George Takei Q&A: “From Barbed Wire to Broadway”

On Jan. 26, 2016, actor and activist George Takei appeared at a sold-out panel at the Japan Society in New York.  An excerpt of his question-and-answer session with moderator Kermit Roosevelt follows.

Kermit Roosevelt: George Takei. Well. Thank you so much for being here.

George Takei: Thank you for the invitation to be here, to Ambassador Sakurai and the Japan Society. It’s always a pleasure to be here and to have a discussion with you, who’s written a novel titled Allegiance and I’m halfway through that right now. Reveal any spoilers.

I’ll try not to, although I should say you probably know a fair amount of the plot already, because your own Allegiance is based in part on your experiences and inspired by them. I should say, my book is too. I read your autobiography To The Stars as part of my research for that book and I found it very inspiring and very touching.

Perhaps we’d like to start by setting a little bit of the historical context for the audience. The detention of Japanese Americans is, I think, not covered in our schools as well as it should be. It’s not a subject that is as well known as it should be because I think there’s so much to learn from it. So perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit about your historical background, before we go on to your own personal experiences.

Well, I’m an actor and I know the power of stereotypes and there’s a long history of the stereotype depiction of Asians and Asian-Americans in the media in the United States and so that sets the backdrop for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to treat this hysteria that swept the country. We happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor and all the stereotype images fed by the media just fed into that war hysteria.

There was also racial prejudice, because from the very beginning, when immigrants started coming from Asia. they were denied naturalized American citizenship. Immigrants coming from anywhere in the world could ultimately look toward becoming naturalized Americans, except immigrants coming from Asia. So there was that racial discriminatory backdrop as well. And that…was used to deny land rights to Asian immigrants. Asians coming from, from Asia, naturally, were denied the right to buy land, but there was no language to that effect in the law. All it said was aliens ineligible to citizenship were denied land ownership in California. That was first passed in California and then later by Oregon and Washington State.

So subterfuge had to be used by Asian immigrants. My grandfather was a wily guy. He developed land that was wasteland into a productive farmland in the Sacramento Delta area. And he wanted to own it, but he couldn’t because of that Alien Land Law. So he bought it in the name of his first-born son, my uncle, because he was a native-born American and so my grandfather worked for his young son, who owned the property that he worked.

So there was all this history of discrimination based on race, but when the war started there were ambitious politicians who used that existing racial prejudice and combined with war hysteria. In California, we had an Attorney General who obviously knew the law and the Constitution, but he was also an ambitious politician. He wanted to be elected Governor of California. And he saw that the single most popular political issue in California was the “get-rid-of-the-Japs” issue, and so this Attorney General, who knew the Constitution, became an outspoken advocate, a leader, in the “get-rid-of-the-Japs” movement. And he made an amazing statement. He said there had been no reports of spying or sabotage, or fifth-column activities by Japanese Americans and that is ominous because the Japanese are inscrutable. You don’t know what they’re thinking. And so we better lock them up before they do anything.

And so for this Attorney General, the absence of evidence was the evidence. And that kind of political leadership fed into the existing prejudice and war hysteria that swept up the presidency as well and we were incarcerated. But that Attorney General won the election for Governor and he was re-elected and re-elected again, it was a record. He became a very popular Governor of California and then he was appointed to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I think many of you may have guessed who he is. His name is Earl Warren, the great liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice. So all that background led to the incarceration of innocent citizens who happened to be of Japanese ancestry.

So it’s an interesting question how things like this happen.  You’ve said that there are several factors that come together, there’s a background of racism, there are some people out there who you can identify as bad actors, there are opportunists trying to take advantage of the situation, trying sometimes to get their own economic advantages, and then I think you also have to assign responsibility to the mass of American people who are not willing to stand up and say this is wrong. I think episodes like this happen when you’ve got some small concentration of bad actors, but then widespread indifference and I hope that’s one of the things that we can learn from the past and a lesson we can take forward for the future.

So in this climate of fear with some people stoking the fires of racial prejudice and war hysteria, President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Commander of the Western Defense Command to exclude such people as he deems necessary from the West Coast and like the Alien Land Law, this didn’t on its face say anything about Japanese ancestry, but everyone knew that’s what it was about. And that man, General John DeWitt, then began issuing orders requiring Japanese and Japanese-Americans to leave the West Coast,. There was no place that they could go and in some cases, actually, the orders later said you can’t leave until you’re ordered to and then when we do order you to leave you will only be allowed to go to one of these camps. So could you now tell us a little about your personal experience in that program?

Well, I was incarcerated from age five to eight and a half. Excuse me. The duration of the war. I remember the tension and anxiety on the part of my parents. I’d just celebrated my fifth birthday and a few weeks after that my parents got my younger brother, a year younger, and our baby sister not yet a year old, and they got us very early one morning and dressed assertively, and my brother and I were told to wait in the living room.  While they were packing in the bedroom and we were gazing out the front window, we saw two soldiers with bayonets on their rifles marching up our driveway, stomped up to the front porch and banged on the door. I still remember how scary that bang was, very loud. And my father answered it and we were ordered out of our home. My father gave us little packages to carry and my brother and I and my father stood out on the driveway, waiting for my mother to come out. And when she finally emerged, she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge duffle bag in the other, and tears were streaming down her face.

