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George Takei's Passion for Social Justice Rooted in Childhood

The "Star Trek" actor spoke to more than 600 students and fans at Cal Poly Pomona Tuesday about his years in a Japanese internment camp and gay rights. One of those internment camps was in Arcadia.

As a teenager, “Star Trek” actor George Takei’s father told him something about the American democracy that has stayed with him to this day.

The pair would sit together and have long discussions about politics and social issues, the young, idealistic kid challenging the elder Takei on his beliefs.

“My father said ‘the American democracy is the people’s democracy. It’s dependent on good people to be actively engaged in the process,’” Takei, 75, told a crowd of more than 600 students and fans at Cal Poly Pomona Tuesday.  “What my father told me really defined who I am.”

The openly gay actor famous for his role as Mr. Sulu on the original “Star Trek” series spoke at the campus in a talk titled “Social Justice in a Digital World.” The author and philanthropist covered topics ranging from his childhood to his career to his push for social justice.

Cal Poly’s Office of Student Life, along with the Violence Prevention and Resource, African-American, Asian Pacific Islander, Cesar E. Chavez, Native American, and the Pride student centers, sponsored the event.

Takei talked about diversity as a source of strength. He said his self-perception was defined by a time when diversity wasn’t valued, recounting how when he was five, armed soldiers marched up the steps of his Los Angeles home and took his family first to the horse stalls at the Santa Anita Park in Arcadia and then to a World War II-era Japanese internment camp in Arkansas.

“It was time of racial hysteria, economic greed, and a lack of political leadership,” Takei said. 

After about three years in the camps, he, his parents, and younger brother and sister returned to Los Angeles. The family was poor and forced to move into a rundown Skid Row hotel for a couple of months before his father found a dry cleaning store in a mostly Latino East Los Angeles, Takei said.

He stuck out and recalled a teacher referring to him as “the little Jap boy.”

“It stung,” he said. “It hurt.”

As a teen, Takei said he was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and active in political campaigns with his father.  He said that although as a teen and a young adult working on social justice for Japanese-Americans and others, he kept silent about his sexual orientation.

Times were different then and although his co-stars on “Star Trek” knew he was gay, they didn’t reveal that because they knew he could lose his career, Takei said.

As marriage equality began to take hold, he said the fact that he had not spoken out for gay rights began to gnaw at him.  In 2005, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill.

“I was livid, but I remained silent,” he said. 

In 2008, when same-sex marriage was allowed in California, Takei got married to his husband Brad Altman. He began to talk about marriage-equality in his speeches and spoke to a reporter.

Nowadays, Takei uses social media to speak to his fans and share his views on social justice and gay-rights issues.

He said he started with telling jokes and posting funny photos he later learned were called “memes.” As he saw the positive response he was getting, he began to share more of his political thoughts.

He used social media to build up an audience for his musical, “Allegiance,” which tells the story of the Kimuras, a Japanese-American family much like his own living and surviving in the World War II era.  After a successful run at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, Takei said he plans to take it to Broadway.

Takei said blacks, Latinos, women, and other minority groups have made tremendous strides and cautioned one attendee against being pessimistic about equality’s slow progress

“You make progress incrementally,” he said.  “If you are a pessimist, you will give up.  Pessimists get defeated.  Optimists will ultimately prevail.”

Jonny De La Torre, a 21-year-old third-year construction engineering technology major, said what stood out the most about Takei’s talk was the adversity he overcame. 

“It was really inspiring,” said De La Torre, a resident advisor for campus housing. “It’s cool to see diverse members of campus out to support a well-known actor and social justice activist.”

Vito Spago February 20, 2013 at 04:43 PM
Takei was a second rate actor in a TV show that was only moderately popular. Now he is an authority on gayness and Japanese rights during WWII. Spare me. Why do Hollywood types think they are extra smart. Where did Takei go to college. He have a PhD? Also trying to brainwash innocent college kids, as if they need more liberal indoctrination.
Janeane February 20, 2013 at 05:15 PM
Really Spago? Hmm I think being in an internment camp pretty much makes him an authority! Star Trek was more than moderately popular. Seems to be that you have an equality issue. Sorry that you are such an uptight individual Live and let live my friend!
Vito Spago February 20, 2013 at 05:31 PM
OK Assume it is New Years, 1942 and you are still recovering from Pearl Harbor. You hear how the Japanese are getting ready to invade the West coast. You have heard of the attrocities they have committed to women in China and to the folks in the Philipines. You know your neighbors have relatives in Japan. You wonder if they will sympathize with their relatives or think like you, their neighbor. You know they have photos of Hirohito on their wall in their home. You have two, 5 year old children and some Japanese folks live next door. The Democratic President of the US sends them away to a relocation camp. Are you going to be outraged? Likely not.
Janeane February 20, 2013 at 05:47 PM
Yes outraged! My best friends parents were in the camps! Thankfully they lost only their years in the camps because their neighbors took care of their land and helped them when they got out! Don't let the right wing press tell you that the citizens of the us where shouting hurray for locking these people up! It just wasn't that way most were outraged!
Vito Spago February 20, 2013 at 05:51 PM
Your best friend's parents? Seems you are biased. Did you know your best friend or their parents in 1942? I doubt it. Hindsight is 20/20. After the Japanese attrocities committed in 1942, your friend's parents were lucky.
Janeane February 20, 2013 at 06:07 PM
No they were good people and their neighbors recognized that! Too bad that society now is always promoting fear! Sorry but I will not bow to that fear ever! So I will pray that you are able to have an open heart and mind sometime in your life I will pray that you see injustice and be strong enough to voice your opinion for the good of your neighbor. I will pray that you can walk your life's path without fear! Amen.
Julia Nelson February 20, 2013 at 11:51 PM
George Takei is an award-winning playwright and author, and an expert on social media. He's a funny and entertaining guy and I wish I could have seen him at Cal Poly. The Japanese-Americans had it particularly hard during WWII. Most families lost everything, or were swindled into selling their land for pennies. The internment was fueled by fear and prejudice. Germany and Italy were a threat to the U.S. long before Japan, but you didn't see German- and Italian-Americans rounded up because they looked like everyone else. The Japanese-Americans were easy targets.
Dive Turn Work February 21, 2013 at 06:36 AM
Well this is the stupidest comment I've read since Blockbuster underestimated the threat Netflix posed.
Dive Turn Work February 21, 2013 at 06:37 AM
Earl Warren championed many wonderful judicial decisions. But, his role in creating these internment camps will forever stain his legacy.
Jim Hays March 01, 2013 at 03:25 AM
This comment is so cynical and negative. It entirely overlooks the positive impact Takei is apparently having as well as his courage to admit his sexual orientation publicly. Vito: what have you done to serve the community lately?
Vito Spago March 01, 2013 at 03:44 AM
Hays: Serving the community by promoting perversion. You folks are sick. If you think of the sick things this guy must do with his 'boyfriend', any normal person would puke.

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