The gay activist launched to fame as Lt. Sulu on “Star Trek” told a Price Center ballroom audience that school namesake Earl Warren was California’s attorney general when his family was shipped to an Arkansas internment camp as “enemy aliens.”
Takei, 5 at the time, called Warren an ambitious man (later governor and Supreme Court chief justice) who wanted to “get in front of” a movement the actor politely called Lock the Japanese Up. The star avoided using the slur “Japs.”
Warren conceded that Japanese-Americans (such as Takei’s Sacramento-born mother) had posed no problems of spying or sabotage after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Takei told a sold-out audience of 800.
But that was ominous, Takei said Warren warned, because “Japs are inscrutable, and it would be prudent to lock them up before they did anything.”
Swept up in the hysteria — with the notable exception of Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr — America sent U.S. citizens to 10 “barbed-wire camps,” Takei said in the latest DeWitt Higgs Memorial Lecture.
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In a question period after his 50-minute talk (delivered without notes), Takei also took on topics of voting, democracy and the challenges of the current president.
“That one man living in the White House is not only a disaster, and an incompetent and divisive, but he really is the enemy of democracy,” Takei said to applause, later adding: “The election of Donald Trump is the best argument for doing away with the Electoral College.”
Takei (tuh-KAY) turned 81 last week, but his memories of the early 1940s were fresh. He described how two soldiers with sharp bayonets pounded their fists on his family’s Los Angeles home — a “terrifying sound that reverberated throughout the house.”
- Audio: Introductions by Provost Emily Roxworthy and student President Lesly Figueroa
- Audio: George Takei gives 2018 DeWitt Higgs Memorial Lecture at UCSD Price Center
- Audio: George Takei answers questions after lecture at UCSD (part 1)
- Audio: George Takei answers questions after lecture at UCSD (part 2)
“I will never forget the terror of that morning,” he told a rapt audience. He recalled the three-day-and-two-night train trip with his parents, 4-year-old brother and infant sister to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in the “swamps of Arkansas.”
(He recalled the machine guns trained on inmates, but appreciated the all-night-long floodlights because “it was nice to light the way for me to pee.”)
When inmates were forced to take a loyalty test — including questions they deemed insulting or “preposterous,” such as a pledge to bear arms to defend the United States and swear off loyalty to the emperor of Japan — Takei’s parents rebelled by answering “no.”
For that, his family was sent to the harshest internment camp — Tule Lake on the California-Oregon border with 18,000 other Japanese-Americans and three layers of barbed wire patrolled by tanks.
“Those tanks belonged on the battlefield,” Takei said in his familiar baritone.
With their home taken and bank account closed, Takei’s family was given $25 and one-way tickets to anywhere in the country when they were freed. But while other internees went East, his family returned to Los Angeles, living on Skid Row at first.
His teacher called Takei a “little Jap boy” and looked away when he sought recognition in class.
But a radicalized Takei (“There’s no one more arrogant than an idealistic teenager”) began a life of activism that included stuffing envelopes and making calls on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and hearing Martin Luther King Jr. at the L.A. Sports Arena.
Invited to see the civil rights leader in his dressing room afterward, Takei said that for three days after shaking King’s hand, “this hand didn’t get washed.”
With his longtime partner and spouse Brad Altman Takei beaming from the front row, Takei recounted his journey as a closeted gay man in Hollywood. Although he knew he was “different” at age 10, he acted the machismo part when his male friends ogled Susie or Monica.
Fearful for his acting career, Takei lived a “double life,” not revealing his sexuality until after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a marriage-equality act in 2005.
Watching how protesters took to the streets of Santa Monica, Takei decided for the first time to speak out.
He eventually saw the struggle for gay rights mirroring his outrage over the World War II internment camps, and went on a speaking tour. (Takei’s visit came during UCSD’s “Out and Proud Week,“ and the actor was set to have dinner locally at a restaurant taking part in the Dining Out For Life fund-raiser.)
His “Star Trek” career inspired his 2008 marriage ceremony, he said, noting its diverse cast. He had a Mexican-American Buddhist minister officiating and Jewish co-star Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov) as Best Man.
