World War II Prejudice Did Not Stop George Takei of Star Trek


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Japanese-American actor George Takei (b. 1937), pictured below,  is  best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek. He also portrayed the character in six Star Trek feature films and in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.  He has appeared in many other films and television shows.

What many people do not know about Takei is that he  was relocated to an internment camp when he was a young man. In 1942 approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese who lived along the Pacific coast of the United States were sent  to camps called "War Relocation Camps," in the wake of Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

The internment of Japanese Americans was applied unequally throughout the United States. All who lived on the West Coast of the United States were interned, while in Hawaii, where the 150,000-plus Japanese Americans composed over one-third of the population, an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 were interned. Of those interned, 62% were American citizens.

Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading "I am an American"Oakland, Calif., March 1942 Dorothea Lange, photographer.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, which allowed local military commanders to designate "military areas" as "exclusion zones," from which "any or all persons may be excluded." This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona, except for those in internment camps. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders. 

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter conducted an investigation to determine whether putting Japanese Americans into internment camps was justified well enough by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the camps. The commission's report, named “Personal Justice Denied,” found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and recommended the government pay reparations to the survivors. They formed a payment of $20,000 to each individual internment camp survivor.

In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation said that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.

George Takei was born in Los Angeles to Japanese American parents, Fumiko Emily (née Nakamura) and Takekuma Norman Takei, who worked in the real estate industry. In 1942, the Takei family was forced to live in the horse stables of Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area before being sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center for internment in Arkansas. The family was later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California.

He and his family returned to Los Angeles at the end of World War II. He attended Mount Vernon Junior High School, where he served as student body president, and Los Angeles High School. He was a member of Boy Scout Troop 379 of the Koyasan Buddhist Temple. Upon graduation from high school, Takei enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley where he studied architecture. Later he attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in theater in 1960 and a Master of Arts in theater in 1964. He attended the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon in England, and Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. In Hollywood, he studied acting at the Desilu Workshop.

Takei began his career in Hollywood in the late 1950s, at a time when Asians were rarely cast in American television shows and movies. Takei appeared alongside such actors as Richard Burton in Ice Palace, Jeffrey Hunter in Hell to Eternity, Alec Guinness in A Majority of One, James Caan in Red Line 7000 and Cary Grant in Walk, Don't Run. He played Captain Nim, an ARVN LLDB (Luc Luong Dac Biet- Special Forces) officer alongside John Wayne's character in the 1968 Vietnam War era film, The Green Berets.

For many years, he has been a gay activist and prolific supporter of charitable causes.

Takei told NPR the following about his experiences: “ …We were taken  to a horse stable at a race track, San Anita Race Track, near Los Angeles. And we were there for a few months while the camps were being built. And from there we were taken to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. So, all the Japanese-Americans that were incarcerated followed that pattern: first, what's called an 'assembly center,' a very innocuous-sounding name, and from there to a 'relocation center,' another innocuous word.

Child sitting with luggage (Tagged for evacuation.May 1942) Salinas, California. Tagged for evacuation. May 1942, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

"We were from Los Angeles. We came back to Los Angeles because my parents didn't want to go to another unknown place that might be even more hostile in a different way. But indeed it was a different Los Angeles we came home to. Housing was next to impossible. Our first home was on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. And to us kids — I was the oldest, I was 8 years old when we came back — it was terrifying. All those scary, smelly, ugly [people] leaning on the walls or staggering around or falling right down in front of us on the sidewalk; the stench of urine on the street in the hallways everywhere. It was horrific. In fact, my baby sister said, 'Mama, let's go back home,' because we had adjusted to the routine of incarceration and it was home."


The 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army was a regimental size fighting unit composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent who volunteered to fight in World War II. The 442nd, beginning in 1944, fought primarily in Europe during World War II. The 442nd was a self-sufficient force, and fought with uncommon distinction in Italy, southern France, and Germany. The 442nd is considered to be the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the United States Army. The 442nd was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations and twenty-one of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor for World War The 442nd Regimental Combat Team motto was, "Go for Broke".

On love of country:

"I was invited to the White House when members of the 442nd were finally given the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition that the nation can grant. And after the ceremony, I asked one of them, 'How were you able to do what you did when this government treated you and your family so shabbily?' And he said, 'Well, George, when I was a kid, I began the school day every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and I meant every word of it. But this government didn't think that I was American enough and so, by gum, I went out there to show them what kind of American I am.

