A little over 75 years ago, more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were forcibly interned and incarcerated by the U.S. government following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Rampant racism in government policies and American society as a whole continued to plague the Japanese community, even after internment ended, leaving wounds that would span decades.
Season 2 of horror-anthology show “The Terror” on AMC pairs the horrors of real-life Japanese American internment against a backdrop of supernatural events that plague the characters of the show.
Ahead of the season premiere, lead actors George Takei and Derek Mio and showrunner Alexander Woo discuss their involvement with “The Terror: Infamy” and why its story is so important today.
(The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you get involved in “The Terror”?
Woo: The genesis of this show came from my co-creator Max Borenstein who (saw) a talk that George (gave) 20 years ago. He pitched the show to AMC as the story of internment with a ghost story at the center of it, although he didn’t have the time to run the show, so I eagerly took up the opportunity. My only hesitation was that I’m not Japanese American, I’m Chinese American, and historically this is not my family’s story. But I realized after talking with George and other survivors of the internment that though it is the story of Japanese Americans, it’s not exclusively just a story for Japanese Americans. I think it’s a story for anyone whose life has been touched or shaped by the immigrant experience, which, quite frankly, is just about everyone.
Takei: When Alex told me that he was doing this project about the internment camps, I said, “This has been my mission in life.” I’m the last generation that survived the internment. I have been going around the country talking at universities and conferences about the internment camps because my feeling is, “This is an American story that Americans should know about.” If enough Americans knew the history of the United States, including this chapter, something like what’s happening today on our southern border hopefully would not be happening. So I see my commitment to telling this story as a commitment of hope that the future of this country will be a better one because we’ll have more people aware of this situation.
The thing that excites me most about “The Terror” is that it is a groundbreaking show. The internment story has been dealt with in a few films and a few television episodes, but it hasn’t been told on this massive scale in 10 episodes over 10 weeks.
Mio: I was very excited by this project because I have a personal connection to the story. My own grandfather was incarcerated in the Manzanar (California) internment camp and he also grew up in Terminal Island, which is an actual Japanese community where our show starts out. When I learned that this was going to be brought to mainstream television, it was a big moment where I knew it was going to be a special project.
How did your personal connections inform your performances and work on “The Terror”?
Mio: This was by far the most gratifying acting experience that I’ve ever had. … It was especially personal because there were scenes from our pilot that were straight parallels to my own family’s experience. … I wanted to approach this with a lot of seriousness and reverence because this really did happen to people in our community.
Takei: My life has been defined by my childhood in incarceration. As an innocent child, being interned in the swamps of Arkansas was an exciting adventure. But for my parents, it was a harrowing experience. … I later had many discussions with my father about the wounds and horrors of internment. Many of the actors on this show are immigrants from Japan, so as actors, they bring the truth of their own immigrant experiences.
You said this is the biggest TV series to ever focus on the internment camps. Why do you think it has taken so long to get this story into the mainstream?
Woo: I think the climate has allowed for it to happen. In a landscape where there’s 500 scripted shows on television, it gets incumbent on broadcasters to have something that everyone doesn’t already have one of. So there’s not just a willingness, but an obligation to take greater risks. And it’s been proven that taking greater risks are rewarded. It’s not scary to have a cast that’s all Asian. It’s not scary to have a show that’s in large part in Japanese.
The Japanese American internment camps inherently were terrifying and horrific, so why is there a need to introduce a supernatural element into that story?
Takei: It’s not superimposing or adding on. The adult part of the interned Japanese community was mostly the immigrant generation, they brought with them not only the aspirations of immigrants, but their own cultural belief, fables and superstitions. It’s organic to the storytelling.
Woo: The need comes out of the deliberate desire to build an empathy for the historical experience. We are employing kaidan, Japanese ghost stories, as an analogue for the terror of the historical experience.
What do you want audiences to take away from this, and what dialogue are you hoping to generate?
Woo: People might watch to see the internment camp history on screen, or to see an all-Asian cast, or just for a good scare. But regardless of why they’re watching, I hope that the storytelling allows them to feel what it’s like to be in the skin of these people, develop an empathy for these people, and an empathy for the plight of an immigrant who embraces a country that does not embrace them back, and maybe by extension, understand the plight of people who experienced that in the 1940s, (and) those who have experienced that all the way through the present day.
Takei: It’s my mission in life to raise awareness about this. There are so many people that I consider well informed, but when I tell them about my childhood imprisoned by the U.S. government, they’re shocked. And I’m shocked that they’re shocked. Because they don’t know about this chapter. There are so many younger Japanese Americans that don’t know much about the internment either. I hope this can raise their understanding too, of their parents and grandparents.
“The Terror: Infamy” premieres at 8:20 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, on AMC.