To an older generation, George Takei is likely best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the TV show Star Trek and the many movies spun off from it. To a younger generation, Takei is arguably better known for his wide-reaching social media presence. More than ten million people have liked his Facebook page, and he boasts more than 2.5 million Twitter followers.
Less known is that Takei was a prisoner in Japanese internment camps during World War II. He’s documented his experiences in numerous ways, most recognizably in his memoir To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, the documentary To Be Takei, and in Allegiance, a musical he starred in that was inspired by his experiences.
Takei will be speaking tomorrow at Alphawood Gallery in conjunction with “Then They Came for Me,” a free exhibit about the Japanese internment during World War II and its aftermath. I spoke with him last week by phone to discuss his experiences, what visitors might expect from his appearance, and his thoughts about a certain politician.
Tal Rosenberg: How did you hear about “Then They Came for Me”?
George Takei: They initially invited me to participate at their opening. Unfortunately, I had a conflicting engagement so I had to pass on it, and I regretted it and thought that was it.
But then the invitation came again when I was open, so I happily, gladly accepted it. It’s a program that’s very impressive. The exhibit itself includes photos by two distinguished photographers, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. But the thing about that is they were hired by the War Relocation Authority, by the government, and they were given restrictions: they could photograph us, but they could not photograph the barbed-wire fence and the sentry tower. And what defines that incarceration of Japanese-Americans unjustly during the second World War is that: the barbed wire fence and the sentry towers.
To witness the barbed wire and the control towers communicates a different effect than the photographs that they were able to take?
Correct. That communicates the brutality and the evil in taking innocent people and putting them behind barbed-wire fences and guarding them from high guard towers with machine guns pointed at us. The faces of the internees are moving and touching, but it doesn’t make that statement about the internment. But what you see included in the exhibit are photos taken by Tōyō Miyatake, who was a practicing professional photographer. In fact, he used to take photos of my family here in Los Angeles. But we were forbidden to bring in cameras. What he did was he smuggled in lenses wrapped in his underwear and constructed out of scrap wood left over from the building of the barracks and made his own camera. He photographed that experience as someone incarcerated, and so he captured the barbed-wire fence. In fact, one of the iconic photos is of three preteen boys behind the barbed-wire fence looking out, and it’s such a powerfully moving and powerfully defining photo of that experience. [The exhibit also includes] paintings by artists who painted the incarceration experience. So it is quite complete: of white people looking in on us, as well as the Japanese-Americans incarcerated looking out. That is inspiring.
There’s a whole section of “Then They Came for Me” about Japanese life in Chicago, how Japanese-American citizens adjusted after World War II and also how they shaped aspects of the city, the imprint Japanese-Americans made on the city of Chicago itself. From your experiences following the internment camps, what was the adjustment like for you and your family after World War II?
My parents decided to go back to Los Angeles, despite everything, and it was not a welcoming place. The hostility was still intense. Housing was impossible. Finding a job was even more impossible. Our first home was on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. To us, the kids, we’d been in the camp for the four years . . . but coming out was sheer, unbelievable, crazy chaos. Sirens wailing day and night and, at night, a red light flashing all the time. It was crowded with scary, smelly, ugly people leaning on walls, sprawled on the sidewalks, staggering around the sidewalk. And the stench of human urine on the sidewalk and in the hallways and in the alley—it was horrible.
Once a derelict came staggering toward us and then collapsed and barfed onto the curb. My baby sister shrieked, “Mama! Let’s go back home,” meaning not that flophouse hotel. She meant behind the barbed-wire fences because that was home. She was an infant when we went in, and all her life—four years of her life—was spent behind barbed wires, and it was certainly, to her, more manageable than Skid Row.
What can visitors expect from your appearance?
I personalize that story. I was a child, and I grew up in two of those camps. The first one was in southeastern Arkansas, a camp called Rohwer. And we were transferred from there after a year and a half into another camp in northern California, right by the Oregon border. So I talk about that experience, and I was a child then, so I talk about my real memories of those two camps, but I also talk about my teenage days when I tried to find out the true story behind my childhood imprisonment.
And I remember reading through voluminous history books and civics books and finding nothing about it. So I engaged my father in after-dinner conversations, and that’s where I learned about the internment.
And I learned also about American democracy. He was the one who taught me about it, the one who suffered the most, who felt the pain and the humiliation and the outrage most and, yet, he was able to tell me about our American democracy. That it is a peoples’ democracy with glorious aspects to it. The people are capable of great things but people are also fallible human beings.
And he told me about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who signed the executive order on February 19, 1942, a date that we remember and observe to this day. We call that the Day of Remembrance, the day he signed the executive order 9066 that incarcerated us.
