The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

George Takei: ‘I maintain that without optimism, we’ve already failed’

George Takei is an actor, author and activist. (Courtesy of George Takei.)

George Takei, 84, is an actor, activist — particularly on social media — and author. His recent graphic novel, “They Called Us Enemy,” chronicles his early life in the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Feb. 19, 2022, marks 80 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered all Japanese Americans on the West Coast and the western part of Arizona to be summarily rounded up and sent to internment camps. Takei lives with his husband in Los Angeles.

Let me ask you about maybe your defining role, your “Star Trek” role. Having experienced discrimination against Japanese Americans during and after World War II, what did it mean to you to as an actor to be able to take a role that didn’t play to the stereotypes of what Hollywood was portraying at the moment?

I immediately recognized that this was a breakthrough opportunity for me. For one thing, it was steady work if it sold. I was just doing guest shots here and there. And secondly, it was a part of the leadership team. A breakthrough opportunity, not only for me, but for the image of Asians and Asian Americans on television. The creator of the show, Gene Roddenberry, was extraordinary. He said the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth and that it was the diversity of this Earth that the strength of this starship comes from.

Can you talk about the roots of your activism, where it came from, your influences, and your experiences as a boy, being plucked out of your neighborhood in L.A. …

That’s where it comes from. Growing up behind barbed-wire fences. Just three weeks after my fifth birthday, early one morning, my father came rushing in — my brother and I shared a bedroom — and dressed us hurriedly and said, “We’re going to be moving. And Daddy and Mom are going to be packing, so you boys wait in the living room.”

So there we were standing by the front window, and suddenly we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway. They carried rifles with bayonets on them, shining in the California sun. And they stomped — great, big, heavy-sounding stomps — up our porch, and began banging on the door. We were terrified. My father answered the door, and they pointed the bayonet at him. Then they went to get my mother. And when she came out, she had our baby sister in one arm, a huge duffel bag in the other, and tears were streaming down her cheeks.

That morning was burned into my memory. And from that came other horrors. Four years of imprisonment. There were no charges. No trial. There was none of that. Just arrest. After we were rounded up, we were taken to [the] Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. It’s a racetrack a little bit to the east. And we were unloaded from the buses and herded over to the stable area. Each family was assigned a horse stall to sleep in, temporarily, while the barbed-wire camps were being built in some of the most desolate, godforsaken places in the United States.

Can you imagine my parents’ sense of degradation and humiliation? Taken from a two-bedroom home — front yard, backyard, garage, on Garnet Street in Los Angeles, California, and ordered to take their three children into a filthy horse stall, still pungent with the smell of horse manure. After about four months, we were put on a train and taken from Los Angeles to the [internment] camp in southeastern Arkansas, the swamps.

All Japanese Americans on the West Coast, 120,000 of us, were categorized as “enemy alien.” Enemy alien. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. She wasn’t an alien, and she wasn’t an enemy. My father was an immigrant — he was born in Japan but brought to San Francisco as a boy. He’s the one that taught me about the fundamentals of American democracy.

But in California, we had an ambitious attorney general. He had his eyes set on the governor’s seat. And he saw the single-most popular issue was the lock-up-the-J--s issue in California. And so, from Sacramento, our capital, that attorney general made an outrageous statement. He said, We have no reports of spying or sabotage or fifth column activities by Japanese Americans. And that is ominous. Ominous. Because the Japanese are inscrutable — that stereotype — you can’t tell what they’re thinking behind that placid face. So it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything. Lock them up before they do anything. The absence of evidence, for this attorney general, was the evidence. Outrageous.

And he became a Supreme Court chief justice.

Earl Warren. This much-adored, great leader of our democracy, Supreme Court chief justice.

After Pearl Harbor, this country was swept up by the terror, understandably. And the politicians, especially, were filled with terror and fear. And they saw us as the surrogates for the Japanese because we look like this. And my parents were called names and spat at on the street. My father’s business was graffitied. Our car was graffitied. It was a horrible time. The people hated us. And then the government hated us. Not only hated us and spat on us and attacked — well, all this, I’m sure sounds very familiar to us today. Asian hate. But it was just focused on Japanese Americans. Chinese carried a sign saying, “I am Chinese” so that they wouldn’t be assaulted.

Looking at what’s happened in recent years — the anti-Asian hate around the coronavirus, the Muslim [travel] ban — do you see progress?

Some progress and some getting worse. The Muslim travel ban, when that happened, I recognized it as the same thing. You know, the sweeping presumption that we were spies and saboteurs. And the sweeping presumption that Muslim people are all potential terrorists. You know, same thing.

But when Trump signed that — and that was [among] his very first executive order[s] — thousands of young Americans, many lawyers, rushed to their airports throughout the country to welcome Muslim people coming to this country and offer advice and representation. And Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general, said to Trump: I will not defend this executive order. That was all very heartening to me. And it showed that we had made progress. We had learned from our experience.

