A star's trek for tolerance
Nov. 10, 2017
Pioneering Japanese-American actor George Takei visited Japan to talk about a dark chapter in US history and share his message of tolerance.
The 80-year old is best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series, and more recently for appearing in another science fiction drama, “Heroes." Takei is a hero to many people, because of his lifelong fight against prejudice and discrimination for Japanese-Americans, as well as the LGBT community.
Takei is promoting "Allegiance," a musical film inspired by his time in an internment camp during World War II. He hopes it will be screened in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures by 2020. "I am thrilled to be able to bring ‘Allegiance’ to Japan, because that's something that I experienced as a child, my family,” he told a press conference in Tokyo.
"Allegiance" was a hit on Broadway in 2015. It tells the story of a Japanese-American family during World War 2 and how their lives were upended when they were interned.
Takei was one of them. Born in Los Angeles in 1937 as a second-generation Japanese-American, he spent four years of his childhood behind a barbed-wire fence.
The film is adapted from the stage show that marked Takei's Broadway debut at the age of 78. It raises complex questions about belonging and identity.
George Takei joined Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya in the studio.
Nakayama: George, it's a great honor to have you here.
Takei: It’s wonderful to be here, thank you very much.
Nakayama: And on behalf of "Star Trek" fans around the world, welcome to Newsroom Tokyo.
Takei: "Live long and prosper."
Nakayama: You warn us about history repeating itself. How relevant is this musical, "Allegiance", today?
Takei: Well, we know what today is like, you know the kind of president that we have. We have made advances since 75 years ago when we were unjustly incarcerated, but in human circumstances you make progress, and then you take a few steps backwards, but I’m confident that we’re going to move forward some more. This presidency is going to be abbreviated. It will end soon.
Shibuya: You've made telling this dark part of American history your mission in life. And not only are you a pioneer for Japanese-American actors, you have a huge following on social media and you've become a voice and icon of the LGBT community.
During his stay in Japan, Takei made a point to visit an important location for Japan's LGBT rights movement. In April 2015, Tokyo's Shibuya ward became the first public administration in Japan to recognize same-sex couples, and give them rights on par with marriage. Takei and his husband Brad met with Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe.
Throughout his Hollywood career, Takei kept his sexual identity a secret. He feared the consequences of belonging to two minorities: the Japanese-American, and gay communities. After California approved same-sex marriage in 2008, Takei married his long-time partner in their hometown of Los Angeles. “It's so exciting we can live our lives who we are, and show we are a regular couple, we love each other, support each other,” says Brad Takei.
The fight for same-sex marriage took decades in the United States, and Takei believes the key to change, in Japan and elsewhere, is to win broad support.
“We are excited to be here to meet you, and the same time we are hoping that your leadership will spread through the other districts in Tokyo,” the actor told the Shibuya Mayor. “I hope so, but it’s not so easy,” replied Hasebe. “For Tokyo to grow and mature as an international city, we have to find a way to overcome prejudice and deal with the LGBT issue,” he continued.
Since coming out in 2005, Takei has been a prominent advocate of LGBT and other human rights. His twitter account has 2.8 million followers. Wherever he goes, Takei is eager to engage with the widest possible audience, especially young people, and convey his message of diversity.
He hopes the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo will accelerate the progress of LGBT rights in Japan.
Nakayama: What is your impression of the LGBT movement here in Japan?
Takei: Well it’s an intriguing one. In the US we have marriage equality for everyone. Coast to coast, border to border. It just happened only two years ago, in 2015. It took a long time, decades of struggle.
Here is Japan there is a first step that we sense. Shibuya now has marriage equality, but it really isn’t marriage equality because Shibuya is just a district in a major metropolis. People move about. People can get married in Shibuya but when they go to work in Chiyoda-ku they are not married, so it’s problematic. Nevertheless, it’s a first step. In the United States, after many, many decades of advocacy, Massachusetts in 2003 got marriage equality throughout the state. The state’s Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality.
It took another five years for California to be the second state to pass marriage equality, but this time in California it was a landmark. It was our legislature, the people’s representatives, who voted for marriage equality. However, it needed one more signature, that of the governor, who happened to be a movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he campaigned for the governor’s office, he campaigned by saying ‘I’m from Hollywood, I’ve worked with gays and lesbians, some of my best friends are’...with that kind of rhetoric, some gays and lesbians thought he would support a bill, but Schwarzenegger comes from the right wing of the Republican Party and he played to his base, he vetoed it, and we were angry.
My partner Brad and I were at home that night watching late-night news and we watched young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard venting their rage against Arnold Schwarzenegger and that’s when Brad and I started talking. I decided ‘I’ve got to come out’. I had been closeted all my adult life, because I wanted to protect my acting career. For the first time, I spoke to the press as a gay man, and I blasted Schwarzenegger’s veto. That set another wave of movement going, and in 2008, again, the California Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality.
That’s when Brad and I got married, but it was a long, long journey just to get this patchwork of states approving marriage equality, and I’d like to think that’s the way it is here in Japan.
Shibuya now, and maybe a whole province, some ken, approving it, and I look forward to it. In three years, 2020, when the world’s attention is going to be here, the best of throughout the world, athletes in this case, but the best of the human animal are going to be gathered here and I’d like to see Japan join the other industrialized nations by having marriage equality.
It’s good for Japan because Japan is a very competitive corporate culture, and almost all international corporate cultures want to get the best people as their employees whether they be in the sciences, or in management, whatever. We look forward to seeing Japan be competitive with the rest of the world, in the economic and social world, social justice, with marriage equality. 2020 is a good time to do it.
Shibuya: Can you leave a message for Newsroom Tokyo's worldwide viewers?
Takei: “Allegiance” talked about a failure of American democracy. But democracy is really a people’s government, it’s only as good as the people can be, and when the people are faulty, the government makes mistakes like what happened to us. So the people have to subscribe to the best ideals of their country and actively engage in that process to achieve those ideals and we will have a better world.
Shibuya: The film version of "Allegiance" will be shown in Tokyo, and next year the musical will be staged again in Los Angeles. I'd love to catch that. Thank you so much for coming tonight.
Takei: We will welcome you to Los Angeles when we revive “Allegiance” on stage again.
Shibuya: Thank you so much, and finally, "live long and prosper."
Takei: And boldly go where you haven’t been before.