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George Takei Inherits the “Better Part of Democracy”
How haunting childhood experiences at a Japanese-American internment camp led to “a new American Musical”
By Michael Jarema, contributing writer
George Takei became famous in the late 1960s for his portrayal of Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise on NBC’s classic “Star Trek” television series. Like other members of the cast, Takei was instrumental in pioneering more extensive roles for characters of color, and the use of actual actors of color to portray those characters (as opposed to Caucasian actors made up to play non-white ethnicities). This marked a significant change to the American film and television industries, and to their audiences.
George Takei also spent his early childhood years as a prisoner of the U.S. government – following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his family were confined for the duration of World War II in Japanese-American internment camps.
On April 30 this year, the White House issued its annual proclamation declaring May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 2019 marks the 41st anniversary of the designation. The White House statement1 read in part, “The contributions of Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent are firmly woven into the diverse fabric of our Nation. During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage that have enriched our great country and helped define our history.”
Takei is one of those Asian-Americans to which the White House proclamation refers. As an author, activist and social media personality, he’s riding a second wave of fame which began in part around ten years ago, when Takei developed and starred in “Allegiance: A New American Musical,” based on his family’s experiences in the internment camps.
From real life experiences, “Allegiance” was born
Takei recalled in his interview with Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast2: “...that morning that the soldiers ordered us out of our home – that's burned into my memory. My brother, father, and I left the house first and we were waiting on the front lawn for my mother, and she came out carrying my baby sister and a duffel bag, and tears were running down her face. A child never forgets a scene like that.”
Takei’s family, along with thousands of others – 120,000 individuals total – were rounded up by soldiers with bayonets affixed to their rifles, and in Takei's case taken to the horse stables at Santa Anita Racetrack. The government allowed internees to take with them only what could be carried in a suitcase. All other possessions – including homes, cars, businesses, furniture – had to be sold off for whatever price could be gotten. Most went for well below their actual worth.
Takei continued in a 2012 interview with Theatre Forum’s William Given3: "(We) were told we were going to spend the next few months in a horse stall, a smelly horse stall. And for my parents, particularly my mother...it was the most degrading and humiliating experience to take her children…”
Takei’s family was detained at Santa Anita for months, until their eventual destination – the internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas – could be built.
Given noted that “...while these facilities were officially designated as ‘relocation centers,’ they were in reality concentration camps, whose inmates were surrounded by barbed wire fences and (who) found themselves under constant surveillance from soldiers manning guard towers with machine guns.”
John Berger of the Honolulu Sun-Advertiser4 interviewed Takei in 2012 about the camp. Said Takei, “We lined up three times a day to eat lousy food, I went with my father to a mass shower, and then I started school. The irony that I still remember is that they taught us the Pledge of Allegiance, and I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited, ‘...with liberty and justice for all.’”
Perhaps the single most formative moment in the development of “Allegiance” happened at the Rowher camp. There, Takei's parents and the other internees were made to complete the infamous loyalty questionnaire, including as Given notes, its “notorious” Question 27: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" and Question 28: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
The questions proved to be confusing to many internees...who were born in the United States and who had no previous allegiance to (Japanese) Emperor Hirohito. Nonetheless, those who answered ‘No-No’ to the questions were immediately labeled as being disloyal.”
Takei's parents were among those who answered, "No and no.”
A father’s legacy, and the “better part of democracy”
As a consequence, Takei’s family and other “No-No Boys” (as Givens said they became known) were rounded up from the various camps and sent to the Tule Lake facility in Northern California. This act divided communities and families within the interned Japanese-Americans “as individuals tried to negotiate between the necessity to display patriotism for a country that was wrongfully imprisoning them and a perceived loyalty to a country they had never even visited.”
As No-No Boys, Takei, his parents, and his siblings were a family without a country.
“Takei recalled speaking to his father about his decision years later when Takei was about seventeen,” wrote Given. He shared Takei’s memory:
I really didn't understand my father's perspective, and when the conversation got intense, I said, ‘Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter when you took us into the internment camp.’ My father kept up a back and forth, but suddenly he was silent and I realized I had struck a nerve. And then my father got up and said, ‘Well, maybe you're right,‘ and he went into the bedroom and closed the door. I felt terrible.
The moment, said Takei, was one of the greatest regrets of his life.
Years later, in 2008, Takei attended a musical with Jay Kuo and Lorenze Thione – respectively, the duo who’d later become the composer and producer of “Allegiance.” Takei was moved by a number in which a father realizes he can’t provide tuition for his daughter who has just lost her scholarship. Takei began to weep, recalling his own father’s feelings of uselessness and frustration.
When Kuo and Thione later questioned him, Takei told them the story of his family’s internment, and of the night when he confronted his father. The discussion led to another, and another, and through these the idea for “Allegiance” was born.
“Allegiance” premiered in 2012 in San Diego and later had a Broadway run. A feature film of the Broadway performance and a documentary of the making of the musical now have annual screenings5 coinciding with the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As camp survivor Sam Kimura, Takei opens and closes the narrative, relating his bitter memories of the camps.
And there’s a scene in which Takei’s conversation with his father is recreated, when Sam visits his late father’s grave.
The moment, says, Givens, blurs the lines between the fictional and the actual. “Spectators in 2012 watch a scene set in 2001, involving a survivor of the internment camps speaking directly to the memory of his father about his experiences in the camp during the 1940s, and the monologue is delivered by an actual survivor of the camps recalling a divisive moment that subsequently shaped his own relationship with his father.”
Today, George Takei is 82. He doesn’t seem to rest much. He has 10 million followers on Facebook. He’s been married to his husband Brad Takei since 2008 and is an activist for LGBT rights. He’s written books – both fictional and his autobiography. He’s had another hit TV series. And he voices video games, sometimes playing himself and sometimes Hikaru Sulu from “Star Trek”.
As a survivor of the Japanese-American internment camps, as someone who recited the Pledge of Allegiance while surrounded by barbed wire and sentry towers, Takei has a unique perspective on what makes this country work – and sometimes not work. He gave his thoughts on that to John Berger back when “Allegiance” opened: "Ours is a people's democracy, and it can be as great as a people can be, but it's also as fallible as people are. So, this democracy is vitally dependent on good people to be actively engaged in the process."
Perhaps ironically, he credits his father for that conviction. “His belief in the better part of our democracy is what shaped me.”
In May 2019, Takei tweeted he’s tempted to run for the U.S. Senate.
Image from the Library of Congress: Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California /photograph by Ansel Adams.
- Presidential Proclamation on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, 2019. (2019). Washington: Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc. Available from ProQuest Central.
- Stern, M. (2014, Jan 22). 'To Be Takei' Traces George Takei's Journey from Japanese Internment Camps to Cultural Icon. The Daily Beast. Available from ProQuest Central.
- Given, W. (2012). ALLEGIANCE AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW AMERICAN MUSICAL. TheatreForum - International Theatre Journal, 40-45. Available from ProQuest Central.
- Berger, J. (2012, Sep 16). Growing Display of 'Allegiance'. Honolulu Star – Advertiser. Available from ProQuest Central.
- George Takei's Broadway Musical 'Allegiance' Returns to U.S. Cinemas Preceded by Never-Released-Before Documentary ‘Allegiance to Broadway. (2018, Oct 11). PR Newswire. Available from ProQuest Central.
Michael Jarema is an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based writer, filmmaker, sometime-foodie, and full-time craft beer enthusiast. He regularly incorporates the latter when working on his current pet writing project – a graphic novel titled, I Kill Nazis with Dinosaurs.