Prominent American activist and Hollywood celebrity George Takei has devoted himself to raising awareness about social justice issues from LGBT rights to the Japanese-American internment. But to his dismay, he is deeply concerned that the U.S. is repeating dark chapters of history that he sought to shed light on in order to prevent them from reoccurring.
Undaunted, that hasn’t stopped him. Far from it. In fact, the past few months have seen the 82-year-old launch new and particularly timely projects devoted to raising awareness about historical injustices in the hopes of changing both the present and the future.
Earlier this year, Takei, who rose to fame on the original Star Trek TV series, had spent time in Vancouver from January to May while filming the horror anthology TV series The Terror as a cast member and consultant. In this second season, entitled The Terror: Infamy, which premiered on August 12, the storyline is set during the Japanese American internment during the Second World War.
During his time in Vancouver, he also went on a tour of the Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall and the former Japantown in the Downtown Eastside to learn more about Japanese Canadian history and he also attended Canada Post’s launch of a stamp commemorating the historic Vancouver Asahi baseball team.
After returning to the U.S., he launched his graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, on July 16. The memoir recounts his experiences of being relocated to a Japanese American internment camp.
This past week, he returned to Vancouver to hold a book-signing event at Indigo Books on Robson Street on September 3.
But the day before the book launch, he spent more time deepening his understanding of Japanese Canadian history by visiting the former site of a B.C. internment camp.
On September 2, Takei took an excursion to the Sunshine Valley Tashme Museum, located 23 kilometres (14 miles) southeast of Hope, B.C.
With over 2,600 people and covering 1,200 acres, Tashme, the largest of 10 internment camps, was constructed on a farm site and operated from 1942 to 1946.
Museum founder and curator Ryan Ellan, who took Takei on a tour of the museum, explained that he acquired the property in 2008.
Ellan said he spent a month sifting through junk that filled a barn on the property, and started to discover Japanese items. After restoring the building, he launched the museum project in 2015 and opened it as a one-room exhibit in 2016.
He has since expanded to several rooms, and is adding a classroom extension to help accommodate the numerous visits he receives from students.
As Ellan told Takei about Tashme, Takei asked why there weren't any sentry towers, search lights, fences, barbed wire, or armed guards like there were at the U.S. internment camps.
“Why did Japanese Canadians stay here then?” Takei asked.
“There was no place to go,” Ellan replied. The isolated area in the wilderness, Ellan explained, was surrounded by “a wall of forest” and the Cascade Mountains. “The next stop was probably a week’s walk through the bush.”
Consequently, there was only one RCMP officer monitoring the hundreds of internees, Ellan said.
The museum includes a replica of the approximately 350 uninsulated tar-paper shacks that internees lived in, including surviving winters with up to 17 feet of snow. Ellan said that they had no running water, with a minimum of seven or eight people living in each shack outfitted with one small wood stove and one cooking stove.
When Takei asked about how they ate, Ellan said that—with whatever money internees had—there was a general store where people could buy canned goods and a butcher shop for meat, eggs, and dairy. He added that some people also grew some of their own produce in gardens.
Takei was very interested to learn about these aspects, which greatly differed from the American equivalent.
“It literally was like a prison and we ate our food in a mess hall and the people weren’t allowed to cook separately,” he said of the U.S. camps. “We all had to eat there and the food was government food that was terrible tasting.”
In contrast, however, the exclusion order against Japanese Americans was rescinded in 1945 whereas in Canada, deportations of Japanese Canadians to Japan began in 1946—one year after Japan surrendered—and all restrictions on Japanese Canadians, including returning to the B.C. coast, weren't lifted until 1949 despite the war having ended years before.
Takei emphasized the importance of learning about this “important chapter” of Canadian history, as he feels concerned about how little Americans know about the U.S. equivalent.
“Too many of our fellow countrymen, still to this day, don’t know about that chapter,” he said. He added that he's “always shocked and a little taken aback" when that includes people he considers "well informed" who are unaware of what he experienced. "So that’s prompted me to put together this graphic memoir,” he explained.
He explained that his book depicts him as a five-year-old who was among those considered “the enemy of the country simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour”, an erroneous perception that is reflected in the title of his book.
“We were, in a sweeping generalized gesture, characterized as potential spies, saboteurs, and fifth columnists,” he went on to explain. “We were innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry. We had nothing to do with Pearl Harbour. And yet with no charges, which is a basic part of our due process…no charge, no trials, we were rounded up at gunpoint, forcibly imprisoned, and kept imprisoned for four long years that were filled with goading, intimidation, and threats, and awful things happened during those four years.”
In an interview with CTV News Vancouver on September 2, Takei expressed concerns about how the U.S. is repeating this history on the southern U.S. border.
“It’s because we don’t know these dark chapters of our history that we are in this constant, unending cycle of cruelty and injustice to minority people,” he said.
He lambasted U.S. President Donald Trump—calling him an “orangutan in the White House”—for how the U.S. is treating people fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum, which he said is a human right.
“What we are doing now is going to a grotesque new low where children, infants, are torn away from their parents and put in filthy, disgusting cages with human waste and five or six times the number of children that can be accommodated in that cage,” he said.
During an interview in August on Late Night With Seth Myers, he explained that while the Japanese American internment parallels what is happening now, he pointed out that during the internment, they weren’t separated from their parents, who protected them from the reality of what was actually happening.
He also heavily criticized the U.S. administration’s “incompetence” in failing to reunite the families despite court orders to do so.
“It is an American tragedy and an American disgrace,” he said.
Takei expressed great appreciation for the work that Ellan is doing, and also thanked Ellan for visiting schools to make presentations about Tashme for those who can't visit the site.
For anyone who is interested in visiting the Sunshine Valley Tashme Museum, which is located at 14781 Alpine Boulevard near Hope, B.C., reservations are recommended.
Further information about the history of Tashme is available at this website.
For more information about the Japanese Canadian internment, there are numerous online resources including:
• entries at the Canadian Encyclopedia website;
• a timeline at the Canadian Nikkei website;
• the Japanese Canadian History website, which is a companion to educational resource books for students;
• and the Landscapes of Injustice website.
Also, the Nikkei National Musem and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, which hosts exhibitions about Japanese Canadian history, is devoted to honouring, preserving, and raising awareness of Japanese Canadian culture and history.