"But there [was] another group of people who I admire equally. They're the ones that said, 'Yes, I'm an American and I will fight for this country, but I won't go as an internee from behind these barbed wire fences, leaving my family in imprisonment. I will go only on the condition that I go as an American; that I can report to my hometown draft board with my family in our home, and then I will serve.' And for that courageous and principled stand, they were tried and found guilty of draft evasion and put into federal penitentiaries.

Watch a video interview with George Takei in which he speaks about his experience as an "enemy non-alien" at the Archive of American Television.


The following is an interview with Greg Robinson, author of A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America:

Q: Is there any need for a new book on Japanese Americans and World War II? Many have already been written, including one by you. Hasn’t everything important already been said about Executive Order 9066 and the camps?

Greg Robinson: Actually, this book contains a great deal of recently discovered material about Japanese Americans. Part of it is that new documents have been released on the wartime events, and books have not studied the period before and after World War II as an integral part of them. It changes your view of official policy toward Japanese Americans, for example, if you consider that the Army and Justice Department were already preparing to hold masses of enemy aliens—and building a set of what they called “concentration camps” for them—months before the United States entered the war. But what is even more new and vital about the book, I think, is that it is the first transnational study of the subject. It covers the removal and confinement of Japanese not just in the United States but in Canada and Mexico as well and also tells the story of the Japanese Latin Americans who were sent to the United States and placed in camps.

Q: Why should we care about the treatment of ethnic Japanese in other countries?

GR: What happened to Japanese Americans is part of a larger history, and it is useful to look at their experience alongside that of their counterparts elsewhere. Moreover, if we study events and official policies in Canada and Mexico, which are neighbors with certain similarities in their politics, culture and economies, we get a clearer idea of the causes and results of confinement in the United States. For example, in Canada the Army and Navy chiefs opposed mass removal, but it was ordered nonetheless. This tells us something about the importance of military opinion in the decision making process in those countries. In Mexico ethnic Japanese were ordered off the west coast in the beginning of January 1942, more than a month before Washington took similar action and several months before Mexico even declared war on Japan. If the Mexicans did this so quickly, why did the Americans wait?

Q: What do you feel is the most important single contribution of this book?

GR: I think that the section on wartime Hawaii is particularly compelling, because it tells a story that is unknown to most Americans yet has direct parallels with the present. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. Army pushed through a declaration of martial law in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, abolished the U.S. Constitution, and suspended the elected government. The Army also closed down the courts and created instead a set of military tribunals to judge all criminal cases, even those involving American civilians. Defendants had no due process or legal protections. Virtually all those accused were found guilty and often given harsh sentences. Eventually these military tribunals were challenged in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. While there was no mass removal of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, the Army held on to arbitrary power long after any threat of invasion from Tokyo had ceased and justified its rule by claiming that Japanese Americans needed to be controlled. So the events in Hawaii not only relate in fascinating ways to the removal of ethnic Japanese on the mainland, but they also offer a prelude for thinking about the current situation at Guantanamo and the military tribunals there.

Q: Why do you call the book “A Tragedy of Democracy”?

GR: It is my way of reminding people what is important about the wartime treatment of Japanese in North America. What these people went through is not in a class with the great crimes of the war years. There were no real atrocities: no mass murders, no deliberate torture, and some provision for schools and health care. Rather, what is most troubling about their confinement is the failure of democracy under pressure. The leaders of a group of free governments dedicated to fighting and winning a war against tyranny singled out tens or hundreds of thousands of their own citizens and long-term residents on racial grounds, removed them arbitrarily from their homes, and in most cases ordered them into internal exile and confinement.

Q: Why do you say “confinement” and not “internment” to describe the treatment of Japanese Americans and others?

