"I'm an American" — George Takei on a lifetime of defying stereotypes
George Takei, the actor and activist perhaps best known for playing Sulu in "Star Trek" or for his posts on civil rights to his social media followers, has lived many lives. Among them, he was one of roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in World War II. It's an experience that he says he feels more obliged than ever to discuss.
He recently recalled his experience for The New York Times. “I was 7 years old when we were transferred to another camp for ‘disloyals.’" His parents' only crime, he said, was refusing, out of principle, to sign a loyalty pledge to the government. "The authorities had already taken my parents’ home on Garnet Street in Los Angeles, their once thriving dry cleaning business, and finally their liberty.”
After his family was released, Takei ran for school government in junior high and high school and studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He later earned a degree in drama from the University of California, Los Angeles.
In 1966, he began playing the role of Hikaru Sulu in the "Star Trek" television series. From the beginning, Takei fought stereotypes imposed on his character. Stereotypes are general ideas about races or genders that are not based in truth. For example, in one "Star Trek" episode, Takei convinced writer John D.F. Black that Sulu shouldn’t be holding a samurai sword, but instead one more like something a musketeer would use.
Since then, his voice and influence have continued to grow as a community activist, writer and performer. He told the Associated Press in 2005 that, “The world has changed from when I was a young teen feeling ashamed for being gay.” Then he declared marriage was his next political issue.
In 2011, he offered his last name to replace the word “gay” when Tennessee state lawmakers passed a bill for schools. The bill prohibited school teachers or students from talking about sexuality with students. He suggested people instead say they support “Takei” marriage or are going to a “Takei” parade.
Now, he’s starring as "the Reciter" in the off-Broadway play musical "Pacific Overtures" at Classic Stage Company. The musical is about Japan when U.S. Navy leader Matthew Perry set out to open the isolated islands to international trade in 1853.
This year, 75 years after the executive order for internment, Takei is using his platform to criticize the current administration’s approach to immigration. President Donald Trump has taken steps to restrict immigrants coming in.
Takei recently talked to the NewsHour Weekend about his work and the importance of learning about American history, from internment to activism.
Tell us about the role of the Reciter in "Pacific Overtures."
There is a history to "Pacific Overtures." When it was first done, Hal Prince, the director, initially was absolutely smitten by Kabuki, the Japanese theater form. He wanted to interpret this story in that structure. And so he, the Reciter, is a part of Kabuki, as are the black-clad stagehands and wardrobe people that come on stage and help with the changes. And so the reciter is someone who helps with the explanation and transitions and some of the interior talk of the actors.
This production at the Classic Stage Company is directed by John Doyle. Here, he took on this story, a chapter from Japanese history that involves the first time participation of Americans, an American Navy officer named Matthew Perry, who comes to a closed-off Japan to open it up to trade. Well, he took this story and reduced it down to its minimum. And that’s very Japanese.
By the end of the play, you see a Broadway musical with high kicking. But it’s a Japanese production, different from any other previous productions which claim to be Kabuki style.
Do you have any concerns when people who aren’t from Asia tell the stories of Japanese people or Asian people?
You know, Shakespeare wrote about Italy. A gifted artist who has the integrity to really do the research is much better than the actual someone of that ethnicity who doesn’t have that talent. John Doyle was born and raised in Inverness, a Scotsman. And yet he’s able to understand Japanese aesthetics.
Do you ever feel as if you’re asked to speak for entire communities or communities that you don’t necessarily identify with?
Well, I am an American. America has a mix of people. But we all subscribe to the values and the spirit and the Constitution of the United States. I don’t need to have my integrity as someone of Japanese ancestry, although I do have that too because Japanese-Americans have a uniquely American history. But I am an American, and I will speak as an American.
I’m concerned about the Muslim condition here because Japanese-Americans in 1941, ’42 were subjected to the same kind of attitudes, the hatred I should say, with absolutely no basis in fact. Just because of their faith they’re seen as potential terrorists. And just because of our ancestry, because of our faces, Japanese-Americans were seen as potential spies.
What can people do to prevent persecution of the Muslim community?
Our educational system leaves a great deal to be desired. I’m always shocked, to this day, when people that I consider reasonably well-read and informed are shocked when I tell them about my childhood behind American barbed-wire fences. They’re horrified that something like that happened. That’s why we did Allegiance, a musical based on the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, innocent people. Not a single case of spying was proved. We were all 100 percent innocent. But the kind of brutality that went on in the camps, the horrors, and then to be poor, and then when the war’s over, the gates are opened and you’re free.
If you could use three words to identify yourself, what would they be?
I'm an American.
What do you think is the most effective way to talk about offensive language?
It depends on the situation and the person you’re talking to. It’s usually someone who’s ignorant, but you know, basic fundamentally a nice guy. Then you try to educate that person. If it’s someone that is enraged, and I don’t know why, but that’s a situation that you need to be very careful about.