NC Japan Center with George Takei

NC Japan Center with George Takei


– My name is Jonathan Brewster. I’m the director of the
North Carolina Japan Center under the Office of Global Engagement at NC State University. I’m honored to be joined
today by Mr. George Takei. George is a celebrated
and venerated actor, author, social media icon, champion of the LGBTQ+
community and equal rights, and a living witness to
the forced relocation and internment of 120,000
Japanese-Americans on US soil during World War II. His newest publication, a graphic memoir titled
They Called Us Enemy details his and his family’s experience during this dark chapter
in American history. George, thank you for making
time to speak with me today. It’s a great honor. – It’s my pleasure to be with you. – And I just wanted to go
ahead and dive right into it. You have been present in many
forms of media to speak about, in addition to, of course, other topics. The internment of Japanese-Americans
during World War II. May I ask you to just
give us a brief overview of Executive Order 9066
issued by, of course, FDR, President Roosevelt, in 1942, and the consequences that that
had for you and your family and, of course, thousands and thousands of other Japanese-Americans
during that time? – Well, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7th 1941, the United States was swept up by fear. They thought possibly
there might be bombings on the Pacific Coast, and war hysteria that
swept across the country. We looked just like the people
that bombed Pearl Harbor. We’re Americans. My mother was born in Sacramento. My father was born in Japan, but his mother died
shortly when he was a boy, and my widower grandfather
decided to come to America. This was around the turn of the century. And my paternal grandfather
brought his two boys, my father being the
younger, to San Francisco. He was reared and
educated in San Francisco. He felt he was a San Franciscan. He lived in Los Angeles longer than he lived in San Francisco, but he kept calling
himself a San Franciscan. I think once you’re a San Franciscan, you’re always a San Franciscan. My father was American in spirit, my mother was American by birth. They met and married in Los Angeles, and my brother and sister and
I were born in Los Angeles. We’re Americans but we looked exactly like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. The war hysteria was combined with racism. President Roosevelt got stampeded by that sweep of generalization
that we are a threat to the national security
of the United States. And he signed that executive order, which allowed the rounding up, with no charges, with
no trial, due process, the central pillar of our
justice system simply disappeared with no evidence of any of
the suspicions held about us that we’re potential spies,
saboteurs, and fifth columnists. We were rounded up and forcibly imprisoned in 10 of the most desolate
places in the United States. We were sent to the swamps of Arkansas, the camp called Rohwer. There were two camps in the blistering hot desert in Arizona. There were camps on the High Plains. The wind swept bitterly cold. Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado. And two of the most desolate
places in California held two barbwire concentration camps, for all rights and purposes, and that’s where four years
of our lives were spent the duration of the war. And when the war was over,
just as irrationally, the gates were thrown
open and we were freed. – I understand. I had read that, and I hadn’t known this, I’d known that you and your
family had been in Camp Rohwer and then transferred to Tuhle
Lake in Northern California. – [George] That’s right. – What I hadn’t known was that before your arrival in Arkansas, you were in at the Santa Anita Race Track. – [George] That’s right. – Can you tell me a little
bit about that experience? – The barbwire camps
were under construction after February 19th when President Roosevelt
signed that executive order. I turned five years old in
April, April 20th, 1942, and a few weeks after that, my parents got me up
very early one morning together with my brother, who was four, and my baby sister who
was still an infant. They dressed us hurriedly
and my brother and I were told to wait in the living room while our parents did
some last minute packing back in the bedroom. The two of us were just
gazing out the front window when suddenly we saw two soldiers
marching up our driveway, carrying rifles with
shiny bayonets on them. They stomped up the porch
and with their fists, began pounding on the door. My father came out from the
bedroom and answered the door, and literally at gunpoint, we
were ordered out of our home. My father gave my brother and
me small packages to carry and he had two heavy-looking suitcases, and we followed him out
and stood on the driveway waiting for our mother to come out. 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 face. The camps were still under construction so we were taken to nearby race track, Santa Anita Race Track, which was called the Assembly Center. But there were chain link fences around this once glamorous race track where Hollywood stars
gathered glamorously dressed. The chain link fence had
concertina wires over them. It was a prison camp. We were unloaded from the truck and herded over to the stable area, and each family was
assigned a horse stall, where horses were kept, still pungent with the stink
of horse manure, to a stable. There were two parallel stories here. For my parents, it was a
degrading, humiliating, painful day to go from a two-bedroom home on Garnet Street in Los
Angeles, taking their children into a confining horse
stall crammed with cots. No space to walk. We had to crawl over the cots
to get over to the far cot. For me, a five-year-old kid, it was fun to sleep
