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“… with liberty and justice for all.”
Long before he became etched in our memories as Sulu of "Star Trek" fame, George Takei used to recite those words with one hand over his heart like millions of schoolboys before and after.
What made Takei’s experience different from yours or mine is that he said them while staring out a window at barbed wire fences, sentry towers and guards with machine guns inside a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.
Soldiers at the door
Within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese hysteria culminated in more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans being torn from their homes and businesses, told to take “only what you can carry” and loaded on trucks at the point of a rifle and fixed bayonet. This happened in San Diego and all across much of the West Coast, where many Japanese-Americans had settled over the years.
“I looked out the window and saw two soldiers walking up to our front door,” Takei told San Diego Gay and Lesbian News in a deeply personal interview. “They had bayonets at the end of their rifles, and the blades glistened in the sun. They pounded on our door and when my father answered the soldiers told us to leave.”
Takei was just 5 years old when he, his baby sister, older brother, mother and father were taken to the Santa Anita racetrack just outside Los Angeles with hundreds of others. Upon arrival, they were told to sleep in a horse stall, still smelling of the stench of its prior inhabitant.
Four months later, the Takei family, along with thousands of other natural-born American citizens of Japanese ancestry, were loaded onto passenger trains and shipped more than 2,000 miles to Rohwer War Relocation Center in the swamps of southern Arkansas.
From the time he was 5 until he was 9, Takei pledged his allegiance to America while a prisoner in an American internment camp for Japanese-Americans. There were also internment camps for German-Americans and other citizens whose ancestry was from countries which America was at war with.
“It was a stinging irony,” Takei said.
The worst story never told
If the idea that more than 120,000 American citizens were held prisoner without due process of law, purely on the basis of fear, greed and racial hysteria comes as a surprise to you, you can be forgiven.
“Americans don’t know about this dark chapter of our nation’s history, and they need to,” Takei said. "What makes us a great democracy is knowing where we’ve gone wrong as a democracy.”
That’s why he brings his potent star power to San Diego to perform alongside Broadway superstar Lea Salonga in the world premiere musical “Allegiance: A New American Musical” at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.
The show tells the story of those in the camps and shines a light on the injustices carried out first by our government, and then by internees onto themselves.
Two kinds of heroes
In “Allegiance,” Takei plays Sam Kimura, a veteran of World War II who started his military service when he left his family behind at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
While Sam may be a fictional character, there were thousands of Japanese-Americans in nearly a dozen such camps who fought for the United States in Europe. They were part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment Combat Team , an all- Japanese fighting corps with mostly white officers. By the time the war was over, the 442nd suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any unit in the U.S. Army and its soldiers were its most decorated.
In bitter irony, when men of the 442nd were killed in action, the American flags that draped their coffins would be folded and returned to their mothers who were still being held in the internment camps, guarded by other American soldiers.
But before these men could go and die for their country they had to satisfactorily answer the “Loyalty Questionnaire,” a document circulated throughout the camps by the U.S. government that each inhabitant, regardless of age or gender, had to complete.
The questionnaire was the designated tool to identify those Japanese-Americans who posed no threat to America and possibly even identify those willing to fight on behalf of the country that had imprisoned them.
The most insidious question on the document was its last, No. 28:
“Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization.”
“In order to swear allegiance to America,” Takei said, “you had to admit that at some point you had an allegiance to the emperor of Japan. That’s what ‘forswearing’ meant.”
To those who swallowed their pride and answered “yes” to question 28, like Takei’s character Sam, the actor says he owes much. “I owe a huge debt to those soldiers who went and fought and died for this country,” he said. “They were real American heroes.”
However, there were many who would not sign the document.
A division in the camps
Called “Resisters,” those American citizens of Japanese ancestry interned in the camps could not stomach the last part of question 28. They were Americans, born here, and were the sons of Americans who were born here. They had no loyalty to any nation but their own, and could not forswear a loyalty that never existed.
Takei honors the resisters as well.
“These were men and women who risked all that they had left, their lives, because they understood what America was really all about,” he said. “They wouldn’t compromise.”
Takei said many of the resisters wanted to fight. “The wanted to fight,” he said, “but not as internees. They wanted to fight as Americans. They wanted to report back to their local draft boards, in their own neighborhoods, with their families out of the camps.”
But that was out of the question.
For their trouble, many resisters were sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where many would die, behind bars and not on the battlefield.
In the camps, there became two factions, one who wanted to fight under any circumstances, and one that could not abide a country that could imprison its own innocent citizens without due process of law, and ask that same group to fight, while their families remained imprisoned.
The rift in the camps grew, and history records violence, some of it deadly, between the groups, a part of the internment story “Allegiance” boldly tells. The very people who were themselves the victims of a gross American injustice soon began injustices of their own.
“People do irrational things under hysterical circumstances,” Takei said.
While his character made the decision to fight, putting “My country first, even when it’s wrong,” Takei sees and respects the resisters as well. When asked what decision he would have made if old enough, the actor and civil rights leader demurs.
“That’s the question I tantalize myself with,” he said. “We all owe a debt to those who fought, because we wouldn’t have America as we know it if they hadn’t. But the resisters were true Americans, who weren’t afraid to question their leaders, knowing what it would cost. That they would later be called ‘traitors’ is a disgraceful tarnish to their memory.”
After the war
Japanese-Americans were slowly released from the internment camps after V.J. Day in August 1945. Just where they would go, though, wasn’t clear.
For these innocent American citizens, there were no homes or jobs to return to. The businesses Japanese-American families had built were either gone or under the control of someone else. The homes they had bought were now owned by Caucasians and the original inhabitants had no legal claims to them.
The Takei family’s first home after Camp Rohwer was Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
The ironic parallels
By his own admission, Takei has a child’s memory of the horror and injustices that befell his family and thousands of others.
As he grew into his teen years, Takei's memories of those camps juxtaposed against what he was learning in school about government and its ideals caused internal conflict.
“I couldn’t reconcile the great America I read about in the history books with my own American experience,” Takei said.
To understand, he would engage his father in serious and often intense discussions at night after dinner.
“One night,” he recalls, “we were having a pretty intense discussion and I finally said ‘you led us like sheep to the slaughter.’ My father looked at me for a moment and said, ‘I guess I did.’ He got up and walked to his bedroom and closed the door.”
Takei never found the right time to apologize for that outburst, a fact he regrets to this day. Eventually he grew to fully appreciate the sacrifices, horrors and indignities his parents had to endure just to survive and protect their three young children.
Although Takei is now openly gay to the world, that has been the reality only since 2005. He had lived most of his public life in the closet, even though he had been partnered with Brad Altman (now Brad Takei after the couple married) for 18 years.
In a somewhat similar values judgment, Takei made the decision to stay in the closet during the early part of his career in order to stay working.
“I wanted to get cast,” he said in another 2012 interview with Media Mogul. “When you’re rejected because you’re too fat, too thin, too Asian, too tall, too short, you just don’t want to add any other reason why you wouldn’t get the job.”
In order to survive in Hollywood in the late 1960s, Takei had to stay in the closet, especially after he launched to stardom as Sulu in TV’s “Star Trek.”
While it’s a lesser parallel to be sure, with age and perspective Takei has grown to appreciate the decisions the parents of the internment camp survivors had to make in order to survive.
“Allegiance” plays until Oct. 28 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park. The show has received rave reviews, including one by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, and the producers expect the musical to land on Broadway sometime in 2013.
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
For tickets, call 619-234-5623 or visit HERE.
Top left and middle left: Lea Salonga as Kei Kimura and George Takai as Ojii-san
Bottom left: George Takei as Sam Kimura