George Takei on Citizenship and Understanding

Garrett Wang welcomed George Takei to a packed Marriott Atrium ballroom at 2:30PM Friday for an hour of recollection and reflection. Takei was in outstanding form and the members were treated to a fascinating hour.

Born in Los Angeles before World War II, Takei was 5 years old when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. His family, though native-born citizens, found themselves rounded up and placed in an internment camp. After the war his family returned to Los Angeles and as 9-year-old enrolled in the second grade. There, he got his first acting role performing in the Thanksgiving Pageant: he played the Indian chief greeting the pilgrims.

Takei’s university career began at the University of California Berkeley where, at his dad’s request, he enrolled as an architecture student. Two years later he had “the talk” with his dad and told him that, while he enjoyed architectural design, his heart and true passion lie in acting. Takei had hopes of travelling to New York and studying at the Actor’s Studio, but his dad had another plan. He told young George that he could either study theater at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) with a subsidy from the family or travel to New York to study at the Actor’s Studio, but do so without any assistance. His parents wanted him to have a degree, and the Actor’s Studio did not award them. Takei chose UCLA and his journey as an actor began.

A defining experience in shaping Takei’s career came very early when he was cast alongside Sir Richard Burton in a film set in Alaska. Burton, one of the defining talents of his generation, spent weeks on location with Takei. They were the only two actors there, which meant they spent a lot of time together. The experience turned out to be its own form of acting school, as Burton was happy to talk and Takei (who was more than willing to listen) had lots of questions.

A life and career as long and accomplished as Takei’s gives one ample opportunity to encounter people who make a difference in your life. When asked, at the very end of the hour, who was his hero Takei replied, “my dad.” It was his father who suffered the most during internment, enduring physical, psychological, and emotional trauma. He was an American citizen, and yet his government detained him without any vestige of due process. Despite all that pain, Takei’s father passionately believed in the idea of America. He taught Takei that the ideals that define the American experiment are fundamentally noble. Takei needed to remember, his father told him, that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was something of a double-edged sword. It enshrined the very highest of ideals that define a democracy but at the same time exposes democracy’s greatest fault. A government of and by the people will be no better or worse than the people themselves, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes. Such was the case with President Roosevelt who, despite all that he accomplished on behalf of all Americans, ordered the internment of Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor.  Fear drove that decision, and America has lived with its legacy ever since. Citizenship, his father taught him, carries with it responsibilities, and as a citizen Takei needed to be active, engaged, and informed so that he could fulfill his duties and responsibilities. Takei took the words to heart and has tried to live up to them. It was a moving moment at the very end of a very interesting hour.

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