where the horsies sleep. I can smell them. Two parallel stories, which I tell in the graphic
memoir They Called Us Enemy. The shower area was an open area where horses were washed down. It was degrading. – But of course, in the graphic memoir, and of course in other places where you’ve written and given interviews, talking about that experience through your eyes as a small boy and how that was very different from what your parents experienced, and you had also mentioned
that this was something, and certainly understandably so, that that generation after
this event didn’t talk about. – [George] No. – And that as a result, there
are a large number of people who don’t know this part
of their familial history and a part of their cultural history. Certainly, what you’ve written about, and of course your
performance in Allegiance, which is just an absolutely
wonderful Broadway play, getting it out there, more
about this information. This happened, of course,
it’s incredibly important. – It’s vitally important to talk about it. Yes. So many of my parents’ generation
were so wounded, pained, and shamed by that experience, but the shame was in the wrong place. The shame was the government’s shame, and yet the victims took
on that shame as well. For understandable reasons,
they didn’t talk about it. It was personally painful, but they didn’t wanna inflict
that pain on their children, which was mistaken, but it’s understandable and
they didn’t talk about it. However, my father did. As a teenager, when I
became very curious about what I knew to be my
childhood imprisonment, and couldn’t find anything
about it in our history books, I became a veracious reader. I read the civics books hoping there might be something there. I found nothing on the internment, but I found the noble
ideals of our democracy and I couldn’t reconcile the two. And so, I had many, many
after-dinner conversations with my father. Some of them got quite heated because I was an idealistic young kid. I’d been listening to eloquent speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King on the radio and I was inspired by
them, and I kept saying, “But daddy, but daddy, that was wrong!” and, “I would’ve done this,
I would’ve done that.” My father said, “Well, yeah,
I can see you doing that, “but this is how I felt. “I had to think about your mother.” – You and your siblings.
– Your brother, your sister, and you. They’re pointing guns at me. If something happened to me, what do you think would
happen to your mother? All you guys? And I understood that part,
but I kept saying, “But daddy.” And so, my father was the one who explained to me
about American democracy. He said, “It’s a people’s democracy “and the people have the
capacity to do great things, “those ideals that you’re reading
about in the civics books, “but the people are also
fallible human beings “and people make mistakes.” President Roosevelt, during the
’30s, was a great president. We had a crushing depression at that time. People were lining up in long
lines, hungry, unemployed. It was a devastating time for America, and President Roosevelt, with his political savvy connections and his creative problem
solving was able to create jobs, make post offices, roads, bridges, and pulled the country up. He was a great president, but a president is also a human being with all of the fallibilities. And when a great president makes mistakes, he makes great mistakes that
have painful consequences, and we were the ones
that were pained by it. Our democracy is dependent on people who cherish those noble ideals and actively participate in
a participatory democracy. Our democracy is existentially dependent on people who cherish the ideals and work and participate
within that government to try to make it a true democracy. And I kept saying, “But daddy, but daddy.” So he said, “Let me show
you how it’s gotta work.” One Sunday morning, he drove me down to the Adlai Stevenson for
President campaign headquarters and there I saw all these other people passionately dedicated
to getting this great and eloquent governor of
Illinois elected president, and I understood what it takes. And so, in many ways, my
father shaped who I am and made me the activist that I became. – And certainly, especially
from reading this, that affection and respect
and admiration for your father is incredibly clear in this. During that time, I
believe you volunteered at the campaign headquarters. There was a campaign headquarters that you were volunteering
in during, I believe, perhaps it was your teenage years. – That was the Adlai Stevenson for President campaign headquarters. – And there was a guest who came to that campaign headquarters. Can you talk a little bit about that? – Ah, yes. One day, this whispered, excited electricity went through
the campaign headquarters. She’s coming, she’s coming. Who’s coming? Mrs. Roosevelt’s coming. And I was excited. I’d read about her and seen
her photos in the newspapers. She was a great first lady,
an extraordinary first lady. And I was excited, but my father suddenly felt uncomfortable. He said, “I think I
better go home and rest.” And he just excused himself. I was excited. The campaign headquarters
people had us all, the volunteers all line up by the doorway, and then the black-suited sharp-eyed men came looking all over. – Certainly, yes. – They were the CIA people, or FBI people, and then, in swept Mrs. Roosevelt, and she went down the line
shaking everybody’s hand, smiling her full-teethed smile, and thanking us for our
contribution to Adlai’s campaign. I can’t tell you how thrilled it was for a teenage me to shake
the former first lady’s hand. And it was an exciting moment,
but my daddy wasn’t there and I later speculated why. – Did you ever talk about that with him, or was it something–
– I never did, no. – [Jon] No. – I understood my father
even by that time– – To know what?
