“They impoverished us. They took everything” – George Takei Interview

The Terror: Infamy premieres on 7th October on AMC UK. The series stars Derek Mio as Chester Nakayama; Kiki Sukezane (“Lost in Space”) as Yuko, a mysterious woman from Chester’s past; Cristina Rodlo (Miss Bala) as Luz, Chester’s secret girlfriend; Shingo Usami (Unbroken) as Henry Nakayama, Chester’s father; Naoko Mori (Everest) as Asako Nakayama, Chester’s mother; Miki Ishikawa (“9-1-1”) as Amy, a Nakayama family friend; and renowned actor, producer, author and activist George Takei (“Star Trek”) as Yamato-san, a community elder and former fishing captain.

Ahead of the show’s premiere, we have a special interview with the legendary George Takei.

Question: So, how personal is this TV show? Like, did it bring back a lot of memories for you?

George Takei: Well, on April 20th, 1942, I turned five years old. And it was a few weeks after that, that soldiers came to our home and took us away. So, we were in three different camps. The camps were being built and not completed. So, we were taken to Santa Anita Racetrack, which was a glamorous racetrack where movie stars used to go and ladies wore fancy hats. But when we were taken there, initially, there was a chain-link fence around this once glamorous racetrack, concertina wires over it, and it was guarded by soldiers with rifles and bayonets on them.

Lee Shorten as Walt Yoshida, Derek Mio as Chester Nakayama, Hira Ambrosino as Fumiko Yoshida – The Terror _ Season 2 – Photo Credit: Ed Araquel/AMC

We were offloaded from the trucks and herded over to the stable areas. And each family, we were a family of five, I was five years old, my brother was four years old, my baby sister wasn’t even one, she was an infant, and my parents, all five of us were assigned one horse stall still pungent with the stink of horse manure. For my parents, going from a two bedroom house on Garnet Street in Los Angeles into this horse stall, it was a degrading, dehumanizing painful experience. And they impoverished us. They took everything. First, they came down with a curfew, we had to be home by eight o’clock and stay home until six o’clock, imprisoned in our homes at night, which made no difference to us because we were put to bed. But other people, young people who wanted to go out, couldn’t. People that worked at night, they couldn’t work. They were being imprisoned at night. And then when we went to the bank, we discovered that our bank accounts were frozen. Our life savings was taken away. Why? We’re innocent. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles. We’re American citizens. And we’re being subjected to all this abuse, simply because we looked like the people at Pearl Harbor. And then the soldiers came to take us away and imprison us. We were in the horse stables. Our shower was where the horses were washed down outside. The men went first, two showered, and we went with our father, my brother and I, and then the women, they had their turn, outdoors. I mean, how – particularly for the women, how humiliating that was, degrading.

When the construction was finished, we were put on a train with armed soldiers at both ends of each car as if we were criminals. And we could take only what we could carry. And we were transported two-thirds of the way across the country to the swamps of Arkansas. For me as a kid, it was an exotic place. I mean, I’m a Southern Californian. It was an adventure [full of] learning, discovery. Trees grew out of the water on the bayou. And the roots went in and out of the water. And near the edges, there were little tiny black wiggly fish swimming. And so I got a jar and caught them and put them in the jar and watched them every day. And they start springing legs out, fish with legs. Then every day it got stronger, and then the tail fell off, and it hopped out of my jar. Magic.

So, for a city child, that was quite an experience.

It was. It was a magical experience.

For my parents, I mean, it was harrowing. When it rained, I mean, it’s a swamp, they cleared it off but it turned into a swamp. And we had to make that trip to the mess hall three times a day. Old people couldn’t make it because their feet would sink in and they didn’t have the strength to pull their feet out of the muck. So, young men had to carry them on their backs. My father spoke both English and Japanese fluently, and he was able to talk to the immigrant generation as well as the American born generation. So, he was asked to be the block manager, the connection between the camp command and the people in the block, and resolve any problems in the block. So, he organized a group of young men to build a boardwalk connecting all the barracks to the mess hall and to the latrine, and other central placesthat they had to go to. And I mean, everybody’s daddies were with them. But my father was always dealing with some uproar, some problem, so Daddy couldn’t be with us. And what I remember were the Arkansas storms, which would terrify me. I mean, here we are in these flimsy tar paper barracks. And the thunder sounded like the sky was being torn apart and the whole barrack would – so we all hovered together with my mother.

