words.   

My personal mission in life is to raise the awareness. Because I’m an American, I want the United States to live up to the noble ideals of our democracy. Immigration from Asia began in the early part of the 19th century. But unlike all the other immigrants coming to the United States, only immigrants coming from Asia were denied naturalized citizenship. So from the very moment that they stepped onto the soil of the United States, there was discrimination.  

Takei speaking at event: They kept coming. Working hard. Working.  

George Takei: I’m not immune. All of America doesn’t know who Sulu is. I have encountered overt, intentional racism directed at me. And that’s why I do what I do. I’ve written books on the internment story because it’s a chapter of American history that is still little known. With “They Called Us Enemy,” I wanted to reach teenagers. I remember when I was a teenager, I loved comic books. At that age, people absorb that information and it remains with them throughout life.  

Graphic: In 2015, “Allegiance,” which was inspired by George Takei’s story, became the first Broadway musical written and directed by Asian Americans, and featuring a primarily Asian American cast.  

George Takei: “Allegiance” is another way of trying to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history. So we wanted to present a Japanese-American family; and what happened to that family as a result of the Second World War.  

And it’s a musical. And when we were developing it, some of my friends thought it was a strange way to talk about the internment, which was a horrific experience for us. But the great blessing I had was my father. He said that resilience isn’t just teeth gritting, muscle flexing strength. It’s also having the capacity to see beauty under harsh circumstances and to create your own happiness and joy in those circumstances.  

Our educational system needs to incorporate more of the details of American history. These chapters of the failure, the breakdown of our democracy.  

I was very lucky in meeting this man named Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek. He said, “I’m going to put this story in the 23rd century. It’ll take place on the Starship Enterprise. But that’s a metaphor for Starship Earth.” And the strength of this starship was in its diversity.  

We are making progress. That’s why I’m an optimist. We need the diversity of Asians to be all over, active participants in our system; and for young people to be able to see people that look like themselves on television, on the Broadway stage, as scientists throughout American society. That is going to bring about that society that we look forward to. 

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