– To not put him through that discomfort. – Was it your father who had talked to you
about in Japanese, Gaman? – Gaman, yes. – [Jon] Did that come from your father? Was he the one?
– Yes. – Could you talk a little bit about that? Do you remember when he
first said that to you? – Well, so many Japanese parents, Japanese-American parents
were telling their children, who spoke on the internment, they used the phrase shikata
ga nai, nothing could be done, which was such a passive reaction. My father said, “There is something else “that made it possible
for us to survive that, “and it was Gaman.” Resilience. And he said, “Resilience, Gaman, “isn’t just biting the bullet
and tightening the muscles, “it’s to be human and survive. “That means also the strength “to find beauty in harsh circumstances. “That’s also being human and
determination to survive. “To create joy, human enjoyment, “what it means to be human,
and maybe to find love.” People did get married in camp. And he said, “That’s a part “of the thing called resilience or Gaman “and to maintain your dignity “under these difficult circumstances.” When we started developing allegiance, and our composer/lyricist was looking for some word that
could become a iconic song and that captures that
not passive and inactive, shikata ga nai, nothing can be done, that affirmative word for resilience, and that’s where that
song Gaman came about. – I read certainly, and of
course in the graphic memoir, about your father, Takekuma Norman Takei. You talked a bit, you wrote
a bit about his roles, I believe at both of the
camps, as a block manager. How did that come about? Was it simply a natural progression of his place in the community, or was it something that he was
very passionate about doing, or it was something where
he felt a responsibility, or a combination of all of those? – The people that were the identified leaders of the community like the Kenjinkai president, the prefectural organization president, they were rounded up
immediately after December 7th. On the night of December
7th, December 8th, and December 9th, they were rounded up, and that so-called
leaders of the community included Buddhist ministers, Japanese language
teachers, Judo instructors, and the president of
the Bonsai Association, flower arrangement, or miniature– – Ikebana?
