Actor and activist George Takei arrives in Greensboro this weekend for the Guilford College Bryan Series. The Bryan series guest will address students on campus Monday afternoon, and will speak at the Greensboro Coliseum that evening.
He took some time this week to speak with 1808's editor Tina Firesheets and creative director Mel Umbarger. He spoke of his family's internment during World War II and of his Broadway musical production based on the experience, "Allegiance." He also spoke of his respect for democracy and his dedication to political involvement and activism. We have edited our conversation some for length and ease of reading.
Q: Will this be your first visit to Greensboro?
A: No, as a matter of fact, I’ve been to Greensboro before. Guess for what.
A: It was a Star Trek Convention. It was at a big hall (about four decades ago).
Q: Can you imagine what your life might have been without Star Trek?
A: You know, really it was a major benchmark in my life because it was groundbreaking casting, first of all to not play a servant or a buffoon or a villain, which was the stereotype that almost all Asian characters were back then. And then, to be part of a team, a heroic team, the leadership team of futuristic space exploratory agency was a really unique opportunity – a groundbreaking opportunity. No stereotypes, no accents, I was part of the leadership crew. So I’m very proud of my association with Star Trek. But the thing is, it was cancelled after three years, and I was starting my career all over again. With a television series, cancellation means you don’t work for a long time because you’re very much identified with that character. So it was a matter of being creative and finding unique opportunities when they come.
... And I found that opportunity in public transportation of all things. I was the helmsman of the Enterprise, and so I was still involved in public transportation. Mayor Tom Bradley, for whom I campaigned here, appointed me to the board of directors of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. His mandate to us was to get started on building the first subway system in Los Angeles. And we have that now operating. I served on it from its inception to passing the half cent sales tax and getting the federal match and getting the state match fro Sacremento and holding all the public meetings on the rod alignment and the station location, and I served for 11 years on that board. And so next time you visit Los Angeles, you have to take a ride on the most, the newest, most futuristic of all the public transit subway systems in the United States – the Los Angeles Metro Rail.
Q: Have you ever considered pursuing more political aspirations?
A: Political races?
Q: Yes. Would you ever run for President?
A: Start from the top, huh? Reach for the highest star? Would you do that? A journalist running for President?
A: Of course, because that’s ridiculous. No, I will not run for President. I must say that I did run for President of my High School – Student Body President. And I won. So I’ve been a political activist from my high school days. Junior high school days, as a matter of fact.”
Q: Is there anything that you would still like to do in terms of your career or your activism?
A: Well, you know, I just closed with the Broadway Show that ran for five months. I call it my legacy project. Its setting is the internment camp. You know, Japanese Americans – American citizens of Japanese ancestry were put in World War II prison camps, simply because we happen to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. There were no charges, and therefore no trials and simply because of our race, we were put into these prison camps for the duration of the war. It’s a fact that very few Americans, particularly East of the Rockies know about. So we created a musical on that, called “Allegiance,” because it was our allegiance that was challenged, but in real fact, the American ideals were challenged by the U.S. Government. It was the most egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution, and we made a musical out of that. We played to cheering spontaneous standing ovations and shouts of ‘Bravo Bravo Bravo’ for five months on Broadway.
Q: Are there any plans for a national tour of it?
A: I don’t think national. We’re looking at the West Coast, because this is where memory of that chapter of American history exists. You know, the thing we discovered was, there were people during intermission, in the lobby saying, ‘Is this true? Did this really happen?’ East of the Rockies, people really don’t know about this chapter of American history. And I don’t think the people of North Carolina certainly don’t … it’s an embarrassing part of American history. ... I think we learn more, from those chapters of American history where our democracy faltered than the many, many glorious chapters. We know of the shining ideals of our democracy. But we learn more, I think, from where we failed so that we can make our democracy a truer democracy, and it should be a part of the curriculum of our educational system.That’s what we’re working on. We founded the Japanese American National Museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian. It’s about the Japanese American experience, including the incarceration during the Second World War, and we send our exhibits throughout the country. I don’t think we have sent an exhibit to N.C. yet, but we’ve sent exhibits to New York City, an exhibit called ‘America’s Concentration Camp.’ We’ve sent exhibits to Texas, to Chicago, to Seattle to San Francisco. To some of the major cities. I think we should consider North Carolina – another important place.”
