As chief helmsman Sulu on the iconic TV and movie series “Star Trek,” George Takei has enjoyed a thriving acting career for more than 50 years. Yet he’s lived a full life beyond that sci-fi classic, with more than 200 roles in his career, in addition to being an outspoken political voice on behalf of LGBT rights and against President Trump.
It’s remarkable that the 82-year-old Takei has managed to keep an upbeat attitude and active lifestyle throughout the decades, considering that he and his family were subjected to the horrific injustices of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. He is looking back at his experiences in the camps with two new and intriguing projects: the graphic novel “They Called Us Enemy,” as well as the new AMC network miniseries “The Terror: Infamy,” which launches its second season Monday night.
Takei, who will be appearing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena Tuesday night to discuss and sign “Enemy,” recently took some time to share his remarkable stories with the Pasadena Weekly.
PW: How did the decision to write “Enemy” come about?
GEORGE TAKEI: I wrote an autobiography called ‘To the Stars” in 1994 and it was at one of those book signings that a Japanese American woman came through the line and said she wanted to talk to me after I finished. Her name was Grace Nakamura, and she grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “George, you must do a signing at Vroman’s in Pasadena. I said I’ll go anywhere, but why so intense? Her hands were gripping my shoulders.
She said we Japanese Americans have a debt to Vroman’s. She was a survivor of the Manzanar camp in California, while my family were in a camp in Arkansas. She said that Herbert Nicholson, a Quaker man who owned Vroman’s, made a monthly trip to Manzanar with a carload of books from Vroman’s and donated it to the young people there. He went every month on a set date, religiously.
Then on one trip he showed them bullet holes on his car. He said he was shot at by rednecks because he was going there. They were obviously people who wanted to discourage him. People at Manzanar said “That’s it, that Vroman’s man isn’t going to be coming anymore.” But sure enough he was back the next week.
So my publishers arranged for me to do a signing. I was shocked when the signing was over, I chatted with the employees there and the young people there had no idea of the history of Vroman’s. I told them about Nicholson, and that he didn’t approve of the internment and that was his way of showing support for Japanese Americans. He also made those trips with troops to two Arizona camps. So it became my mission to tell the story of the camps because so many younger people don’t have any idea about them.
Tell me about your family’s story, please.
Well, “The Terror: Infamy” refers to President Franklin Roosevelt calling the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor a day of infamy. We Japanese Americans had four years of infamy. My parents were Americans who met and married in Los Angeles. I had an infant baby sister, a brother who was 4, and I was 5 when we were locked up because we looked the same as those who bombed. This country vilified us and made the decision we were potential spies, saboteurs and needed to be locked up.
We had Attorney General Earl Warren who went down in history as a liberal Supreme Court justice. Yet he wanted to be California governor and had a dark history. The most popular political issue at the time was the lock up, the Japanese issue, as the hysteria went national. The Attorney General, who knows the Constitution and knows the law, made the statement that we have no evidence of spying, but that’s because they’re inscrutable and can’t tell what they’re thinking behind that emotionless face, so lock them up before they can do anything.
The absence of evidence was the evidence. He became governor for three terms and then was appointed chief justice of the US Supreme Court. The whole country, but particularly California with a justice like Warren, was wild with hysteria and racism. It was racism because we were at war with Germans and Italians, but they looked like the majority of Americans, so they were left alone.
For us, due process and trials disappeared. I remember when soldiers stomped into our orchard and banged on our front door and literally ordered us out of our home in Los Angeles. My father gave my brother little packages to carry and had big suitcases and my mom came out with my baby sister on one arm, a huge duffel bag in the other and tears streaming down her cheeks. I’ll never forget that memory.
How did you manage to avoid bitterness and hatred after that camp experience and thrive?
My childhood defined who I was to become. When you read “Enemy” there’s two parallel stories I tell based on the same experience. I was 5 and wanted to capture the true memory of a 5 year old, and a Southern California kid plopped down in the swamps of Arkansas. It was an exotic place to be. There were trees there and a bayou.
Some of the bayou was inside the camp as well. Trees grew out of the water and the roots were hidden in the water. I’d never seen that. There were dragonflies there that I’d never seen here. In the water, were little black wiggly fish that I could scoop in my hand, put in a jar and one day they’d sprout what look like legs, they’d get stronger, their tail falls off and they climbed out of jars. They were just tadpoles turned into frogs. It was a magical place to a 5-year-old kid.
It’s drawn like a comic strip, and when you’re comic strip reading age, preteen and teen, you absorb all the information. As a comic strip, I bring the young readership into the story, but then once they get into it I share the larger reality of the harrowing experience of what my parents went through — stripped clean of everything, their business, and then they couldn’t pay the mortgage so their house was lost. For no reason but looking like this.
It was a prison camp with barbed wire, with sentry towers and machine guns pointed at us. Searchlights followed me on the run to the latrine at night. My parents found it humiliating, but for a five year old I was thankful they lit the way for me to pee. I could see guards right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words “liberty and justice for all.” I totally lost the stinging irony of it.
So what do you hope comes from publishing “Enemy”?
With “Enemy,” my hope is we’re going to get young people to get this information and grow up knowing this story. I’m always shocked when I’m in conversation with people I consider well-read, and they’re shocked and can’t believe such a thing happened in the US. Because we have adults who don’t know this history and this outrage is going on on the Southern border, we’ve got to get Americans outraged at this endless cycle of cruelty to minorities.
In my 1994 autobiography, I thought I was reaching adults but not enough of them. With this graphic memoir, I’m hoping to reach young Americans to be active leaders against things like Trump’s Muslim travel ban. He used the same idea that they’re all potential terrorists, and that is untrue. My dentist is a Muslim. All kinds of people are many different things and to label them all as terrorists is un-American. We live in fraught times, not unlike what happened to Japanese Americans 75 years ago.
When I became a teenager, I read civics books about great American ideals. That we were a nation ruled by law, with all men created equal. I couldn’t associate that with my childhood imprisonment. No due process, no charges, no trial. How could that happen to a teenager? After dinner I had discussions with my father and I learned from him. My father was the man in our family who bore the pain, outrage and humiliation the most in our family, and yet he explained to me that our democracy is the people’s democracy and the people have the capacity to do great things. We have noble ideals, but people are also fallible human beings and make mistakes.
Our democracy is existentially dependent on people participating. He said every elected official was vilifying us and saying any Japanese person will stab you in the back. Only one elected official back then, governor of Colorado Ralph Carr, said this must stop, it’s unjust. So for that one thing his political career was gone. In a democracy people have to participate in that democracy.
George Takei discusses and signs “They Called Us Enemy” at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromans.com