– Ikebana Associations. They were considered ominous
threats to the government because they were
leaders of the community. My father wasn’t a part of that. He was middle-aged and making a living, and so he wasn’t considered the
threat to national security. However, my father spoke both
Japanese and English fluently, and he was able to communicate
with the immigrant generation as well as the American-born,
English-speaking generation. He was asked to serve as the block manager in both the Arkansas camp and later, the segregation camp for
disloyals at Tuhle Lake. – I’d like to get into
that just a little bit. Could you tell us a little bit about the loyalty questionnaire, and specifically about
questions 27 and 28, and how your parents specifically
answered those questions, and the consequences of that? – Well, immediately after Pearl Harbor, many young Japanese-Americans, like many American, the young people, rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the US military. – [Jon] Like every other American. – Very patriotic act. This was answered by the denial of their volunteering for the military, and they were categorized as enemy alien. It was totally irrational. Here are patriots volunteering
to possibly die for America, and to call them the enemy
made absolutely no sense. It was crazy, and equally
crazy was to call them aliens. They were not alien. They were born here,
raised here, educated here, and then, they were put into
these prison camps for a year. And then the government realized there’s a wartime man power shortage. We don’t have enough people,
and here are all these people, young people, that they could’ve had, but they had categorized as enemy aliens. How to justify drafting people out of an American concentration camp? Their solution was as crazy
as the imprisonment itself. It was a series of loyalty
questionnaire questions, about 30 questions. Two of the most controversial that turned all 10 camps
into confusion and outrage were questions 27 and 28. Question 27 asked, and
everyone over the age of 17 had to respond to the
loyalty questionnaire, men or women, 17 or 87. Question 27 asked, “Would you bear arms “to defend the United States of America?” This being asked of my mother
who had three young children. By that time, I was six,
my brother was five, my baby sister was a toddler. She was being asked to
abandon us and bear arms to defend the nation that’s
imprisoning her family. It was preposterous! My mother answered no, as did my father. Question 28 was one sentence
with two conflicting ideas. It asked, “Will you swear your loyalty “to the United States of America “and/or swear your loyalty
to the Emperor of Japan?” Loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? We’re Americans. We never even thought of the Emperor, much less swear loyalty to the Emperor. And for the government to assume, presume that there is an existing, racial, in-born loyalty to the
Emperor was insulting! If you answered no, meaning I don’t have a loyalty
to the Emperor to forswear, that no applied to the first
part as well, which asked, “Will you swear your loyalty
to the United States?” If you answered yes, meaning I do swear my
loyalty to the United States, then that yes applied to the second part, meant that you were confessing, that you had been loyal to the Emperor and were now prepared
to forswear that loyalty and re-pledge your loyalty
to the United States. It was offensive, insulting,
so my parents answered no. It was preposterous. The writer of that question was ignorant, and because of that, they
were categorized as disloyal and we had to be transferred
from Rohwer, the Arkansas camp, to what they called a
segregation camp for disloyals in Northern California
right by the Oregon border, a camp called Tuhle Lake. And the overreaction was as equally crazy. It was not just one
layer of barbwire fence, but two more layers. Three layers of barbwire fences and a half a dozen tanks
patrolling the perimeter. Tanks guarding people that
were goaded into outrage by the government’s stupidity. And now they’re using tanks which belong on a battlefield rather than outrage American
citizens and intimidating them with tanks rumbling around the perimeter. – You had also described
the sentry towers there. And if I had seen the depiction correctly in the graphic memoir, in
Arkansas, they were sentry towers, but they had regular rifles. – [George] Right. – How was it different? – They had search lights,
they had machine guns. It was a concentration camp. – What was waiting for your family when you were released from
Tuhle Lake in, it was 1946? – ’46. Actually, from late in
1945, one could leave. It was formerly going to be closed and people let out
finally in March of 1946. My father left earlier. I think it was December of 1945. Their decision was to
go back to Los Angeles, and the rumor was that it
was still intensely hostile and it’d be very difficult, so he left first to scout out
what Los Angeles was like. – [Jon] Understood. – And he said our mother
would stay with us until he writes her and
tells her it’s okay. And so, we were there
until February of 1946. – When you went back to Los Angeles, where did your family reside? – Housing was impossible. The only place we could find housing, and we were impoverished,
they took everything from us, was on Skid Row. And that, to us, was the
next terrifying moment. We were free, we didn’t
understand what that word meant because this was a horrific hellhole. Chaos, sheer chaos, noise,
brawling, smelly, ugly, scary people staggering
about, leaning on the walls, fighting each other,
braying at each other, women were shrieking and
pulling each other’s hair, the stench of human waste was unbearable in places on the street, in the hallways, the shrieking of sirens day and night, and at night, our Skid Row
room would suddenly glow, throb red from the police cars of the red light.
