Friday, April 16, 2021
‘Star Trek’s’ George Takei Offers Way Away from Racism
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George Takei notes that no Japanese American was ever charged with espionage or sabotage during World War II. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons
   
Saturday, February 27, 2021
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

In 1942 George Takei, who would go on to man the USS Enterprise on “Star Trek,” was wrenched from his family’s two-bedroom home in Los Angeles following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The 5-year-old and his family were put up in the horse stables at Santa Anita Park. Then they were bussed to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, making them—among 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned.

At first, it was an adventure for a young boy who was too young to understand what was happening. He got a kick out of sleeping in a smelly horse stall where horses slept. And he was mesmerized by the swamplands where trees grew out of the water at the internment camp, having grown up in the arid West.

The barbed wire, one boy told him, was to keep dinosaurs out. And, at some point, terror and bewilderment started to infiltrate his sense of adventure.

“I was a 5-year-old child,” he said. “It was terrifying and I remember the terror. But, being a 5-year-old child, I didn’t really understand what it was all about.”

Takei spoke of his experiences during a virtual presentation enjoyed by patrons of Ketchum’s Community Library, which had just finished a months-long Community Read program looking at the internment of Japanese Americans at nearby Minidoka and other camps. The film followed free screenings of Abby Ginzburg's gripping documentary "And Then They Came for Us," which is available for streaming at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/andthentheycameforus.

Patrons of libraries in California also listened in on the presentation held on the Day of Remembrance, which observes the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order giving the U.S. Army the authority to remove Japanese American civilians from areas of Washington, Oregon and California.

Takei recalled that his mother—Fumiko Emily Takei—smuggled in a new portable sewing machine, which was forbidden as contraband. One woman wrote: “I wonder if today’s the day they’re going to line us up and shoot us.” Wrote one child: “Mama, I want to go back to America.”

The Japanese were insulted, he said, when they were asked to forswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan because they had never hailed him as their leader.

In fact, 12,000 people at Tule Lake were sent to prison when they protested that loyalty questionnaire.   They were forced to build a stockade, and they were put in that cement jailhouse and interrogated.

“It was brutal,” he said.

Some Japanese were not released from the camps until months after the war ended. Takei said his family’s ordeal didn’t end upon their release from the internment camp.

They were allowed to return to Los Angeles in 1945 but had to live on the street. He was discriminated against by his teacher and made to feel the shame his parents felt as he realized that the camp they had lived in was “kind of like a jail.”

Shame should belong to the perpetrators, he noted. But, instead, it’s the victims who often experience the shame of what happened to them.

“And shame is a cruel thing,” he said.

Takei shared his experiences in the book “They Called Us Enemy.” There is a copy in The Community Library.

He later starred in the Broadway musical “Allegiance” that was based on his experience of living in the camp for four years.

Takei said he tried to capture the 5-year-old child that was himself and his reaction in his graphic memoir because he wanted to reach the young people of today. The memoir, he said, is as relevant today as it was then.

“And it was terrifying then,” he said. “The real story is what happened with my parents. I saw what was happening with them through the eyes of a child with no adult understanding.”

Takei and other Japanese Americans spoke out when the Trump administration enacted a travel ban on Muslims shortly after the 45th president took office.

The grassroots Tsuru for Solidarity, led by Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, protested families separated at the border.

“When we see migrant children incarcerated today, we recognize ourselves and say, ‘Stop Repeating History,’ ” said Satsuki Ina, who was born at the Tule Lake camp in California and joined Takei in the virtual presentation.

And Takei has been busy since the pandemic started speaking out against racist attacks on Asians in America that started with the former President’s insistence on calling COVID-19 a Chinese virus, Wuhan virus or kung flu.

More than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents related to COVID-19 were documented between March and September 2020, and they continue to skyrocket. Elderly Asian Americans are afraid to walk the streets in some communities, so much so that some younger people have volunteered to accompany them on their daily walks.

Takei says there’s been a steady undercurrent of Asian hate crimes throughout American history. Even the relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps was preceded by 40 years of harassment on the West Coast from business owners who decried the competition that Japanese American provided.

“When there are events of xenophobic hysteria, it swells up and we’re going through that right now,” he said. “Camps don’t happen overnight. They’re a process that begins with the fomenting of hate. The  hysteria went up to the top man of the country--President Roosevelt. He is the president who said during the Depression there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Even a man with that vision….you can see what happened.”

Takei said he was invited to speak at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Library on the vast Hyde Park estate on the 75th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance four years ago.

It was a strange experience, he said, as he drove their past historic towns like Yorktown, pondering the government’s lies that resulted in the internment of so many.

“This is an American story at its cores and Japanese Americans should not be possessive of it as ‘ours.’ ”

Takei said due process and other fundamental American values were violated by the American government in that instance. And he called on every American, whether a writer or insurance salesman, a school teacher or librarian, to hold American accountable and true to its ideals.

“It’s we who make our democracy a sea of shining ideals,” he said.

Satsuki Ina, now a licensed psychotherapist specializing in community trauma, said that the racism that has been made to known to Americans has led to an extraordinary experience of coalition building.

“People are working across communities rather than just inside their own communities,” she said. “When we support other communities or receive support, it builds empowerment.”

Ina said that when someone as powerful as the president of the United States can stigmatize people it’s time to change the narrative that this is a country with noble principles.

“One of the passions for me is rewriting this narrative in way that supports working together. There’s something growing that can really change the tide and promote this ideal that we care about each other, that we will take care of each other. Children growing up hearing those stories is going to be important.”

Takei noted that the “Star Trek” series emerged during the 1960s when the country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War.

“ ‘Star Trek’ drove home the ideas of infinite diversity and infinite combinations,” he said. “It was our diversity coming together and working as a team that made the Starship Enterprise come together. We’re very divided right now, but our strength is in our diversity working together, each contributing their unique experience.”

And his parting words?

“Live long and prosper.”


 

 

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