He told me that he was a great man. He pulled this country out of the Depression. So that same man is capable of great things as well as the horror that he inflicted on a small group of Americans who happened to look different. Because we were at war with Germany and Italy as well, but Italian-Americans and German-Americans were not imprisoned, thank God, but they looked like the rest of America. We looked different. In fact, we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.
So it was a racist and hysterical act on the part of the government and certainly the president of the United States at that time. Seventy-five years later another person . . . I hate to give him that title.
Donald Trump signed another executive order that had behind it the same kind of evil and bigotry and stupidity to characterize all Muslims coming from six specific countries as potential terrorists. But, in fact, who are they? Iraqis who fought with our American soldiers as translators at great risk to themselves, and they were fleeing for their lives coming to this country. They were not terrorists; they were the polar opposite of that. Or some were grandparents being reunited with their Muslim-American families here.
So that sweeping characterization of “Muslims coming from those countries are all potential terrorists, and we have to do this in the name of national security” is outrageous. And they acted actually in the interest of national insecurity. He is an insecure man and does not belong in the office that he holds.
While we’re on the topic of Trump, you were a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice.
[Laughs] I was.
Did you have any idea back then that Donald Trump being president was even possible or that he even had that ambition? When Trump announced his candidacy, did you have any premonitions based on your prior experiences that his presidency would be such a disaster?
When I did The Celebrity Apprentice, I had no idea. I never imagined him being anything other than a reality-show host. However, he was an opinion maker and, at that time, I was an advocate for marriage equality for LGBT people, and he had publicly stated that he was opposed to marriage equality, but I wanted to see if I could lobby him. [Laughs] That’s was a kind of arrogance on my part to think that I could lobby him.
But we had a press conference essentially to promote the show with all the other members of the cast, and we had the give-and-take with the press going. But near the end of the press conference, I thought I would really get Donald Trump on record. I said, “Mr. Trump, I would like to host you to a lunch with me in one of your own restaurants,” and I suggested Jean Georges in the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle. And I said, “I’d like to discuss marriage equality with you,” and I was fully prepared to hear him demure, “I’m too busy, I haven’t got the time.” But he surprised me. He said, “George, that sounds interesting. We’re on. Have your people call my people and set a date.”
So I took him up on that and negotiated back and forth. And I have a pretty crazy schedule too, but his is even crazier. We found a date and he said, “We’re going to meet at Trump Grill in Trump Tower,” and so I got there and I was there before he arrived.
I sat there waiting, and when he arrived, before I could say, “Hi, how are you?” he said, “George, last week I was at a beautiful gay wedding.” And I said, “Well, there you are. You have gay friends and you went to a gay wedding. Why can’t you support marriage equality?” New York didn’t have marriage equality. And I said, “It would be in your interest, your business interest. You have hotels. You have restaurants. You have associates that would benefit from it as well. Marriage equality, it would be very, very good for the economy of New York state. Why can’t you support it?” And I said, “Gay people will love to get married in New York. They might stay in your hotel. They might eat in your restaurant. They might even get married in your hotels.” And he said, “Well, I [don’t] believe in marriage equality.” [Laughs]
When he said that, I had to kind of bridle myself in because he was on his third marriage—traditional marriage is not serial marriage. And he was famously unfaithful in his previous marriages, which was highly publicized. But I’m trying to win him over so I just said, “Well, that’s going to be good for your business. You really should reconsider opposing marriage equality,” but he insisted that he believed in traditional marriage.
And I said, “Well, traditional marriage is when two people who love each other deeply and who commit to each other . . . some of the vows go ‘in sickness and in health,’ old age, when one’s enfeebled, you’re still there because you love that person you married. That’s traditional marriage.” And he says, “No, no, no, no. It’s got to be a man and a woman.” So finally we wound up saying we agreed to disagree.
But I never thought that he would actually run for president. When he ran, he was exposing himself even more blatantly and, in fact, when he made that statement during the campaign that we need to have a complete and total banning of Muslims coming into this country, that was when I was doing what I call my legacy project, a musical . . .
Right. So I send him a personal message inviting him to come see Allegiance as my guest, and then I publicly announced that invitation on the morning talk shows, the afternoon talk shows, the evening talk shows—just to make sure that he got the message.
I never heard from him, and he never showed up. However, we got a lot of good publicity out of it. We put a great big sign on an aisle seat in the orchestra section reading “This seat reserved for Mr. Donald Trump.” During intermission, the people would line up in the aisle and hunker down right beside that sign and take selfies of themselves, and then post them. So we got not only publicity but I’m sure we sold quite a few tickets as a result of that.
