Takei recalls his imprisonment in WWII

| March 1, 2018 | 0 Comments

FATHER and grandfather are played by George Takei, Hancock Park, in “Allegiance.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with George Takei at a press event for the show “Allegiance: A New Musical Inspired by a True Story” playing (through April 1) at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s Aratani Theatre. Although the musical centers on a fictional family, the story contains many of Mr. Takei’s experiences.

Now a local Hancock Park resident, Takei was born in Boyle Heights and spent part of his childhood with his family in the Rohwer Concentration camp in Arkansas and later at Tule Lake in Northern California. His knowledge of this shameful period in American history is first-hand and encyclopedic. He’s written several books and has collaborated on this musical that opened on Broadway in November of 2015.

Mr. Takei is a well-known social media icon and actor, his most famous role being Mr. Sulu on the acclaimed TV series “Star Trek.”

The Musical

The musical tells the story of the fictitious Kimura family, whose lives were upended when they, and approximately 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were forced to leave their homes and possessions to be imprisoned under the harshest of circumstances.

The war hysteria led to President Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, to order the incarceration.

Mr. Takei goes on to relate that, after a year of imprisonment, the government came down with a loyalty questionnaire. “They took everything from us, and imprisoned us and then demanded we sign a loyalty oath. They categorized all of us as enemy agents.” Everyone over the age of 17, including the elderly, had to respond to the questionnaire.

The two most controversial questions were numbers 27 and 28. Number 27 asked, “Would you bear arms to defend the U.S. of America?” Number 28 was even more insidious. “Will you swear your loyalty to the U.S. and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?”

Segregated units

Thousands of young men and women bit the bullet and answered yes to both questions and went to fight for America. They were put into segregated, all-Japanese American units —including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — and were dispatched to the battlefields of Europe and sent out on the most dangerous missions. The 442nd sustained the highest combat casualty rate of any U.S. unit. They fought with extraordinary heroism and amazing courage, and when the war ended, they came back as the single most decorated U.S. unit of the entire Second World War. And they were welcomed back on the White House Lawn by President Truman, who said to them, “You fought not only the enemy but prejudice and won.”

“There was another group that was equally heroic,” Mr. Takei told me. “They said, ‘I’m an American, and I will fight for my country, but I will fight as an American. If I can report to my hometown draft board, with my family back home, I will be like any American, I will have something to fight for. I will fight as an American, but I will not go as an internee leaving my family in prison to put on the same uniform as the sentries guarding my family. I will go as an American.’

“This was a very principled position. It was an American stance. However, they were tried for draft evasion, found guilty and transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. They were wronged by that unconstitutional imprisonment. And those that stood on principle and did hard time I consider equally as heroic, and that’s a story we tell in the show.”

The fictional Kimuras are a family of artichoke farmers: Sammy the son, and Kei, his sister, who looks out for him, and father Sam and grandfather Ojii-chan, played by Mr. Takei.

Lovers take on U.S.

In the musical, Sammy answers yes to the questions and goes to fight. Kei falls in love with a young Japanese American law student attending USC who knows that the imprisonment is wrong, so they both become resisters and challenge the legality of the imprisonment. They take on the might of the U.S. government.

During the war, in 1944, the legality of the internment was challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld the incarceration for national security reasons.
Southern California has always been home to the largest Japanese American population in the U.S. and, as such, has many iconic locations that were part of this horrific story. “We built the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) right here in Little Tokyo. We’re an affiliate of the Smithsonian, where we share exhibit space.”

Says Mr. Takei, “It’s a campus of three buildings. Our first museum was in a restored Buddhist temple, built in 1924, Central Avenue and First Street. Later, they abandoned that temple and built another temple further down the street. The structure of the old temple was crumbling, so we adaptively re-used it, then we had a further story to tell so we went on another fundraising campaign. We got the land on Central Avenue, across the street, and we built an 85,000-square-foot museum, and then we built another structure attached to the Buddhist temple. We call it the Democracy Forum. The city ceded part of Central Avenue, that’s the plaza for the museum.”

[Editor’s note: The main building of JANM is constructed on a portion of the longtime headquarters of the Union Hardware & Metal Company owned and managed by local residents in the McLaughlin family and Schoder family (publisher John H. Welborne’s antecedents). Remaining parts of the Union Hardware complex now house the Geffen Contemporary of MOCA.]

In the Japanese American community there are two religious groups: the Buddhists and the Christians. For transport to the camps, the Buddhists were gathered at the Buddhist Temple. The Japanese-American Christians were gathered at the Christian Church on the other side of the same block. After the war, the church, like the temple, was abandoned. The church was converted to a theater that now is home to the East West Players.

“This is an important part of American history,” Mr. Takei continues, “that more Americans should know about. I’m always shocked, particularly when I go to the Midwest, or even the East Coast, and visit people who I consider well informed and well read. They are aghast when I tell them I grew up in prison behind American barbed wire fences.”

“Allegiance,” as well as being an entertaining theatrical experience, is a cautionary tale relevant to America today.

“Allegiance” is playing at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles. For tickets visit AllegianceMusical.com.

By Patricia Foster Rye

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Category: People

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