Q: Do you see any parallels from the time period of the internment camps (to the current political climate)?
A: Indeed I do. As a matter of fact, shortly after he (Donald Trump) banned all Muslims from entering into the United States, I extended a public invitation to Donald Trump to come see ‘Allegiance’ because he apparently is uninformed on that chapter of American history as well, where American citizens were put into prison camps simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. There is a big lesson to be learned from the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. And Donald Trump doesn’t know that. I extended that invitation, and from that day on, we had a seat reserved for Donald Trump, and we counted down the performances that he missed. All together, he missed 91 performances since I extended the invitation.
The climate, the electoral climate here today is very, very resonant to me, of the times in the early 1940’s. This whole nation was swept up by war hysteria. And elected leaders, and many of them turned out to be great men. For example, in California, we had an Attorney General, an Attorney General, the top lawyer in the state of California, who knew the Constitution, who knew the law, became one of the outspoken advocates of locking up Japanese Americans. He made amazing statement. He said, ‘We have no report of spying or sabotage or (sic) activity by Japanese Americans, and that is ominous because Japanese are inscrutable. You don’t know what they’re thinking so we better lock them up before they do anything. So for this attorney general, this lawyer, the absence of evidence was the evidence. And he fanned the flames of racial hysteria at that time. That hysteria reached all the way up to the presidency of the United States, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive orders 9066, which put us in those prison camps. His fallibility was he was ambitious and he wanted to be governor of California, and he was willing to do anything to get that office and sure enough, he won as governor. And he was re-elected not once, but twice. He served three terms as governor of California back in the ‘40’s, and early 50’s, and then he was appointed to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. His name is, and I think you’ll recognize it, Earl Warren – the great liberal Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Great people got swept up by war hysteria and racism, and imprisoned innocent American citizens who had done nothing, we had nothing to do with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My mother was born in Sacramento, my father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles, and I was born in Los Angeles. And yet, we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor and so we were put into these prison camps with no charges, no charges – an egregious violation of our justice system. Due process, the central pillar of our democracy – our justice system is due process and that pillar was completely ignored. They labeled us ‘enemy aliens.’ We’re Americans. So it was suggested they re-categorize us 'enemy non-aliens.' What does that mean? Non-aliens? That is the word 'citizen' in the negative. They even took the word citizen away from us.
It was a dark time in American history, and here again, today, as we hold elections … there is an echo of that in certain ambitious people. We know who they are. And that’s why we did ‘Allegiance’ because what’s really questionable is their allegiance is what America is all about. You don’t ban millions and millions and millions of people of a certain faith – the Muslim faith, because a small sliver of a percentage of people who hold that faith are terrorists. I mean we have congress members who are of the Muslim faith. Go to Arlington National Cemetery, where all the people who died heroically for this country are buried, when you walk around there, you see on the headstones, religious symbols of the faith of people that are buried there had, and there are a number that have the Muslim symbols there. Muslims have fought for this country and they have died for this country, and how dare Donald Trump say they’re all terrorists? There are more Muslims than Christians on this planet here, and yet he’s going to ban them all. That kind of hysteria in a national election for the presidency of the United States – the greatest nation in the world, is shameful.
Q: You’ve spoken before about how difficult it was in the internment camps and also how difficult it was once you left there. Your family really worked hard and struggled upon their release to rebuild. I know it must have been very difficult because a lot of those anti-Japanese attitudes were still present. How long did it take to feel comfortable?
A: I had a really unusual, remarkably unusual father because he, in our family, was the one that suffered the most. He used to say, ‘They took my business. They took our home, they took our freedom. The one thing I’m not going to give them is my dignity. I will not grovel before this government. And yet, when I was a teenager and I became very curious about my childhood imprisonment. I peppered my father with questions in after-dinner conversations. He was the one that explained American democracy to me. He said, ‘Our democracy is a people’s democracy and it can be as great as people can be, and it can be great…the founding fathers who articulated the ideals of this country, ‘All men are created equal endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ but we are also fallible human beings.’ Then he told me the story about Earl Warren, how people who have greatness in them, brilliance, leadership ability, also have fallibility, and in the case of Earl Warren, it was ambition. So our democracy is existentially dependent on people who cherish those ideals and actively engage in the process.