– Oh! – It was horrifying. And one day, we were
walking down the sidewalk and this derelict came staggering
toward us glaring at us, and we stopped and we thought
he was going to attack us, and then suddenly he collapsed right in front of us and barfed. And my baby sister shrieked,
“Mama, let’s go back home.” – [Jon] What did home mean? – Home. She was an infant when we
went into the internment camp. That was all she knew. And at least there, we
had the barbwire fence. There was order, regimentation, it wasn’t this chaos
and noise all the time. She wanted to go back
behind barbwire fences because being freed was such a horrific, harrowing experience for us kids. – I understand. I’d like to go ahead and move on to when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of
1988, also known as H.R.442, named after the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated unit of World War II, comprised almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, mostly Nisei. – So came from behind
barbwire imprisonment, and then they were put into a segregated, all Japanese-American unit, sent to the battlefields of Europe. The Japanese-American Nisei soldiers were put into a segregated,
all-Japanese-American unit, they were sent to the
battlefields of Europe, and they fought with
incredible courage and– – [Jon] Heroism. – Literal heroism. They sustained the highest
combat casualty rate of any unit of the second world war, came back the most decorated unit, welcomed back to the United
States on the White House lawn by President Harry
Truman who said to them, “You fought not only the enemy,
but prejudice, and you won.” – The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which President Reagan signed, this is a federal law
that, among other things, provided reparations of
$20,000 per surviving internee. I believe at that point, out of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans
who had been interned, only about 60,000 were left at that point. – My father had passed in 1979, and he was the one in our
family who most bore the pain and the outrage and the
anguish of internment the most and he passed without ever knowing that there would be that
apology and that token redress. – That was the later part of my question, what he would’ve thought when he heard President
Reagan’s words when he said, “What is most important in this bill “has less to do with
property than with honor, “for here we admit a wrong, “here we reaffirm our commitment “as a nation to equal
justice under the law.” And I couldn’t help but wonder what he would’ve thought hearing those words at that ceremony. – Well, when I was a teenager and having those after-dinner
conversations with him, he did talk about equal
justice under the law, which was, in our case, not true. And he was hoping that by our active
participation in the process, that we would make that kind
of violation not happen again, that there would be a truer,
equal justice under the law. He died never to know that. But I’m sure that if he had been alive, he would have felt very, very fulfilled. I don’t know if that’s
quite the word or not, but– – I understand.
– To know that there would be that next
step of understanding on the level of the
government that they can fail and that it’s very important for people who cherish
ideals of our democracy and our justice system, like
equal justice under the law, to be faithful to it. That hope that my father had, that has shaped me to be an advocate for that kind of
understanding of our system, that we have to participate
in keeping it true because we have fallible human beings in our people’s democracy. The reason I wrote the
graphic, the memoir, They Called Us Enemy, I
grew up on comic books. We wanna reach the next
generation of Americans, the teenagers and the young adult readers, because at that age, they’re most eager to absorb information that will stay with them
through the rest of their lives. And with that kind of populace that has that understanding
of our history, we will hopefully avoid
the kind of situation that we have now on our Southern border where that same kind of
sweeping generalization that we were subjected
to after Pearl Harbor, now, it’s they’re drug
dealers, rapists, murderers. That kind of generalization, or the first Trump executive
order, the Muslim Travel Ban, characterizing all Muslims
as potential terrorists, that mentality will be in the minority and that the majority of Americans will really, truly
understand how precious, but also how fragile the
ideals of our democracy are. Equal justice under the law. This is a nation ruled by the rule of law. These are precious, defining
ideals of our democracy, but it’s also a people’s democracy. – It’s up to us. – It’s up to us. It’s a participatory democracy. We have to actively participate, we who cherish those ideals. Our democracy is existentially dependent on people who cherish those ideals involved in the process of democracy. Number one, to vote. Number two, to volunteer. To support the kind of candidates that they share those ideals with. Number three, you might be appointed to ask to serve on a public
commission or a board. And ultimately, to
consider offering yourself to run for public elective office to represent the people
who cherish those ideals. – Thank you so much for
these words and, again, for making time in your
incredibly busy schedule to speak with me today. (speaks in foreign language) – Thank you for doing what you’re doing. – Thank you for coming here. And I do wanna say here, this
wonderful graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy,
I just learned from you reached the New York
Times Best Seller list. – Yes.
– Congratulations. – Thank you very much. – And I’m looking forward
to seeing you in the AMC, The Terror, Season Two, which takes place in the same
setting that we discussed. So again, thank you so
much for coming today. – Thank you for all that you’re doing. You’re one of the people that
is actively participating in our participatory democracy. (speaks in foreign language) – Thank you so much.
(speaks in foreign language) (George laughs)

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