By Andre Loftis Jr.
During World War II American citizens were treated like prisoners of war in their own country. Although historians look back at WWII and declare that the United States was victorious, many Japanese American citizens look back and remember the horrors of that time period. During a conversation on the weekly radio show, Smiley and West, George Takei, known widely as Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek television series, reflected on his personal experiences in an American internment camp. The most striking part of his revelations were the vivid pictures he painted of supposed American values contradicting with real American domestic policy. His experiences highlight the persecution of American citizens: when fear and discrimination are allowed to influence public policy, the consequences are terrible.
Before looking into Takei’s past, one must first examine the history of Japanese American internment and discover the conditions that led to such unjust treatment of American citizens. On December 7, 1941, Japanese fighter pilots bombed Pearl Harbor, and the next day President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and requested a declaration of war on Japan. (Dickerson 61) After war was formally declared Roosevelt was constantly under pressure to address the problem of potential Japanese American spies on the mainland. Public mistrust of any person of Japanese descent grew as the war effort raged onward because many people believed they were spying for their native country. “Although there was not a single instance of sabotage or espionage committed by Japanese Americans, the president proceeded with a directive that essentially stripped more than one hundred thousand Americans of their citizenship and constitutional rights and set in motion events that would forever leave a dark stain on the United States constitution” (Dickerson 66). On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the forcible relocation of American citizens.
Actor and activist, George Takei sat down with fellow activists Tavis Smiley and Cornel West in early October 2012 to discuss his own experiences in American Internment camps. His time in the camps so shaped the rest his life that he recently produced a play called Allegiance, which speaks to the tragedy of American citizens being persecuted by their government.
As he begins to talk about the relocation centers, Takei refers to them as prisons, and he maintains that he and his family were imprisoned in one of these camps against their will. He notes that the term “relocation center” was a euphemism developed by the United States government to justify their actions. When Takei was four years old, he and his family were forced out of their home in Los Angeles, CA and sent to Camp Rowher in Arkansas.
Before the camp was built, many families were taken to horse tracks and forced to sleep in the stables where the horses had slept. From his point of view at the time, four year old Takei was excited to sleep where the horses had once been, but his parents knew that this was only the first of many insults from the United States government. (Smiley and West) Even though his family had been in the States for a couple of generations, they were not saved from this degrading experience.
When his family arrived at the camps in South Eastern Arkansas, he was enrolled in elementary school. He remembers being taught the Pledge of Allegiance in school, but the great irony was that the words did not apply to Japanese American citizens at the time. He says, “From my school house window . . . I could see the barbed-wire fence and the sentry tower with the machine guns pointed at us, as I recited the words, with liberty and justice for all” (Smiley and West). From his description one can gather that the internment camps were indeed prisons. The government had machine guns pointed on American citizens and their children because of the way they looked.
One year after being taken to the camps, Takei remembers that there was a manpower shortage in the war effort, so many Japanese American men were given the opportunity to prove their loyalty to the United States with a loyalty questionnaire. The following were a few of the critical questions: number twenty-seven; will you bear arms to defend the United States of America? and number twenty-eight; will you swear loyalty to the United States of America and forswear loyalty to the emperor of Japan? Question twenty-seven was insulting because government officials had proved that they had very little interest in protecting the rights of citizens, yet they expect those same mistreated citizens to take up arms and defend their oppressors. Question twenty-eight was a catch 22 that had dire consequences for the Japanese American community; if they answered yes they were admitting that they had an inborn allegiance to the emperor of Japan – justifying the internment, but if they answered no, they were betraying the United States of America.
Even though his father answered no to both questions, as Takei looks back at the situation he is equally impressed by those who served in the military and those who did not serve. Those who served had to leave with their families still imprisoned, and Takei notes that, “They wore the same uniforms as the sentries guarding over the internment camps” (Smiley and West). They wore the uniforms of their oppressors to go and fight oppression overseas and prove that they were loyal Americans. The segregated Japanese American, 442nd regimental combat team sustained the highest combat casualty rate of any unit their size, proving that there was a such thing as non-White loyalty and courage.
The men who didn’t serve, like Takei’s father, were courageous as well. Takei remembers his father saying, “They took my business, they took our home, they took our freedom, the one thing I’m not going to give them is my dignity, I am not going to grovel before this government” (Smiley and West). Many of these men were willing to serve in the military and fight and die for the United States, but they would only do so if they were allowed to go home with their families and report to their local draft boards. For their insubordination, they were tried and found guilty of draft evasion and were sentenced to time in high-security internment camps. Takei recalls, “The high security camp had six layers of barbed wire fences, and about a half a dozen tanks patrolling the perimeter. I mean, what were tanks doing guarding outraged American citizens, goaded into anger by the insults and humiliation that we were subjected to, and guarded with tanks, which belonged on the battlefield” (Smiley and West). The men and women who stood on principle would not fight because they were not even free at home. Thier defiance was uniquely American, but it was not appreciated by the United States government because apparently civil liberties can be denied to anyone who does not comply with government mandates.
The insults inflicted on Japanese American citizens during World War II were outrageous. George Takei’s early life serves as a testament to the unjust practices of the United States government. Fear and discrimination influenced public policy because mostly White Americans felt that Japanese Americans were acting as spies for the Japanese government. Racism has split American society for many centuries. People in the twentieth century and even people today fail to realize that racism is a lie perpetrated by those in power to justify oppression and killing. In World War II, the United States happened to be at war with Japan, so to bolster the war effort anyone who looked Japanese had to be persecuted even though many of them had spent their whole lives as citizens of the United States of America.
Takei also mentioned his intense discussions with his father about their unique position in America. Four years after leaving the internment camp his parents were able to buy a three-bedroom house by working very hard everyday. They were also able to send all of their children to school, and they felt this was their most important duty because education, as Takei describes it, is the upward mobility vehicle. From imprisonment, to a three-bedroom house, and eventually to the cast of Star Trek, George Takei has experienced the many horrors and pleasures American life has to offer. His father commented on the many contradictions in American culture by stating, “Both the strength and the weakness of American Democracy is in the fact that it’s a people’s democracy. It can be as great as the people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are. That’s why we’ve got to be active participants in this participatory democracy in every arena” (Smiley and West). His statement affirms that no matter how terrible conditions become there will always be hope for the United States of America so long as there are courageous people willing to fight and die for freedom.