One Sunday afternoon, he took me downtown to the Adlai Stevenson for President headquarters and he introduced me to electoral politics. I was a teenager then, 16 or 17, you know? And there I was, working with other passionate idealists who wanted to see Governor Stevenson of Illinois elected President, and he was an inspiring person. I saw what it took to make our democracy work. And from that time on, I’ve been an activist, not only I the political arena, but in social justice advocacy. And so, with Allegiance, the musical that we just closed on Broadway, I was able to combine my passion for theatre and musical theatre with my personal belief in what democracy requires to make it true. People engaged. People involved. People volunteering. People taking on assignments. Serving on boards. When the Mayor asked me to serve on the transit district board, I said, ‘Mr. Mayor,’ - I don’t call him Tom, because he was a friend of mine. I said, ‘You know, I’m an actor, how are you going to sell me as a board member of this public transit board to the press?’ He said, ‘I have a way.’ And when he introduced me at the press conference, he said. ‘I’ve seen George Takei take hoards of people on a starship from Alpha City Two to Starbase 10. So there’s no reason why he can’t take us from downtown L.A. to Van Nuys.
Q: You mentioned your social justice advocacy, and you really do have an influential online profile, do you think your activism and outspokenness on social media have influenced young people to get engaged and get active in these sorts of causes?
A: I think it has. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I was reaching people. I have 9.5 million friends. Can you imagine 9.5 million friends on Facebook? I get some blow back from people on occasion, and I learn from them, but I like to think that I am communicating with people and getting them to think. And, you know, they share their ideas with me, and some of them are in disagreement. And if they’re well thought out, I listen to them and I learn from them. So it’s like – social media is like the old public square. Everybody gathers, and we all bring our soap boxes and there are hecklers and so forth, and we have trolls on social media. You learn to deal with them, but also you learn from them as well. It is part of the life process that at one time was on that community level on the town square, but now on literally a global level. I have friends in Prague, the Czech Republic or Melbourne, Australia or Lima, Peru. So this world we live in now is literally awe-inspiring. The word awesome is over used and used without people really knowing the meaning of being awed by something. But our technology has really created an awe-inspiring world around us.
Q: What is there left that you would like to do?
A: Oh my. What is there that I haven’t done yet? You named one of them, running for President. No, I’m 78-years-old. In a month I’ll be 79, and so I don’t think that qualifies me as a potential candidacy for the Presidency. But there’s a lot of life in me yet. My grandmother lived to be 104 and she was a dynamo. She told me her favorite hobby was collecting birthdays. And she said, if that isn’t your hobby, you don’t have a life. Literally.
And she had a wonderfully optimistic attitude, she had a wonderful sense of humor, and I think that’s what contributed to her longevity. She collected 104 of her favorite hobby.
She came from Japan, my grandmother was my mother’s mother. They were farmers in the Sacramento delta, but my grandparents went back to Japan shortly after the war.
Q: What did they think of your career, your acting career?
A: You know, when the marquee went up on the Longacre Theatre last year, it went up in September, I think, I really wished that my parents and my grandparents could have seen that with my name above the title on that big marquee. It was a moving moment for me. My grandmother lived to know that I did Star Trek. My grandfather died before that. But my parents did see me, well my father lived to see me on Star Trek. And he was very ill at the time we were filming Star Trek, the motion picture, which came ou tin 1979. My mother passed in 2002, so she saw me in all of the Star Trek movies and the Heroes TV series. So my mother, my 104-year-old grandmother’s daughter, saw a good part of my career.
Q: Were they theatrical or artistic, do you think it came from them?
A: No. No they were farmers. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a journalist with the Japanese American paper in San Francisco, but I come from a primarily a medical family. My brother is a surgeon of the gums – a periodontist. I have two cousins who are physicians , one is an ear-nose-throat specialist. I have an uncle who was a general practitioner, and I have grand nieces and nephews who are in medicine. So I am the black sheep of the family. And, I’m the only working member – I’m the oldest of my siblings – the youngest is my sister, she was a school teacher. But now she’s retired. My brother … is retired. I’m the oldest, and I’m still at it. I love what I do.
Tina Firesheets can be reached at (336) 373-7019 or firstname.lastname@example.org.