And so, after all the problems had been dealt with, my father would come stomping in with these muddy galoshes. But yeah, but why don’t we have a discussion?

George Takei as Nobuhiro Yamato – The Terror _ Season 2, Episode 2 – Photo Credit: Ed Araquel/AMC

I’m just really curious about how this experience has sort of been part of your life because you’re in a very curious position. I mean, you chose this particular path. So, you went from this shaping you as a human, as a child, to becoming a media darling and popular. And so, it seems like there are all those personalities in you and all those elements forming your identity, being an American, but then before that, being refused.

Imprisoned.

Yeah. How does this journey sort of feel? How does it constitute who you are?

When I became a teenager, I became very curious about my childhood imprisonment. I mean, for me, as I described as a child, it was an adventure. I learned all sorts of things. And my experience in my real memories are that of a five, six, seven, eight-year-old. It was fun. I mean, to be honest, it’s a horrible way to describe it, but I have to be honest. There was that Italian picture, “Life is Beautiful,” and it was that for me, too. For my parents, it was harrowing. It was horrible. And when I became a teenager, I became very curious about what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment, and I started reading history books. There’s nothing about the internment. I read civics books, there’s nothing about it. But in the civics books, I learned about our justice system. All men are created equal, equal justice under the law. This is a nation ruled by law. And we were innocent people, how could that happen to us? And I couldn’t find anything in books.

But my father did talk about it. So, many fathers of my parents’ generation didn’t talk about it with their family, because it was so painful to them and so humiliating. And to them, they considered it shameful. The shame was really the government’s, not ours. But the victims took on that shame. And they didn’t want to inflict that on their children. I feel very grateful that I had a father who shared with me his pain and his anguish. And at that time, we had the Civil Rights movement going in the United States. I heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches on the radio, and they were inspiring, and I admired them. Why did we go? Daddy, why did you lead us into imprisonment? And he said, well, I had to think about your mother, your brother, your sister, and you. They’re pointing guns at me. If something happened, what do you think would happen to you guys? And I understood that. But I said, Daddy, that’s not our justice system. It was wrong. It was clearly wrong. And he said, yes, it was wrong. Our democracy is a people’s democracy. And the people have the capacity to do great things. Those ideals that you read about in your civics books, all men are created equal – that was articulated by great people. But the people are also fallible human beings, and they make mistakes. President Roosevelt, during the 30’s, when the United States was in a crushing depression, turned out to be a great President. With his presidential power, and his problem solving, and his ability to organize, he was able to create jobs, build bridges, post offices, and bring the nation up. But he was also a human being with all the fallibilities. But when a great President makes a mistake, it can be a great mistake that could be cataclysmic for the victims of that mistake.

Miki Ishikawa as Amy Yoshida, Hira Ambrosino as Fumiko Yoshida – The Terror _ Season 2 – Photo Credit: Ed Araquel/AMC

What if a terrible President makes a mistake?

We have one right now. And he makes mistakes daily, every day, every headline, constantly, regularly, rhythmically. He’s making horrific, ignorant, thoughtless, reckless mistakes. Yes. And that’s what a people’s – the riskiest thing is the people’s democracy. He said it’s a great way of government. It’s the best way of government.