To speak of another president, a few years ago you spoke out against the National Defense Authorization Act. And that was enacted under the Obama administration. Were you opposed to that partially out of fear that President Obama would authorize the detention of anyone suspected of being associated with a terrorist organization? Or were you more fearful of a future in which somebody like Trump would have the power to carry out something like that?
There was language there that said in the case of national security that—I can’t remember the exact language now, but it inferred that in the interest of national security that kind of thing could be done, so we opposed that because I heard the echoes of our internment.
I’m dedicated to keeping that sort of thing from happening again, and it did happen again when Donald got into office. But we have made progress, despite Donald, because when we were incarcerated, the entire country—the people and every elected official, save for one, the governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr—were against us. In fact, in California we had an attorney general with a name that I think you’ll recognize, Earl Warren.
He went on to become the so-called liberal chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was our attorney general at that time, the top lawyer of the state of California. His fallibility was ambition. He wanted to run for governor, and he saw that the single-most popular issue in California and throughout the country at that time was to lock up the Japanese.
And in his calculation, he thought by getting in front of that issue that it would argue well for his gubernatorial ambition, and so he did. As the attorney general, he made an astonishing statement. He said, “We have no reports of spying or sabotage . . . by Japanese-Americans, and that is ominous. Ominous because the Japanese are inscrutable”—that old stereotype. “You can’t tell what they’re thinking, so it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything.” Can you imagine?
The attorney general said the absence of evidence was the evidence, and he inflamed an already combustible situation, and that hysteria went all the way up to the presidency of the United States. And of course, Earl Warren got elected governor and reelected twice, which was a record at that time, and then went on from there to be the Supreme Court chief justice.
But that was 75 years ago. Everybody was against us. This year, 75 years later, when Donald Trump signed that executive order, massive numbers of people rushed to the airports to protest, and lawyers went to the airports to volunteer their legal services. And the deputy attorney general of the United States, Sally Yates, refused to defend that executive order, and that’s how people filtered through. So, I like to find silver linings, and these are shining silver linings in that horrible dark cloud of Donald Trump signing that executive order.
At the same time, in your lifetime, do you feel that public awareness of the internment camps has improved or gotten worse?
It’s improved, because when I became a teenager there was nothing in the books—in school books or history books—about the internment. I read civics books, and I was inspired by the ideals of American democracy, but nothing about the internment. So I learned about the internment from my father, these after-dinner conversations, and that was part of the problem. People didn’t know, and so then [there are] those of us who are campaigning to get school curriculums to include that dark chapter of American history.
Is there something that you remember from the internment camps that has influenced your acting career, your professional entertainment career, outside of Allegiance? Is there anything from your experiences in the internment camps that you applied artistically or creatively?
More kind of inspirationally. As the authorities allowed teenage dances every couple of months, they allowed old Hollywood movies to be shown after dinner in the mess hall. And so the tables would be cleared out and benches would be lined up, and a sheet would be put up on one wall. And we were in the 40s, but they were movies from the 1930s. And I remember seeing Charles Laughton as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or George Raft gangster movies, or Bette Davis.
But occasionally they even had Japanese samurai movies that they showed, films that were imported during the 30s into the country. Somehow the soundtrack was lost on many of them. But when they showed those movies, there was a man who apparently traveled from block to block with that film, and did the narration and he played the voices of all the characters—the voice of the shogun, the voice of the samurai, the princess and the peasants. And he had with him a young boy who clashed cymbals and drummed on drums and had coconut shells and made sounds during the sword-fight numbers. But this one man played all the voices of the characters on the screen, and he found the different voices. And he lip-synched to the movie as well, and he would do the shogun with the authoritarian, dominating voice, and the samurai, and the princess. One man doing all those voices, and I was just absolutely mesmerized by him. I think I paid more attention to that dimly lit table with all the sound props and the man there reading from his script than I did watching the screen, because it was almost magical.
I was absolutely transported by him, and I had asked my father about them and he said, “Oh, yes, that’s from the silent-movie days in Japan . . . and those people are called benshi.”
When we came out of camp, it was the radio age. We didn’t have TV then in the 40s, and I grew up on radio drama: The Cisco Kid and Lone Ranger and Happy Theater on radio. These actors created a whole world—the American west or New York or children’s fantasy—just with their voices.
So voice acting became something that fascinated me. And as a matter of fact my first paying gig was dubbing in English dialogue to some outrageous Japanese monster films, [Godzilla Raids Again] and Rodan. You might recognize my voice in some of those movies.
But I think in many ways I became an actor because I was able to escape the imprisonment, go past the barbed-wire fences vicariously via the movies. That was my escape.