But part French Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) balked at being “matron of honor.” (She got the title she wanted: Best Lady.)
Despite being a social media star — with 10.3 million Facebook “likes” compared with William “Capt. Kirk” Shatner’s 1.1 million, he slyly noted — Takei declined to pose for selfies with students on campus before his talk, said a UCSD staffer.
Takei got a standing ovation just the same afterward, with his political remarks punctuated by applause and cheers.
About a half-dozen questions — submitted by audience members on index cards — were answered during a sit-down session with 2005 UCSD graduate and moderator Cara Dessert, who in July takes over as CEO of the San Diego LGBT Community Center.
Takei recalled “deeply moving” visits to the Arkansas and California camps where he was imprisoned in the early 1940s, especially the Rohwer camp where he saw a crumbling concrete pylon in a cemetery honoring the 100-150 internees who fought and died in Europe.
“I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing,” he said.
At Tule Lake, he saw brown spots on concrete walls of an inmate-built jailhouse — where heads had been bashed, leaving bloodstains for decades.
He recalled how he was a “really talented actor playing straight” in the 1966 “Star Trek” series — lasting three years despite the Starship Enterprise being on a “five-year mission.” (It became a cult classic in syndication, leading to many Takei visits to San Diego for Comic-Con or “Star Trek” conventions, but also a turn as grand marshal at the Hillcrest Pride Parade).
Takei also starred in “Allegiance,” the Old Globe Theatre production of 2012 that broke box-office records before moving to Broadway in 2015. The musical drew on his three-year internment.
Regarding “Star Trek” — with the Enterprise representing Spaceship Earth, he noted — Takei said the series was supposed to lead the way in cultural freedoms, “but on this issue of gay characters, it was way behind.”
Also behind, he said, is American politics.
“It’s easy to see what’s putting democracy into jeopardy,” he said, answering a question with that phrase.
After calling Trump “the enemy of democracy” (to applause), Takei said: “If anything, he has underscored the importance of participatory democracy. It’s because we didn’t participate [that he was elected].”
He said some were “unprepared” to cast votes in November 2016.
Members of Trump’s constituency are “people [with] little education and therefore they’re employed in low-paying jobs, if not nonpaying, and they are bitter and angry,” he said. “And he’s tapped that anger. And the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing.”
He called such voters “understandably angry and bitter. They did not get the education to prepare themselves to participate in a 21st century economy — and that anger is what put a person like Donald Trump in that office.”
Takei, who didn’t take a drink of water until 43 minutes into his appearance, saw a refreshing hope in the Parkland High School students campaigning for gun control.
The students moved and inspired a generation and drew people to Washington, he said. “They’re playing the main role in the Blue Wave that’s coming, transforming the Congress for next year.”
Takei said he was looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections.
“There is going to be a tidal wave in blue,” he said, citing Democratic upset victories in Alabama, Mississippi and western Pennsylvania that presage a change in party control on Capitol Hill.
One audience member asked: “What do you say to young people who say they don’t know enough to vote?”
“Well, then, go out and study,” Takei said amid laughter. “The bottom line responsibility of citizenship is to cast an informed vote — not just a vote. .. You have to know what you’re voting for or what you are against.”
He told students (who got in free while others paid $20) that it’s “critically important that you do your homework. But beyond that, you do what my father taught me — you volunteer your time to support the candidate that you support or the issue that you support. Work actively in the process.”
Takei called American democracy “probably the hardest kind of government. The easiest form of government is a dictatorship. Because you don’t have to do anything. You just sit back and have the man do it to you.”
To those who say “I’m only one vote … How would I matter?” Takei replied: “One man, one African-American man — Dr. Martin Luther King — inspired all of us,” and the South was transformed.
“One man, with his eloquence and his philosophy of nonviolence, changed this nation,” Takei said. “Yes, he paid a high price for it. But we are the beneficiaries…. I am forever in … debt to Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Takei added that King still moves people — “and we all have the potential to make that kind of contribution.”
Prompted by a final request, Takei readily spoke his trademark phrase: “I’m happy to say that because you guys are an Oh myyyyy.”