George Takei on challenging the ‘mindless inhumanity’ of U.S. history’s darker chapters

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Long before
George Takei made his name in the TV show “Star Trek,” and later became a popular civil
rights activist, he and his family were rounded up by the U.S. government during World War
II and put in Japanese internment camps. As William Brangham learned, Takei’s recent
graphic novel connects the way some view immigrants today with how his family and over 100,000
others were treated nearly 80 years ago. Their conversation starts, just as the book
does, on the day Takei’s family was taken away. It’s part of our regular arts and culture
coverage, Canvas. GEORGE TAKEI, Author, “They Called Us Enemy”:
We were at the front window just gazing out, and, suddenly, we saw two soldiers marching
up the driveway, carrying rifles with shiny bayonets. They stomped up the front porch, and with
their fists began pounding on the door. And, that, I can’t forget. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Really? GEORGE TAKEI: My father came out, answered
the door. And we were ordered to leave the house. They were questioning my mother. And when she came out, she had our baby sister
in one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other. Tears were streaming down her face. That was, to us, shocking and absolutely scary. NARRATOR: The beginning of America’s war with
Japan opened very badly for America’s Navy. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was 1941. The U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor had just
been attacked by the Japanese. And now American soldiers were coming for
George Takei’s family at their home in Los Angeles. Fearing that people of Japanese ancestry were
potential spies or saboteurs, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and
more than 100,000 people across the West Coast were rounded up. Can you help us understand why you think America
reacted the way it did? I mean, Pearl Harbor was an absolute tragedy
and a surprise brutal attack. GEORGE TAKEI: Prior to Pearl Harbor, in the
media, the characterization of all Asians, we were either buffoons or silent, passive
servants, or cruel, evil villains. And so that stereotype was turned against
us. We were Americans, but we looked like the
enemy. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The world first got to know
George Takei when he played Hikaru Sulu on the hugely popular TV show “Star Trek.” GEORGE TAKEI: Completing the seeding orbit,
Captain. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Forty years later, “Trek”
fans still mob him at sci-fi and comic book conventions. Takei has also become an influential civil
rights and LGBTQ rights activist. But, for years, he’s also been telling the
story of his family’s internment during World War II, in a memoir, on Broadway. ACTOR: They’re treating us like animals. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And now in a new graphic
novel titled “They Called Us Enemy.” GEORGE TAKEI: There have been documentaries
now, there have been other books written, and yet to this day there are people that
don’t know and are astounded when I share this story with them. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Back in 1941, young George
and his family were forced to leave their homes with only the bags they could carry. People lost their homes, their cars, their
businesses, either sold in desperation or stolen outright. GEORGE TAKEI: There just wasn’t time to sell
everything. My father sold his car, a Pontiac, dark green
Pontiac, for $5. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Five dollars? GEORGE TAKEI: It was better than just leaving
it there. People lost everything, things that they couldn’t
sell abandoned and raided by those vultures. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Throughout the book, Takei
contrasts his parents’ anguish about their treatment with his more childlike view, like
when they were initially detained at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. GEORGE TAKEI: Later on, I remember my mother
saying it was the most degrading, humiliating thing to take their children into this horse
stall with the pungent smell of horse manure. But to 5-year-old me, I thought it was fun
to sleep where the horseys sleep. (LAUGHTER) GEORGE TAKEI: I can smell the horseys, you
know? So two different reactions on the same event. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Takei and his family were
later sent to live behind barbed wire in a camp in rural Arkansas, one of the 10 permanent
camps spread across the U.S. They weren’t hurt or interrogated, but, in
some camps, especially when the government tried to get people to sign notorious loyalty
oaths, protests were met with violent pushback. Takei and his family were kept imprisoned
for nearly four years. When the war ended, the camps were closed,
and everyone was let go. Takei and his family went back to Southern
California penniless. They had to start over again. You have been telling this story for years,
on stage, in memoirs, in speeches, on commissions, now in this graphic novel. Why is this — why do you keep wanting to
tell this story? GEORGE TAKEI: Because, today, we are living
through another cycle of this story of mindless inhumanity. Latinos coming from Central America and Mexico,
desperate people fleeing violence and poverty, now children, infants are being torn away
from them and put into filthy cages with poor hygiene, human waste, and poor diet. This kind of repetition of the same sort of
thing that we went through 75 years ago is being repeated. And with this book, I hope that young people
are getting this information at that point, and they grow up with it, so by the time they’re
adults, they are going to be a different breed of Americans, aware of the history of this
country. We have plenty of glorious chapters. Some of the darker chapters are the lessons
that we really need to learn. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The book is “They Called
Us Enemy.” George Takei, thank you very, very much. GEORGE TAKEI: Thank you for allowing me to
share. JUDY WOODRUFF: It has to be such a powerful

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