GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – The auditorium at Glens Falls High School gets busy for plenty of reasons. Most of those are what you would expect – theater performances, recitals, and the like that bring school spirit to life. On Wednesday night, though, that same auditorium was packed for a far different reason, as the city said hello to an iconic visitor who came ready with thoughts about where he was.
“When I heard ‘Glens Falls,’ I wondered how many Glens fell how many times?”
That was one of the opening remarks made by actor and advocate George Takei, who visited Glens Falls on Wednesday night on a visit arranged by Crandall Public Library. Takei, most well-known for portraying Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek,” spoke in front of an enthusiastic crowd, young and old alike. Although his time onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise came up – as did his advocacy for, and membership in, the LGBTQ+ community – the main topic of the visit reached even farther back.
“I remember asking my father, ‘Where are we going,'” Takei recounted. “He said, we’re going on a long vacation – a trip to the country, on a train.'”
The reality behind that story was told by the backdrop – the early months of 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story Takei told was of his family’s internment as Japanese-American citizens during World War II.
The actor began before the world changed around him – before he came into it at all. He talked about his mother, who was born in Sacramento, California; and his father, born in Japan near Mt. Fuji, but raised in San Francisco. He spoke about his own birth, and the unusual origin of his own name.
“My father was an Anglophile – he loved anything English. I am a Japanese-American man, named after a British king.”
That king was King George VI – the father of Queen Elizabeth II, who died earlier in 2022. Takei’s brother, Henry, was similarly named after Henry VIII. Takei smiled and joked that his Henry stuck with his first marriage.
For Takei, the story of Japanese internment starts at age 5. After Pearl Harbor, his family – like Asian-American citizens nationwide – faced everything from hate speech to violence, as they were characterized in line with those responsible for the attack. He described his father getting him and his brother dressed quickly, and then being met by armed soldiers at the door. The family of five left their Los Angeles home with two suitcases, a duffel bag, and two little boxes tied with twine.
When they were gathered with other families of Japanese descent, they spent a period of time in temporary holding at a race track, where they slept in a horse stable – and both George and his baby sister, Nancy, got sick in their time there.
Internment was a tale of two camps. First, the family was sent across the country to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas. Takei recalls seeing trees in the bayou that looked like none he and his brother had ever seen. Next, they would be sent back to California, to Tule Lake – a very different world, to which they were sent by a cruel contradiction.
Before, during and after
During World War II, a need for more soldiers drove the U.S. to take a second look at the Japanese-American citizens it had imprisoned in camps across the country. A loyalty questionnaire was created, compulsory for all camp residents. As Takei recalls, two questions on that questionnaire would act as either a signup sheet for armed service, or a trap leading to a harder life ahead.
Question 27 on the survey asked everyone who took it if they were willing to serve military duty. The Takeis, parents of three young children, said no, out of fear of abandoning their family. Those who said yes were enlisted, and the men were formed into the 442nd Regiment – a regiment entirely comprised of Japanese-American citizens. That regiment would be sent into the worst, hardest battles of the war, and come out the most decorated in the U.S. Army.
Then there was question 28, which Takei refers to as a contradiction in itself. The question asked citizens to swear loyalty to the U.S., and simultaneously cast aside loyalty to the Japanese emperor. For tens of thousands of people who had been born and raised in America, there was no loyalty to lose. The Takeis said no to that question, too.
So it was that the family traveled from their first place of imprisonment to another. Tule Lake was a camp specifically for those deemed “disloyal” – meaning unwilling to serve or pledge. The difference at Tule Lake looked like 18,000 people, as opposed to between 6-11K at other camps. It looked like three layers of barbed wire fence, instead of just one. It looked like machine guns atop turrets, pointed down at everyone, every day.
The question of “Japanese loyalty” would end up having an echo at Tule Lake. Many interned citizens took their designation as “disloyal” as a sign that it was time to stand up against the oppression that had put them there. Takei recalled waking up before dawn, hearing the chants of fellow camp members who would march, with bandanas around their heads bearing the symbology of the Japanese flag. When dawn came, they would hurry back to their barracks before the guards could identify them – though some were ultimately found out.
When Takei’s family was finally sent home at the end of the war, they faced the same reality as most – there wasn’t much to come back to. Everyone was given a one-way train ticket anywhere in the country, and $25. That got the Takei family home to Los Angeles, where housing and jobs were a nearly impossible struggle.
That struggle led them to life on Skid Row. Takei remembers the stench of human waste, and an encounter with a man who vomited in front of him in the street. His family was with him, and his sister’s words stick with him today.
“Mama, let’s go back home.”
For the girl, who had been practically a baby when internment began, “home” didn’t mean Los Angeles.
The road here and ahead
Despite everything, in four years’ time, Takei’s parents had saved enough money to buy a house – in the neighborhood where they had lived before the war had turned America against anyone who looked like them. As a teenager, Takei would ask his father about internment, and what caused everything. His father’s answer was that in order to uphold a society based in equality, everyone has to play an active role, or else give into fear – something that even President Franklin D. Roosevelt had done.
His father’s words would push Takei into activism, and eventually, he testified before Congress in 1981, when reparations were being considered for Japanese-American internment. The U.S. would finally issue a formal apology in 1988. While that victory was meaningful for anyone of Japanese heritage, it was sad for Takei for one personal reason – his father had passed nine years earlier.
My father deserved it most,” Takei said. “My mother said ‘Daddy always knew this day was coming.'”
Following the story – and a thunderous round of applause – Takei was thanked by Kathy Naftaly, Crandall Public Library President. Naftaly went on to read questions handed to her from the audience – one of which continued the conversation of Takei’s political life, and his decision to come out of the closet as a gay man at age 68.
Takei admitted to feeling like a coward for staying silent. When his career was rising on “Star Trek,” it was an era where being openly gay could ruin one’s career. Even so, he knew gay actors and professionals in other fields who were making the hard choice, all for the sake of what they knew was right. When he finally came out, it was 2005 – after Arnold Schwarzenegger, then-Governor of California, shot down a bill that would legalize gay marriage in the state.
“It was Schwarzenegger who got me to come out.”
Someone else asked how his own story could reflect on the current state of the country. Takei’s answer goes back to fear as a method of control, but also as a way of distorting the facts. He spoke on the 2020 election, and Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud, as a modern example.
And, of course, it all came back to the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Takei described meeting with showrunner Gene Roddenberry, who envisioned the iconic Starfleet ship as a likeness of “Spaceship Earth” – with a multicultural crew to match. Hikaru Sulu was meant to represent not just Japan, or China, or Vietnam, but all of Asia. So how to pick the right name?
Roddenberry looked at a map, and his eyes fixated on the Sulu Sea. After all, as Takei tells it:
“The sea touches all borders.”