George Takei, who plays Yamato-san on AMC’s The Terror: Infamy and also acts as a consultant on the show, talks about the importance of telling this story and speaks about how his internment experience began.
Q: You lived for years as a child in the Japanese American internment camps that this story is based on. What went through your mind when you heard about this project?
A: Alexander Woo called and said he was working on a project. He told me the subject was the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and I said that’s what I’ve been talking about all these years. He described the project to me. I was absolutely spellbound by the concept and the scale of the storytelling. It was epic, a groundbreaking project. There have been a few TV episodes that treated the internment as more of a background to a larger story. But here was 10 hours to examine this epic story, and with that 10 hours you can get that much more in-depth.
Q: Which elements of the show ring the most true for you, given your experience?
A: The story of the internment itself. There are still many Americans who don’t know about this chapter of American history, and it’s the opportunity to tell a moving family story. There is also the story of the immigrant generation bringing with them the culture they came from and the younger generation that wants to assimilate and is rather casual about the beliefs and superstitions of their parents or grandparents. These immigrants were working class and came to Terminal Island in California from Wakayama prefecture in Japan, just south of Osaka. Like many immigrant groups, people from the same place clustered together and so with the people from Wakayama, who lived on Terminal Island in a fishing community where they preserved their lore and beliefs and Japanese-style Buddhist religion. In times of stress, this was the core pillar they would cling to. The Terror: Infamy is an authentic examination of a Japanese American community in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
Q: Was there anything in particular about your personal experience that you especially wanted to be represented in this series?
A: I was a 5-year-old kid. I’d just had my birthday on April 20, 1942. Soon after that, in May, my parents got me up very early one morning. They also woke up my brother, who was a year younger than me. I also had a baby sister. They dressed us hurriedly and told my brother and me to wait in the living room. While just gazing out the window, I saw two soldiers marching up our driveway holding rifles with bayonets gleaming in the sun. They banged on our door with their fists and it felt like the whole house was shaking. They ordered my father out of the room, and my brother and I followed him out and stood on the driveway. My mother came out with my infant sister in one arm and a duffel bag in the other and tears were streaming down her face. This was how the internment experience began for us.
We got in a truck with some other neighborhood Japanese American families and along the way picked up a few more families and they took us to Santa Anita Race Track. Each family was installed in a smelly, narrow horse stall crowded with cots. There was no space to walk because of the cots. We climbed over cots to get to our sleeping space. For me, as a 5-year-old, I was just excited to sleep where the horsies slept.
Just last month, I was at San Diego Comic-Con talking about They Called Us Enemy, my new graphic memoir, where we graphically share what this experience was like for this 5-year-old kid. It’s aimed toward younger Americans, who are absorbing information through their pores. For teens and pre-teens, this information becomes a part of their knowledge that will stay with them.
The scenes of when the news of what happened at Pearl Harbor flashed across our country were so visually powerful in The Terror: Infamy. They really depicted the panic, the confusion, people running around and phoning their loved ones, powerfully. That was the work of our director Josef Kubota Wladyka.
Q: Tell us about your character, Nobuhiro Yamato, and his role among the other characters.
A: He was an elder of the community who came to the U.S. when he was a robust athletic young man. He was known as the tuna boxing champion of San Pedro. He caught a huge tuna that was very lively and wiggly, so he wrestled and pounded on it to overcome it. He is regaling people with those tales as an old man.
Before Pearl Harbor, he was having the time of his life, sitting on the ship and regaling people with stories. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, he was part of the initial sweep, on December 8, 9 and 10, 1941, when the so-called “leaders” of the community, such as priests, Japanese language teachers and the head of the bonsai club were deemed subversive and immediately rounded up. While their families were kept back, living in confusion and dread, they were taken to North Dakota to a Department of Justice detention camp. We shot in Vancouver, which stood in for North Dakota as well as other locales. That’s considered the mild part of Canada, but I can tell you that it’s savage and fierce in the winter and we didn’t have to act the cold.
These people were terrorized by their circumstances and only had bits of communications among themselves whispered to each other. There was sheer hysteria in this country, racism swept across the nation. The U.S. was also fighting the Germans and Italians, but no German Americans or Italian Americans were rounded up, thank God, because they looked like the rest of America. We were visibly different.
Q: Beyond the divide in culture depicted in the show, there is also a generational gap at play, separating the Japanese Americans that grew up in the U.S. and those born in Japan. How does this impact our characters and their journeys?
A: There was a uniquely Japanese American gap during wartime. Of course, the normal generational tension was there, but it was intensified by the fact that this was wartime and there was a political challenge. The American-born generation forcefully asserted their Americanism. Their Japan-born parents were terrified immigrants tortured by the uncertainty of their status. They had to deal with both the terror of internment and the terror of family tension.
Q: What advice would you give Chester, our main character whose young life is turned upside down, if you could?
A: Yamato-san would have given advice in pre-Pearl Harbor America. But after Pearl Harbor, surrounded by unfathomable uncertainty, Yamato-san has his own cultural values that he tries to live by. He gives advice by example, if anything, because he really can’t figure out what’s going on. When I was a teenager, I talked to my father about this time, and he said the most terrorizing thing was the unknown. When there are sentries with guns, you had no idea what was going to happen in the next five minutes, or the next hour, or the next day, so Yamato-san was not about to be giving advice.
Q: The underlying theme within the anthology, The Terror, is the collision of history and horror. How did those two things come together this season?
A: All you need to do is to put yourself in the situation at our southern border right now. History is happening now, and it’s harrowing history. There are children being torn away from their parents. Imagine being a parent and seeing your child being put in a cage and you are being taken away somewhere else. That’s going to go down in history, and it’s terror. There’s no separation between the two, whether seventy-five years ago or now.
Q: What are you most excited for people to see this season?
A: Raising the awareness of this chapter of American history has been the mission of my life. There’s my graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, which is for younger Americans. A few years ago, we performed a musical, Allegiance, on Broadway that was about the internment’s effect on a Japanese American family. I, together with others, also founded the Japanese American National Museum. The collections manager there brought out objects from the collection that might inspire the writers of The Terror: Infamy. It has been my goal to raise awareness and humanize this story and institutionalize this story with a museum.
I am excited that the internment story is being dramatized on this epic scale. In The Terror: Infamy, we have a compellingly powerful combination of history and horror contributing to that awareness of the American people. Our effort is to engage and to create a nation that knows fully this critical part of our history.
The Terror: Infamy premieres Monday, August 12 at 9/8c.
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