Actor George Takei became famous in the 1960s, playing the role of Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek series. He then went on to a second career as a social activist and pop culture icon. By far, his most personal work is the Broadway musical, Allegiance, inspired by his childhood experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Takei will speak about his life and activism tonight at Northern Arizona University. He spoke with KNAU’s Aaron Granillo.
Aaron Granillo: And, let’s start with your experience during World War II. You were five-years-old when you and your family were rounded up by armed US soldiers at your home in California , forced into internment camps, as ordered by the government. What do you remember from that time?
George Takei: Well, I just turned five-years-old on April 20th, 1942. And, a few weeks after that my parents got me up very early one morning together with my brother, a year younger, and my baby sister, an infant. And, suddenly we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on. They stomped at the porch, and with their fists, began pounding on the front door. My father came out and answered the door and, literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home. It is an unforgettably, terrorizing scene that I remember.
And, then you all were taken to a horse track.
That’s right. We were taken from our home to Santa Anita racetrack, unloaded from the truck together with other Japanese-American families that were gathered, and herded over to the stable area, where each family was assigned a horse stall to sleep in because the camps weren’t built yet. They were under construction. And, there were two in Arizona. Can you imagine? The blistering hot desert with no air conditioning. That was how they treated innocent American citizens of Japanese ancestry, simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.
You were labeled an enemy of America.
And with no basis, in fact. And, of course this story has a profound echo to today because something similar is happening again. And, it’s happening again because so many Americans don’t know this chapter of American history. And, because we don’t know this history, and we don’t know the lesson to be drawn from this history, it’s being repeated again.
Well, let’s fast-forward now to February 2017. President Donald Trump just took office, and he announced his now failed executive order, which would have banned immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries. And, when that order came down, that’s what you said. History was repeating itself, referring to Japanese-American internment camps. What exactly did you fear would happen then?
Well, when devastating events happen, like Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, or the election of a know-nothing person as the President of the United States, because he had no understanding of American history, he acted on hysteria and insecurity. You know, we were incarcerated – Japanese Americans were incarcerated to protect the national security. And, that’s the same rationale that Trump talked about. It’s our national security that we must protect. Well, actually in fact, it was our national insecurity -- fear of the unknown, fear of the other. And, here it’s being repeated over again.
Where do you see your role now as a civil rights advocate in today’s America?
I’ve been an activist since I was in my late teens, when my father explained to me how our democracy has to work. People who cherish the ideals of our democracy have to be actively engaged in the process. I was involved in the civil rights movement, the peace movement during the Vietnam War. And, the campaign to get an apology in redress from the United States government. And in 1988, President Ronald Reagan officially apologized on behalf of the government for that unconstitutional incarceration. And so we, as fallible human beings, act on such hysteria. And, that’s why people who know better and who’ve cherished the ideals of our democracy have to be actively engaged in the democratic process to keep people from acting irrationally.
So, the USS Enterprise was, like, a model of diversity in a time of civil unrest. There were people of all colors, even species. Women were in charge. What lessons from Star Trek do you think we can we draw from right now in this new period of division and civil unrest?
Well, what we depicted in Star Trek was a utopian society, but we should take inspiration from that and work toward it. And, that’s why we have to keep pushing, to keep reminding ourselves that we can be better. That our system has the potential for being much, much better than what we are now, and the fact that we can move forward.
An Evening with George Takei is Thursday, October 19th, 8pm at Northern Arizona University’s Prochnow Auditorium.