Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer has shared the big screen with Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Brad Pitt and Keith Richards. It’s a dramatic success story for the actress who suffered as a 9-year-old girl in a Japanese internment camp during World War II and toiled in factories to pay the bills when she was released.
75 years have passed since Fischer was forced into an internment camp in Fresno, Calif., in 1942. Then she was transferred to Jerome, Ark., for two years and transferred again to Rohwer, Ark., until her release in 1945.
Fischer was born a U.S. citizen in California. But the government saw the young girl, and others like her, as threats to our nation’s security.
“All my rights as a U.S. citizen were taken away. I mean what, I hadn’t done anything,” remembered Fischer.
Looking back at her childhood, she remembers prejudice -- both before and after the camp. She said one day she was walking down the street and someone pushed her to the ground and said “the only good Jap is a dead Jap.” She also remembers being invited to the prom -- but her date canceled on her after he found out his parents would not let a Japanese girl into their home.
She said the camps were very difficult, but to this day she gives credit to her parents and sister for shielding her young mind from what really was going on. Fischer said her family never talked about the camps because they believed they should show loyalty as American citizens and do what the government asked.
“I was brought up with two words. ‘Shikata ga nai,’ it can’t be helped, and ‘Gaman,’ meaning to bear up with dignity,” said Fischer.
Fierce loyalty to America was why they decided to stay in the country when they were released, and not go back to Japan. Instead, they moved to Chicago.
The family was poor. Fischer remembers a girl in the eighth grade yelled at her for wearing the same pink sweater to school every day and asked “Don’t you have anything else?” She didn’t.
The family worked in factories, people’s homes, and jewelry stores to survive in a one-bedroom apartment. They eventually worked their way up from there. But Fischer said working those jobs taught her an important life lesson: It’s better to have one nice thing then ten crummy things.
In Chicago, Fischer started competing in, and winning, beauty pageants. She also took part in some performances in the internment camps.
But while Fischer was working on putting her life back together and starting an acting career, she also was waiting for the government to admit what it did was wrong. The United States’ official apology is a tough subject for her.
“It was painful. It was painful because I thought for me it was easier. But for my mother and father and sister, they looked after me, they made my life easier and they were the ones that suffered. They never got the apology but I thought they should have gotten the apology too,” said Fischer.
Fischer remembers the day the apology check came in the mail. She didn’t open it for days because she didn’t understand how a check was supposed to make amends for what the internees went through. She eventually came to terms and cashed the check. It was $20,000 per internee.
IMDB gives her 88 credits for movies and TV series. She played Mistress Ching in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End,” Mrs. Chu in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and other roles in movies and TV shows like “Moneyball,” “Boston Legal” and multiple stints in the Batman franchise.
“When I think back, I guess it’s because of my love of theater,” said Fischer.
Fischer majored in theater arts in college. Over the years she became friends with actors Tony Perkins and George Furth. She’s also acted alongside William Shatner.
“I did summer stock when I was going to high school. I’d work all week and then on the weekends I’d go and do summer stock. I met this fellow named George Schweinfurth, who turned out to be George Furth,” said Fischer. “It’s been an interesting life.”
“Takayo has a love and a zest for life and an appreciation for people and every little good thing that happens in her life. So I think her strong spirit and optimistic outlook on life is what carried her through,” said Robin Gee, Fischer’s friend.
Gee wonders if Fischer’s time in the internment camps is what changed her destiny and ultimately put her on the path to be an actress. Gee thinks if Fischer wasn’t interned, she never would have left her hometown and remained a farm girl her whole life.
“The war and the internment camps changed everybody’s future direction. And I think in Takayo’s case, it turned out magnificently,” said Gee.
But Fischer’s grandson Mark Doran disagreed. He believes his grandmother was always destined for great things. Doran said she’s had success because of her love for life and ability to capture the attention of a room.
“She’s the most interesting and active person in my life that I know,” said Doran. “She’s more active than anybody and I would guarantee it’s because she doesn’t waste a moment. If she has an opportunity to see a play or see something she hasn’t seen before, she just goes and does it.”