Actor, activist, and author George Takei remains astounded at how little people know about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.
“To this day, I can share my childhood incarceration with those that I consider well informed and they’re shocked that such a thing happened,” Takei tells SF Weekly. “We had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. We were innocent American citizens and yet the ideals of this country of ‘all men are created equal,’ ‘equal justice under law,’ and ‘a nation of laws’ simply disappeared.”
So the actor, best known for playing Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman of the Starship Enterprise on the original ’60s Star Trek series and in six subsequent feature films, has made a second career of informing others about the internment of Japanese Americans.
He’s already exposed this terrible chapter in U.S. history via countless speaking tours, exhibits at the Japanese American National Museum — which he helped found in Los Angeles in 1992 — his ’94 autobiography To the Stars, and his 2015 Broadway musical Allegiance, which he developed based on his personal experiences in the camps.
But when Takei saw history repeating itself at detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border, he decided to target more impressionable younger voters with a new graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy, which describes his internment experience.
The author’s 208-page manga memoir, which he’s set to discuss at The Commonwealth Club on Tuesday, begins in a U.S. caught up in war hysteria following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, the following year, which forcibly relocated and incarcerated approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans to concentration camps across the country for the duration of the war.
Stripped of their dry cleaning business, bank account, home, and freedom, Takei’s family is shipped out of Los Angeles, first to makeshift housing at the Santa Anita Race Track, then the Rohwer Relocation Center in rural Arkansas, and finally the maximum-security Tule Lake Internment Camp in Northern California.
The five-year-old future actor and his two siblings adapt to the camps’ cramped living quarters, enforced meal times, and mass showers and toilets with the aid of their parents, who attempt to make the best of the terrible circumstances.
Over time, even the barbed wire fences and sentry towers became just another familiar part of the landscape, no more intimidating than a chain-link fence around a schoolyard playground or telephone poles. Nighttime runs to the latrine, lit up by searchlights, almost seemed romantic and fantastical to the young boy. But for his parents, the entire experience remained hellish. Takei makes a point of bringing both perspectives to light in his book.
“To five-year-old me, I thought it was nice that they lit the way for me to pee, where my mother found it an invasive, humiliating light,” Takei says. “I was an innocent child making discoveries and I wanted to keep the purity of my childhood memories. But I also tell the larger reality, the harrowing story of my parents’ degrading and humiliating experience.”
It was only after seeing young, innocent men getting dragged out of their barracks by the MPs at night and guards retaliating against those who protested injustices like these with violence that Takei saw the experience for what it actually was.
“The terror I felt that day remains a vivid memory” describes Takei, after one such horrifying experience in the book.
But it was only as a teenager living with his family in Los Angeles, a decade after their release from the camps, that Takei began to fully recognize the horrors that he and his family had endured.
Curious about his childhood imprisonment and trying to reconcile America’s noble ideals of democracy and an impartial justice system with what he experienced in the concentration camps, he began scouring contemporary history books for any information on the Japanese American internment but writes that he couldn’t find anything.
Late-night conversations with his father, who, against all odds, still maintained faith in American ideals, would fill the holes in his memory and, for the first time, put into words his pain and anguish of raising a family in the camps.
Takei’s father would sadly not live to see any reparations for his family’s mistreatment, which first came in 1988 when former president Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate over 100,000 Japanese American internment camp survivors with $20,000 each for pain and suffering. In 1993, then-president Bill Clinton followed this action by sending formal apologies to survivors on behalf of the American people.
While words can intellectualize the internment and a musical like Allegiance can peel emotion from the heart, Takei, a lifelong fan of comics, believes that a graphic novel is the best format for reaching a younger audience, many of whom are still oblivious to the horrors of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II as well as the modern-day detention camps.
“It’s people that don’t know this history that contribute to some of the outrages like what’s happening on the southern border,” Takei says, referring to children ripped from parents, scattered across the country, and forced to live in cramped cages. “What happened in the U.S. 75 years ago and what’s happening on the border today, [it is] the same mentality that’s putting them in these much more horrific circumstances. Ours was harrowing enough, but they reach a new low with this cruelty. ”
An Evening with George Takei
Tuesday, Sept. 24 , 6:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave. $15-70, commonwealthclub.org