The easiest way of government is to have a dictatorship. You just sit back and let the man do it to you. But he said a people’s democracy is existentially dependent on people who cherish those ideals and actively engage in the process. It’s a participatory democracy. And I kept saying, but Daddy, people participate in democracy. He said, when the country was against us, only one elected official stood up and said this was wrong, the Governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr. He had the guts and integrity to speak out. But every other elected official was against us. And in California, we had an Attorney General, the top lawyer of the state. He later in history became known as a great, wise, liberal, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But back in the early ’40s, he was the Attorney General, the top lawyer of California. And he had his eyes on the Governor’s seat. He wanted to be elected Governor. And he saw that the single most popular political issue was the lock-up the “Jap’s issue”. And so he decided to get in front of that. And he made an amazing statement as the Attorney General. He said, we have no reports of spying, or sabotage, or fifth column activities by Japanese Americans.

And that is ominous because the Japanese are inscrutable. You can’t tell what they’re thinking. So, it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything threatening. The absence of evidence was the evidence for this Attorney General. And he became very popular, got elected Governor, got re-elected twice, and then was appointed to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. His name is Earl Warren. So, all the elected officials were against us but one.

How much do you think the show reflects all that you’ve been telling us about the history that you personally lived?

This show is groundbreaking. There have been a few movies about the internment, a few TV episodes. But they were just background for a love story. With this, we have ten episodes. That means ten hours, spread over a ten-week period to tell this story. We can go into detail. Right after Pearl Harbor, young Japanese Americans, like all young Americans, rushed to the recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the US military. This act of patriotism was answered with a denial. They were denied military service and categorized as an enemy alien, which was crazy. And then we were imprisoned. After a year of imprisonment, the government realized 5 there’s a wartime manpower shortage. And here are all these young people they could have had, but we categorized them as enemies.

Derek Mio as Chester Nakayama, Kiki Sukezane as Yuko – The Terror _ Season 2 – Photo Credit: Ed Araquel/AMC

How do we justify drafting them out of a barbed wire prison camp? Their solution was a loyalty questionnaire. Can you imagine, after impoverishing you and imprisoning you for a year, they demanded loyalty, very sloppily put together? And obviously ignorant people were writing the questions. Two became controversy. People got outraged. All ten camps were in an uproar. Everyone over the age of 17 had to respond to the loyalty questionnaire, 17 or 87, man or woman. Question 27 asked, will you bear arms to defend the United States of America? That being asked of my mother – I was by then six years old, my brother was five years old, my baby sister was a toddler. She was being asked to abandon us, to bear arms to defend the nation that’s imprisoning her family. It was crazy. Question 28 was even crazier. It was one sentence with two conflicting ideas. It asked, will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? We’re Americans. We never even thought of the Emperor. And for the government to assume that we have an inborn racial loyalty, a genetic loyalty to the Emperor was insulting, was ignorance.

It was a crazy level of racism.

It was, and ignorance. And if you answered no, meaning I don’t have a loyalty to the Emperor to forswear, that no applied to the first part of the very same sentence. If you answered yes, meaning I do swear my loyalty to the United States, then that yes applied to the second part, meaning that you were confessing that you had been loyal to the Emperor, and were now prepared to forswear it, and repledge your loyalty to the United States.

My parents answered no to both of them and we were transferred to what they call a segregation camp for disloyals. It was not just another concentration camp. It had three layers of barbed wire fence. And, I mean, to really illustrate the overreaction, half a dozen tanks rolling around the perimeter to terrify us. They belonged on a battlefield.

That’s a real terror.

Exactly. I mean, and our story goes into that as well. I mean, the stupidity of the government, and the cruelty of the government, and this show being aired now has an even more powerfully chilling ramification, a resonance to our times.

At least we were together with our parents. The kids were together. Children, infants being torn away from them, put in cages with filth – and one of the Congressmen said they were told because they don’t have water in these places, drink out of the toilet. I mean, that kind of outrage. And to really underscore the cruelty, some children are scattered 6 to outlying areas like Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey, far away from where they were separated from their parents. And when the courts order them to put them back together, they’re so incompetent that they can’t locate them.

They don’t know where they are. Yeah. That is a big issue.

It’s really outrageous. So, this show is both historic, and timely.

The Terror: Infamy premieres exclusively on AMC UK (BT channel 332) on 7th October at 9pm

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