George Takei: From WWII ‘Enemy Alien’ to Human Rights Champion
with George Takei
Long before his debut in Star Trek, legendary actor George Takei and his family spent several years in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Takei and his family were among 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were forcibly relocated to camps with prison-like conditions by Presidential Executive Order 9066, which was signed into law on Feb. 19, 1942.
Takei reflects on the pain of incarceration, its lasting impact on his life and family, and how he translated his personal experience into a lifetime of human rights advocacy.
February 17, 2022
Anderson: On December 7, 1941, Japan staged a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii... Roosevelt: A date which will live in infamy.
Anderson: ...prompting the United States to enter World War II. The following year, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry being forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live in war relocation centers, often thousands of miles away. Today, we're speaking with legendary actor George Takei. Best known for his role as Mr. Sulu in "Star Trek," he's an author, social justice activist, and a social media influencer. He's also a survivor of what's known as the internment of Japanese-Americans. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The executive order classified Japanese-Americans as enemy aliens and relocated them, forcing them to leave businesses and belongings behind. Two-thirds of them were American citizens detained by their own government. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the signing of the order, and joining me now is George Takei. George, thank you so much for being here.
Takei: It's great to be with you, and I appreciate your inviting me for this discussion.
Anderson: It's an important one, and I want to start out with where it all started for you. You were very young when you were forced to leave your home. What do you remember from that day and what was going through your mind at such a young age?
Takei: Well, it was just a few weeks before we were forced out of our homes. My mother baked a chocolate cake with five candles on it. I turned five years old, and so I associate the two, the day the soldiers came and my birthday, because they were so close together. That morning, my father came into our bedroom, dressed us hurriedly, and told us to wait in the living room while he and my mother did some last-minute packing in their bedroom. So my brother and I, with nothing to do, just stood by the front window gazing out at the neighborhood. And suddenly we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway. They carried rifles with shiny bayonets on them. They stomped up the front porch and with their fists, began banging on the front door. My father came rushing out of the bedroom and answered the door. And literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home. My father got two packages tied with twine that they had prepared for Henry and me to carry. And he hefted two heavy suitcases, and we followed him out onto the driveway. And we waited for our mother, who took some time. One of the soldiers went in to fetch her, and when she finally came out, she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other and tears were streaming down her cheeks. It was a terrifying morning. And that is emblazoned in my head. We were loaded onto trucks already crammed with other Japanese-American families and their luggage and driven downtown. And down the street, we saw a row of buses. We were unloaded, and then we boarded one of those buses with our luggage. And the caravan of buses took us to a racetrack in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a racetrack called Santa Anita. And there we were unloaded, herded over to the stable area, and each family was assigned a horse stable, still pungent with the stench of horse manure, to sleep in. I remember my mother getting very upset by that. When we walked into the stall, we saw insects crawling about. And I remember the smell and the stench of horse manure. But I thought that was the smell of horses. And I said, "We get to sleep where the horsies sleep." So it was an exciting experience for me, but for my parents, it was a humiliating, degrading experience, coming from a two-bedroom home with a front yard and backyard and a garage, to being forced to sleep in a horse stall. Anderson: I know that you were in three different camps for a pretty significant chunk of your childhood years, and I'm wondering if there is a single event that's just seared into your mind from that whole period.
Takei: We were in the horse stables for about four or five months, and we were in Arkansas, Rohwer, Arkansas, for a year and a half. And then we were transferred to Tule Lake segregation camp, and we were there for a little over two years.
Anderson: Talk to us a little about the realization of what happened to you and how you decided to channel that for growth.
Takei: Well, one terrible thing that I remember while we were still in Arkansas at Rohwer was I woke up and I saw my parents hovering over a kerosene lamp. And my mother was -- and she was crying. And I said what was natural to me. I said, "Mama, don't cry." And they came over and said, "Everything's okay. Go back to sleep." But that night, when I woke up and saw my mother crying was when they were talking about the loyalty questionnaire. You know, innocent people were incarcerated with no charges, no trial. But because they needed young men to supplement the armed forces, they decided they needed our young men. Narrator: Ready to fight and die defending America, the country of their birth.
Takei: But we were categorized as enemy alien. How do you justify drafting enemy aliens for military service? And so what they came up with, they demanded that all people in camp over the age of 17 all respond to the loyalty questionnaire. Question 27 asked, "Are you willing to serve in the United States military in combat duty, wherever ordered?" That question was asking of my parents essentially to leave their very young children in imprisonment and bear arms to defend the country that's holding their children in imprisonment. It was absolutely irrational. It was crazy and certainly inhuman. There's another one that's important. That was question 28. It asked, "Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan?" The Emperor of Japan. We're Americans. We never even thought of a loyalty to the emperor. But the government assumed because we look like this, that we had an organic, inborn racial loyalty to the emperor. The government took everything before we were incarcerated. They froze our bank accounts. They took all the money, our savings, everything. And destroyed my father's business, took our home because we couldn't make the mortgage payments, so the bank took over. Everything was taken from us and imprisoned and then they said, "You're free to go because the war is over." We were released in February of 1946. They gave us $25 each to begin life anew.
Anderson: How formative was this to your life and how much do you think what happened to you then relates into and plays into all the things that you did later?
Takei: The internment experience, the entire experience was deeply formative. From Arkansas on, I began to be aware of the hostility toward us by the white people. We were put in a prison camp in Tule Lake. I saw young men being dragged out of their units in the middle of the night with their parents or their siblings pleading with them, and they would be taken away and put into a jail for what they call "troublemakers." I saw horrible things going on, which I didn't understand. There were riots there. There were people killed, shot at by the guards. So I have horrible memories of that. As a 13-, 14-year-old, I became curious and wanted to know more about our imprisonment years. My father was a very unusual father, Japanese-American father of his generation. Most Japanese-American parents did not talk about the internment with their children because of either the pain that they felt or the shame that they felt, which was really misplaced. The shame was really the government and their behavior and their violation of what our Constitution means. And so the shame really belongs there. But so often victims take on that shame. But my father explained to me that we live in a people's democracy. And in a people's democracy, the people have responsibility to honor the ideals of our democracy. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, because we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor, the government was terrorized and without any evidence, because we looked like the people that did the bombing, they saw us as potential enemies. They had no proof of that. No due process. And they just went straight to the punishment, skipping all of the laws, rule of law. And so, he said, "Our democracy is very fragile. The ideals are noble, but the people sometimes become terrorized and behave irrationally. And so we, as citizens, have the responsibility to try to rise to the occasion and make our fellow Americans aware." And he said, "It's important that we be engaged in our process, our society, our politics." And he urged all his children to be active in the democratic process.
Anderson: How did this all inform who you are today? I mean, you did go from somebody who was imprisoned for the way you look to somebody who is revered for the way you look. You're a celebrity. You're an icon. Did those two things inform each other?
Takei: Yes, those two things do inform who I am because of a father I had who gave me guidance and he gave me the ability to understand what happened then, that it was fear and ignorance that prompted people to act irrationally and horrifically. And the important lesson is the education is the pillar of our democracy, and the teachers are the true force of democracy that educate the people of our country.
Anderson: George Takei, thank you so much for sharing your incredible story with us.
Takei: Well, thank you so much. It's a story that is so relevant and important to our times today, and I hope that our discussion will ripple out with other people.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country. Just log on to ComcastNewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.