George Takei was 5 years old when American soldiers ordered his family out of their home.
The year was 1942, less than a year after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. That’s when Takei — along with more than 110,000 other Japanese Americans — were taken to internment camps to live behind barbed wire fences.
“It was a racist and hysterical act. It was an irrational act,” Takei says about his four-year experience. “That’s how my life began.”
On Tuesday night, Takei talked about this and other personal struggles to a 1,250 seat sold-out show at Willamette University. The talk was part of the Atkinson Lecture Series, which brings prominent people to campus to lecture and spend time with Willamette students.
Takei, an actor, social justice activist and social media mega-power, began by talking about his childhood in two U.S. World War II internment camps.
To this day, he remembers the terror he felt when two soldiers marched up his driveway, guns in hand, to escort him to the railroad station. From there, he and his family were taken to the swamps of Arkansas.
Later, as a teenager, Takei says his father helped him better understand what happened and how democracy operated.
“He said our democracy is a people’s democracy. It can be as great a people can be, but also as fallible,” Takei says. “In a democracy, you never give up. You keep on keeping on.”
This fortitude prompted Takei to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. In the 1950s and 1960s, few Japanese Americans were cast in leading television roles. Yet Takei was hired to play Hikaru Sulu on the original “Star Trek” series, a role he reprised in six movies.
At the same time, Takei was making a name for himself as a social justice activist. He took part in the Civil Rights Movement. He advocated peace during the Vietnam War, and he became involved in political campaigns.
Yet, Takei remained quiet about his sexual identity until 2005, when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in California.
“I decided to speak out on this issue, and I spoke out as a gay man,” Takei says. “From that point on, I’ve been active in the LGBTQ community.”
Since then, Takei has shared his views on social justice issues through social media — attracting 1. 42 million followers on Twitter and more than 7.4 million likes on Facebook.
Impressed by Takei’s life and achievements, Jennifer Allaway ’15 and Chris Morton ’16 both listened to Takei speak during a class on Tuesday. Not only was he genuine and polite, they said he was inspirational.
“I definitely got very star struck,” says Morton, who identifies himself as queer. “When I heard he was coming, I didn’t believe it. The Atkinson Lecture Series helps bring different perspectives to the community. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m very grateful for it.”
Samantha Dias ’16 agrees. Not only did she meet Takei, she had an opportunity to interview him while he was on campus. She says the experience was unforgettable and surpassed all of her expectations.
“He was exactly like I thought he would be,” she says. “He was really down to earth, eloquent and thoughtful in his answers. It was really an honor to meet him.”
The next Atkinson Lecture Series will feature Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company. He will speak at Willamette on March 18.