How Did I Not Know George Takei Spent Three Years of His Childhood in an Internment Camp?

George Takei was on Wits this week. Listening to the podcast on the train yesterday, I learned something I was shocked to not have already known. As you do on a talk show, host John Moe asked Takei about his latest project. The Star Trek star and activist discussed his musical Allegiance that will move to Broadway this year. Then, he described the play's inspiration: 

When I was five years old, soldiers came to our home in Los Angeles and ordered us out of our home at bayonet-point. And we were incarcerated for the duration of the Second World War simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. I was born in the United States. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. And there were no charges, no trial therefore: our due process simply disappeared.
Takei as a child at Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas

Takei as a child at Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas

I'd never known that Takei was a victim of internment. He's given a TED Talk about it, talked about it in his documentary, and now made a musical about it, but still I'd yet to come across the story.

He'd spent three years -- the same length of time he played Sulu on the original Star Trek -- in sunbaked camps surrounded by barbed wire as a child. Considered potential spies and saboteurs by the government, over 110,000 Japanese-Americans (the majority of whom were citizens like Takei) were kept in these camps. Internment destroyed communities and left families like Takei's penniless.

It was a brutal act motivated, as the federal government itself admitted in legislation that granted reparations to the victims in 1988, "by race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." The prejudice is clear even in how Executive Order 9066 was carried out. Despite vastly more German-Americans living in the country than Japanese-Americans, the total interned of German ancestry was a tenth that of the Japanese count. What's more, the Germans sent to camps were overwhelmingly foreign nationals while interned Japanese-Americans were overwhelmingly native-born citizens (foreign-born Japanese could not become naturalized citizens until 1952).

While its existence by no means justified internment, there actually was espionage by German-Americans during the war. The Duquesne Ring -- a spy ring of 33 German nationals, German-born naturalized citizens, and American-born citizens with German ancestry -- was the largest espionage case in American history. The leader, Fritz Duquesne, was born in South Africa and a naturalized US citizen. His incredible exploits as a hunter, soldier, spy, and journalist are worth reading about -- in particular, I can't recommend Jon Mooallem's American Hippopotamus highly enough.

By contrast, there don't appear to be any actual cases of espionage among Japanese-Americans whatsoever. Members of the Japanese government and military spied on the U.S. of course, but the suspicions that led to internment were clearly based on racial bias. A telling line occurs in this interview of George Takei. In 1943, he and the 110,000 other interned were asked a series of questions to determine their loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them without cause or due process for a year. One of the questions asked him to 'foreswear' loyalty to the emperor of Japan. 

For a Japanese-American, someone born and raised here, the word ‘foreswear’ was very offensive because it assumed by birth that you were ingrained with an inborn loyalty to emperor. I mean, you can’t foreswear something that doesn’t exist.
Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Tule Lake, the concentration camp at which George Takei spent two years of his childhood. Photo: Wikimedia CC

Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Tule Lake, the concentration camp at which George Takei spent two years of his childhood. Photo: Wikimedia CC

What was shocking about learning George Takei had spent three years in one of the concentration camps was that I only learned about it now.  was one of the starkest breaches of American values in our history, but it doesn't seem to have the visibility of other civil rights abuses. Perhaps it was so recent and so brutal that it simply tore a community up from its roots and it hasn't recovered since. San Francisco has the oldest (and at one point largest) Japantown in America, but it was emptied by internment. The neighborhood still has the name, and many returned after the war ended, but the dispersal of internment and the later destruction of homes under urban renewal efforts made it a shadow of its former self. 

One of my very closest friends is fourth-generation Japanese-American. Members of his family were sent to internment camps. The wrong that was done, and the racism and xenophobia that caused it, is not in the distant past. They are within our lifespan -- so much so that beloved public figures like George Takei were victims of it themselves. We need to learn from it and be continually reminded of it. In an interview with Democracy Now, Takei corrected his interviewer that the February 19th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 is not called the "Day of Internment," but the "Day of Remembrance."

Decades later, the domestic threat we fear is not espionage and sabotage, but terrorism. As that threat is prevented and prosecuted, we would do well to remember 1942. Internment was the product of a hate and fear so strong it silenced anyone preaching tolerance. And, as Takei put it, simply looking like the enemy should not make anyone the enemy.


NOTE 1 Here's that interview of Takei -- it's really worthwhile.

NOTE 2 On WWII-era German spying: Nazis landed spies on American shores in 1942 to stir panic and sabotage industry that supplied the war effort. As War is Boring describes, it failed colossally. However, the curator of the International Spy Museum in DC says at the end of their piece: "It could have legitimately knocked the U.S. out of the war if public support for the war diminished enough, or at least kept us chasing our tails long enough to knock the British out from lack of supplies." The case that tried them is still used as precedent for trying terrorists as enemy combatants in military tribunals.

NOTE 3 I use the term 'internment camp' here to make the historical event I refer to clear, but know that activists and scholars on the subject often simply refer to them as 'concentration camps.' And they were concentration camps, by the very dictionary definition of the term as NPR's ombudsman shows. I use both terms here for the dual purposes of clarity and honesty. Maybe finding a term that accomplishes both would help keep this awful history more present in the American psyche. I haven't found an instance of Takei using the term "concentration camp" -- I'd be curious to how he (and his musical) refer to the camps. Either way, I'm glad it's coming to New York.

EDIT: He says in a 2007 interview, "It was a concentration camp, pure and simple. The euphemism was 'relocation center,' sounds very innocuous. Innocuous? Machines guns pointed at us, barbed wire..."