But on the southern border, young children, babies are torn away from their mothers. How inhumane, how barbaric, can the United States become? [In the internment camps,] we were always intact as a family. So we’ve become worse in that respect. So a few steps forward, but also some horrific steps backwards.

Do you remember how old you were when you started asking questions about the experience?

My asking questions intensified as I grew older. And in my early teens, my father, who I realize now, what an unusual, rare person he was, he started discussing the internment with me in our after-dinner conversations. My father was unusual in that respect, I discovered later on, because so many other Japanese American parents of my parents’ generation didn’t talk about their experience with their children. Because either they were so ashamed by it or so pained, so hurt by it, that they didn’t want to inflict that on their children. All the children knew was that they were in camp.

You know, my father said resilience is not all just teeth-gritting determination. It’s also the strength to find and see beauty in an ugly situation. To be able to find joy, make our joy, behind barbed wires and all these people wallowing in their misery. Some were angry. Some were completely devastated, and marriages were breaking up — and he said, we’ve got to develop a community. And he was a baseball player in San Francisco as a young man and played with a Japanese American team. And he said, we’ve got to build a baseball diamond. And that brought people together, working as a team. And teenagers had nothing to do and they needed to have fun. So after the mess hall dinner, he negotiated with the camp command to have the guards bring a record player over, and they had dances. I remember, our barrack was right across from the mess hall. And my mother put us to sleep. And I drifted off to sleep hearing the big band sound of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman wafting over the night air from the mess halls. And so, you know, resilience takes many, many different forms.

And so when we developed a musical that played on Broadway, “Allegiance,” so many younger Japanese Americans came backstage to tell us how they were moved by the show and tell me that their parents or their grandparents were in camp. I’d ask them, “Oh, which camp were they in?” Their face was a complete blank. So, to help them out: “Was it in Wyoming? Colorado? Arkansas? Idaho?” They knew nothing about it. So I do my advocacy not only for my country, but for my community. There are so many Japanese Americans, younger Japanese Americans — and, from my vantage point, anyone under 60 is considered younger — [who] don’t know their own family histories.

And America, to a large extent, doesn’t know its American history. People that I considered well-read, well-informed people, when I told them about my childhood, were aghast that something like that happened. And so that made me think, I’m going to have to do a bit more storytelling.

Your recent graphic novel was a way to reach people, and you’ve also become very active on social media with your activism and storytelling these days.

Yes. It’s the media of our times. In ancient times, storytellers gathered people in outdoor forums, and they became inspired. And they built a democracy. That’s the way democracy works. And all of us have to be part of that pillar upholding our democracy. And social media is absolutely a part of that.

There’s been a recent backlash against stories about the uglier side of American history, especially around what can be taught in the classroom, with [criticism] of critical race theory and the banning of books.

Fanatics — they’re passionately opposed to something that doesn’t exist. I mean, that’s the kind of craziness that we had to put up with during the war. In the vast scope of American history, this kind of fanaticism — which is what that is, they don’t even know what they’re talking about, and they’re getting all excited and passionate and carrying guns about it, you know — this will pass. Our focus and our energy has to be put into education. A people’s democracy is existentially dependent on an educated citizenry.

And my effort is just a small effort on a short chapter of American history. Our story is four years. The African American story is four centuries. It’s a big story to be told. But each person telling small stories and fitting it into this panorama of American history will ultimately prevail. I’m optimistic because of people like Sally Yates and the people that rush to the airports after the Muslim travel ban. I maintain that without optimism, we’ve already failed. So we need optimistic people to be hanging in there. Otherwise, it’s going to be a dystopian society. I don’t subscribe to that. Our democracy is a precious form of government. A people’s democracy. And it’s optimistic people who have faith in the ideals of our democracy that’s going to make it survive.

There has been a decrying of the backsliding of American democracy these days. But having seen some of the best and worst of it in your own life, you feel like this is just a period we’ll get through?

When Trump was chanting “China flu” and “Wuhan flu” and “kung flu” — you know, ignorant people, people who are uneducated, are low-paid, and they’re angry, and they’re jealous, and they want their rights. That’s the enemy of democracy. Because they are the ones that grab at things. What they are not teaching at school, they get all riled up and emotional and shaking a fist at. Ignorance is the enemy of democracy.

And so going back to education again: We need to emphasize education. Without educated people who understand what those shining ideals stand for — a government of the people, by the people, and for the people — we will have those people that will rant and yell when they don’t know what they’re talking about. And that’s what we have now. And back then, that’s what we had during the war.

We’ve got to make America understand that we have great ideals, shining ideals, noble words — equal justice, rule of law — they’re noble words. But they’re just words on paper. They take on substance, meaning, when we take on the responsibility. This is a people’s democracy, and the people have to give meaning to those words.

This interview has been edited and condensed.