George Takei: on acting and activism as a Japanese-American

Jack Whitehead 17 May 2016

George Takei affectionately points out that ‘Britain is a hotbed of Star Trek geeks and nerds’. Accordingly, for most of us, he is synonymous with the character Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, one of the helm officers aboard the Starship Enterprise in the hugely successful original Star Trek series. Visiting the Cambridge Union to give a talk last week, Takei sat down with us to share some thoughts.

It quickly became apparent that there is much more to the sci-fi series, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, as well as to Takei himself, than one may initially think. Discussing the new series of programmed to air next year, Takei reminded us of the political backdrop to the original series: the civil rights movement in America, Vietnam and the cold war.

“We used science fiction as a metaphor to comment on those current events and I think that’s what made the original star trek, Gene Roddenberry’s creation, unique. It’s singular and it had some powerful effects at that time. For example, on American television, there’d never been a kiss between a white man and an African American woman. It was a first when Captain Kirk kissed O’Hoora and it caused a sensation. However, it caused such a sensation that television stations in the American South refused to air it: they literally blacked it out. That was the worst rated episode of all the Star Treks we’ve had.

“Gene Roddenberry was that kind of person who challenged the thinking of the time and he tried to use television to make for a better society. I think we did contribute to important debate. Today what we have with the new series is a wonderful action adventure space opera, but just that.”

Mr Takei has been politically active all through his life, marching with Dr Martin Luther King as a teenager and being involved in the Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice (EIPJ) along with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. He recounted that his initial engagement with activism was, in large part, the result of his childhood, living through the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

“We were imprisoned. We were innocent American citizens. But we happened to be of Japanese ancestry and because of that, because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour, they put us in barbed wire prison camps, with no charges. It was very unconstitutional and there was no trial, because you need charges to challenge in a court of law to have a trial. Due process disappeared.

“After the war, as a teenager, I became very curious because I was reading civics books about the shining noble ideals of American democracy: all men are created equal and an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I couldn’t reconcile that with my childhood imprisonment, so I learned from my father who explained to me that our democracy is a people’s democracy. The people have the capacity to do great things, but we are also fallible human beings. That was really proved out by the people going wild with fear and suspicion and outright racial prejudice. 120,000 of us, innocent people, were imprisoned. So I became an activist from my late teenage years.”

In more recent years, Takei has taken his activism online. Having gathered a vast internet following, not least in part because of his incredibly strong pun game, Takei uses social media to raise awareness of other important causes close to his heart.

Notably, Takei has been incredibly vocal on the whitewashing of Asian and Asian American roles. Discussing this, he called Scarlett Johannson’s recent ‘Ghost in the Shell’ casting as the Japanese Motoko Kusanagi ‘preposterous’ and highlighted that he has been consistently critical of Hollywood for its inability to recognise that this behaviour is no longer acceptable.

Talking about his involvement as an LGBT activist, Mr Takei took obvious pleasure in reporting that the Marriage Equality Bill had now been passed in the United States.

“However just like with the black and white kiss on television, we have the reactionary states, alas, in the southern portion of the USA and in the Midwestern area. Now they are passing bills justifying not approving marriage equality by using the words ‘religious freedom’. In other words, they are trying to hide behind religion of the people, but they don’t understand the United States constitution. Religious freedom is for everyone and we have a pluralistic society with many, many different faiths. No one faith can write their beliefs into civil law and discriminate against another. That‘s still percolating out but it will be defeated.”

As the conversation turns to current US politics, the inevitable comes up. After comparing Trump to a Klingon, Takei emphasised his scepticism that America will have a Republican president after the next election.

“But if that fantastical situation should happen, I would like to think that by that time he would have learned from all the people around him, because he shows very little knowledge of foreign policy. I mean ignorance and actually damaging understanding. He could start a trade war all over again and plunge the world into a depression instead of a recession.”

Takei is certain, however: “Hilary will be the first woman to be the president of the United States.”

And will Sulu be returning to the new Star Trek series in Leonard Nimoy’s footsteps? Takei urged us to petition for the return of Captain Sulu of the Excelsior. Failing that, he will accept a role as an alien, although he worries that his distinctive voice will be too recognisable.

Whether or not his journey continues aboard a starship, given his extraordinary life so far, we have to hope that Takei maintains his trajectory ever upward: a remarkable man.