It happened to me at five years old, but that morning, the terror of that morning is still embedded in my memory. And that was the beginning of it. We were taken to the Stanley Racetrack and together with other families that were gathered, were bringing over to the horse stalls, the stable area and we were each assigned a horse stall to live in. For my parents it was a degrading, humiliating, anguishing experience to go from a two bedroom home to a narrow, smelly horse stall. But another memory I have, as a five year old kid, I thought it was fun to sleep where the horses sleep. So my real memories are quite different and quite unrepresentative of the real experience that my parents had. My father told us that we were going on a long vacation and it was that, for me. It was a fun experience to ride on the train the first time. We were taken through the swamps of Arkansas, but the first winter it snowed and I remember how magical that morning was, to wake up in the morning and see everything covered in white and I remember we had snow fights with my father. He showed us that a snowball could be rolled and made into great big huge snowballs and we built a snow fort. And so those are the memories I cherish. I also have the memory of starting school in a black tar paper barrack and we began the school day, every morning, with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window, as I recited the words with liberty and justice for all.

That’s very touching how this closeness of your family and that intimate circle could transform what was a terrible injustice into an experience that was actually pleasant in some ways and I suppose of course, many of the children didn’t really understand what was going on, but of course your parents did. Do you know how that made them feel about the country?


Because your mother was a birthright American citizen.

Yes.  Born in Sacramento. Actually Florin, but when I say Florin I have to go into a long explanation of how that was not suburban, but a farm area near Sacramento and got absorbed into the city, so I just say Sacramento. For my parents, it was the most anguishing period of their lives. As a teenager, I also became very curious about my childhood incarceration, which I experienced with the innocence of a child and I wanted to know more about it because I read civics books. I was 14, 15 by this time, and I was also inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King and his ideals and I was active in the Civil Rights Movement and I couldn’t really quite understand how and why that incarceration happened.

And so I had many long discussions with my father after dinner and I must say my father was a very unusual Japanese-American of his generation, because so many Japanese-Americans who experienced the internment as adults and felt the pain didn’t want to inflict that pain and their anguish onto their children and so they didn’t talk about it. And so I, to my surprise, I talked to many younger Japanese-Americans who saw our musical Allegiance and came backstage and told me that, “I knew dad and mom,” or, “Grandpa and grandma were in camps, but that’s all I knew because they didn’t share it,” and “I learned about my family’s history and why my parents didn’t want to talk about it for the first time by seeing Allegiance.”

And particularly the loyalty questionnaire, they knew nothing about the loyalty questionnaire. To give you some background on the the loyalty questionnaire, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, young Japanese-Americans, like all young Americans, rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the military. This act of patriotism was answered with a slap in the face. They were denied military service and categorized as enemy aliens. They’re American citizens and they were called enemy aliens and if some protested, that was revised to enemy non-aliens. They couldn’t put down enemy citizens. They took the word “citizen” away from us and we became non-aliens. And then a year into imprisonment, the government had a wartime manpower shortage and here was all these young people that they could have had, that they denied military service to, that we need now.

How to get them? And so they came down with the loyalty questionnaire, to establish whether they would be loyal and served in the military. And the most outrageous question in that loyalty questionnaire was, one sentence, question 28, which asked, in that one sentence, two conflicting ideas. It asked, will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? We’re Americans. We had no loyalty to the Emperor. We never even thought of loyalty to the Emperor. And for the government to assume that there is a racial loyalty to the Emperor when we’re Americans, American-born, American-educated, was outrageous. So if you answered “no,” I don’t have a loyalty to the Emperor to forswear, you were also, that same no applied to the first part of the very same sentence, will you swear your loyalty to the United States? If you answered “yes,” meaning I do swear my loyalty to the United States, then you were confessing that you had been loyal to the Emperor and now were ready to forswear, set aside that loyalty to the Emperor and re-swear, you pledge, re-pledge a loyalty to the United States.

It was an outrageous question and that became one of the two most controversial questions. And my father was anguished by that and he shared that with me, as well as a lot of other parts of the internment that we discussed after dinner. He also explained to me our American democracy. He said it’s a people’s democracy and it can be as great as the people make it, but it’s as fallible as people, human beings are. For example, Earl Warren’s fallibility was ambition at any cost. And he told me that story about Earl Warren. And so our democracy is dependent on people who cherish the highest ideals of our democracy and actively engage in the process and he took me downtown to the Adlai Stevenson for President headquarters and he says we volunteered, but actually he volunteered me. I just had to go along, but there I was, working together with other passionate people, dedicated to getting this great man Adlai Stevenson, who was the personification of all the best of American democracy, elected.  So that’s what then got me to be politically active as well as active in the social justice movements.

Video: Excerpt of George Takei at the Japan Society New York – Jan. 25, 2016
video by Megan Lee / Meniscus Magazine