GR: In technical legal terms, the word “internment” refers to the imprisonment of enemy aliens by governments in time of war. The Justice Department did intern a few thousand Japanese aliens, as well as a similar number of German and Italian aliens, in this manner. All such aliens were granted hearings soon after they were taken into custody, and only those individuals considered dangerous were actually interned. In Canada the federal government interned hundreds of Italian Canadian aliens in addition to some citizens and only later granted them hearings. However, this differs greatly from the shoddy treatment received by West Coast Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians, where entire populations consisting predominantly of native-born children were taken away with no hearings and locked away in remote areas despite the fact that they were citizens. The word “internment” is even less useful for Mexico’s treatment of Japanese since people were forced to move themselves. That there is no exact term to define these actions reveals how unprecedented and extralegal they were, although both governments invented euphemisms such as “evacuation” for them. In order to avoid confusion and promote understanding, I chose to use the words “removal” and “confinement” because they give a reasonable sense of what occurred and are also inclusive enough to cover the gamut of policies that were put in place in different countries.

Visit your local library for these resources:

A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America
Greg Robinson, (2009).

By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans
Greg Robinson, (2001).

Silver like Dust: One Family’s Story of America’s Japanese Internment
Kimmi Cunningham Grant, (2012).
Grant offers a portrait of the stoicism and patriotism of her family as well as differences in generations, as the stories evoke her own feelings of rage. But throughout is a portrait of a courageous woman who endured hardship and later established a delicate balance of trust with her granddaughter that allowed her to finally tell the family’s story. — Excerpt of review by Vanessa Bush first published January 1, 2012 (Booklist).

The Art of Gaman: Art and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946.
 Delphine Hirasuna, (2005).
Gaman is a Japanese word for endurance with grace and dignity in the face of what seems unbearable. Hirasuna presents a searing and soaring tribute to this human attribute in a volume of color photographs of artworks rendered from everyday objects by the 112,700 Japanese American internees held in World War II detention camps.  Whether one considers butterflies fashioned from shells, or a surprisingly elegant chair made of scrap two-by-fours at the Tule Lake California camp, or birds carved from Arkansas cypress in Camp Rohwer, one is witnessing testimony to human character, courage, and irrepressible creativity. —  Whitney Scott first published November 1, 2005 (Booklist).

Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz
Sandra C. Taylor, (1993).
Drawing on the records of the War Relocation Authority, the contemporary press, other studies of those American concentration camps, and nearly 50 oral histories of area Japanese Americans who were interned at Topaz, Jewel of the Desert is a thoughtful, nuanced narrative of the Utah internment. — Excerpt of review by Mary Carroll first published December 1, 1993 (Booklist).

The Hood River Issei: An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon’s Hood River Valley
Linda Tamura, (1993).
Tamura is a third-generation, or sansei, Hood River Japanese whose eagerness to discover her roots led her to undertake this oral history of the original farmers and merchants. She does so faithfully and movingly, particularly in her portrait of xenophobia as World War II broke out and many of the issei were interned. A good companion to Lauren Kessler’s Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family also about the Hood River issei and Sandra Taylor’s Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. —Excerpt of review by John Mort first published December 1, 1993 (Booklist).

Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans
Harth, Erica. (2001).

Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment
Linda Gordon,Gary Y. ; Okihiro, editors. (2006).
Censored by the U.S. Army, Dorothea Lange's unseen photographs are the photographic record of the Japanese American internment saga. This indelible work of visual and social history confirms Dorothea Lange's stature as one of the twentieth century's greatest American photographers. Presenting 119 images--the majority of which have never been published--this book evokes the horror of a community uprooted in the early 1940s and the stark reality of the internment camps. Nationally known historians Linda Gordon and Gary Okihiro narrate the saga of Japanese American internment: from life before Executive Order 9066 to the abrupt roundups and the marginal existence in the bleak, sandswept camps.


Books by George Takei

Mirror Friend, Mirror Foe
George Takei and  Robert Asprin, (1979).

To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, Star Trek's Mr Sulu, (1994).



Photo of George Takei as Sulu from the television program Star Trek.

 Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942
 Dorothea Lange, photographer.
A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war
Original negative is at the National Archives and Records Administration, NARA # 210-G-A35.

English: Salinas, California. Tagged for evacuation.
Date     May 1942
Source     Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: C-USF34-T01-072499-D,_Tagged_for_evacuation,_Sa...



A Japanese American unfurled this banner the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. This Dorothea Lange photograph was taken in March 1942, just prior to the man's internment.


A Japanese American unfurled this banner the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. This Dorothea Lange photograph was taken in March 1942, just prior to the man's internment.


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