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Star Trek’s George Takei shares his journey ‘From Internment to Stardom’

Actor and activist George Takei stands in front of a brick wall and window.
Lorenzo Bevilaqua
/
American Broadcasting Companies,
Actor and activist George Takei recently visited New Hampshire to give a talk at Dartmouth College titled 'From Internment to Stardom.'

Actor, writer and activist George Takei is known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek series, and has also spoken openly about his experience in an internment camp as a Japanese American during World War II.

He was recently in New Hampshire as a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College, where he gave a talk called “From Internment to Stardom.”

Takei spoke with NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa about his experience during the war and his ongoing activism. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Transcript

George, you've written and spoken about your family's experience during World War II. You were just four years old when you were taken from your Los Angeles home and imprisoned at an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese Americans. How did that shape your identity as an American as you grew up?

Well, as you can imagine, it was a very formative period of my life. Five years old to eight and a half years old. I mean, Japanese Americans are a small minority. And I had it forcefully embedded in me that we are a hated minority. And certainly that was true not only during the time that we were behind barbed wire fences, but when we returned to Los Angeles. Nothing had changed just because the war was over. The hatred was still intense. I had a teacher that constantly called me the ‘little Jap boy,’ and on the playground she would pick me out to scold. And I remember how tightly and roughly she grabbed my arm and pulled me about. And I knew that she hated me, and I hated her right back. So I came back into a society that let me know that we were hated.

George, you faced a lot of discrimination and hate when you came back to your community, but over the course of your lifetime, you got a major role on Star Trek, and you were greeted with many fans and a lot of love. What was that transition like for you?

I was always conscious of my differences. I’d see other Asian roles played by other Asian actors, and they were usually stereotypical: either buffoons or villains. So even in the arena of my aspiration, there were no real heroes for me to aspire to, except when I went to Japanese films where I saw heroic roles being played by people that looked like me. So it was a constant reminder that it is a struggle. And of course, my father wanted me to be an architect. But here I am, passionately, wanting to be an actor. Those constraining forces [were] always around me.

More than 125,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. Do you think Americans know enough about this part of our history? Are we talking enough about it in history classes or at home?

I'm always shocked when I share my history, my childhood imprisonment, with other people, Americans, and they are aghast that such a thing happened in the United States. And that is one of our weaknesses, I think, because I think there's so much to learn from the imprisonment of innocent people, simply based on race. For so many Americans to be ignorant of that history of America, I mean, the lessons from my childhood imprisonment underscores the importance of that lesson for our times today.

As the years pass, fewer and fewer people who lived through Japanese American internment are still with us. What can we do to keep these stories alive?

I have been writing about it, and we put together a Broadway musical titled ‘Allegiance’ about it, and I've taken it as my mission in life to inform other Americans of that chapter of American history, because it's so relevant to America today.

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Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

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