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At 84, ‘Star Trek’ actor George Takei is still on a mission

‘My childhood incarceration is what I consider my most strongly formative experience. I was shaped by that, and that’s why here I am, 84 years old, and still talking about it’

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“Star Trek” actor George Takei speaks about his experiences in U.S. internment camps during World War II.

Actor George Takei, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the television series “Star Trek,” speaks on May 8, 2018, about his experiences in U.S. internment camps during World War II, at an appearance at Boston Public Library, in Boston. Takei now comes to Utah, where he shares those experiences with the Moab Music Festival.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

They were going on a long vacation. 

At least that’s how George Takei’s father explained it to his young son at the time.

After months of staying at the Santa Anita racetrack, where families resided in assigned horse stalls still pungent with the smell of manure, Takei’s family boarded a train that would ultimately take them to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. 

“I thought all vacations in the country had armed uniform soldiers at both ends of each car taking us there,” Takei recalled in a recent phone interview with the Deseret News. “And I wondered why the grownups looked so sad. We were going on a vacation!” 

Arkansas was a strange land to a Southern California kid like Takei. At 5 years old, his eyes widened at the sight of a bayou, massive trees with their twisted roots rising out of pools of water. There were “black wiggly fish” — which he later learned were called tadpoles — that he watched with fascination as their bodies developed legs and lost their tails, transforming into completely different creatures. 

All of this and more he took in from behind a barbed wire fence. 

For a year and a half, Takei, along with his parents and two siblings, were incarcerated at Rohwer — the easternmost of 10 internment camps in the United States, where an executive order under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt uprooted 120,000 people of Japanese descent, many of whom were Japanese Americans, from their homes during World War II shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Pearl Harbor sent terror throughout the country,” Takei said. “There was mass war hysteria and racism combined, which is a toxic combination. Just because we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor, we were imprisoned. There was no due process. There was no charge, no trial, no evidence.” 

But as a child, Takei didn’t have that understanding. Within the confines of barbed wire and towers with armed guards, he had many happy memories — like the “pure magic” of watching his first snowfall or eating a special Christmas Eve dinner at the mess hall. 

It was as he got older that he started to realize the underlying trauma attached to those events. And over the years, through after-dinner conversations with his father, he grappled with the injustice of it all. 

Recently, talking to the Deseret News from his New York condominium, the “Star Trek” actor had been recalling this time in his life for an hour. His arm had grown tired from holding the phone up to his ear. 

“My childhood incarceration is what I consider my most strongly formative experience. I was shaped by that, and that’s why here I am, 84 years old, and still talking about it,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s a very shameful and still little-known chapter of American history, and so it’s been my mission in life to raise that awareness,” he then said with a more serious tone. “It is so important for all Americans to know this history, where American democracy, with all its noble ideals, failed.” 

A life’s mission

Takei’s life mission now brings him to Utah, where more than 11,000 Japanese Americans were confined to the Topaz internment camp in Millard County during World War II. But Takei’s destination is a few hours away from that site.

Instead, Takei is headed to the red rocks of Moab, which has a lesser-known connection to this time in history: the isolation center Dalton Wells, where Japanese Americans who were deemed “troublemakers” were detained.

The actor is taking part in the Moab Music Festival, hosting a special program on Sept. 4 that celebrates Japanese American composers. The centerpiece of that program is the world premiere of “Lost Freedom: A Memory” — a compilation of Takei’s speeches and writings about his childhood imprisonment intertwined with chamber music from composer Kenji Bunch. Takei will narrate the new piece.

This marks his latest creative approach to sharing this part of his life. Several years ago, he starred in the musical “Allegiance,” a production inspired by his childhood during World War II that made its Broadway debut in 2015. A few years later, in 2019, Takei published “They Called Us Enemy,” a graphic novel that illustrates his memories of the internment camps. Now, at the Moab Music Festival, that story again comes to life in the form of classical music.

These different artistic approaches, Takei said, all work together to help spread his story to a wider audience — something he believes to be especially important as there’s been an increase in violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans in recent years. In fact, a new report from Stop AAPI Hate revealed that more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported over the course of the pandemic, with a fourth of those incidents being reported between April and June of this year.

“Because so few people know that history, we keep repeating it time after time — this sweeping generalization that we are somehow, because of our race, complicit in a horrible thing,” he said, also pointing to the mass hysteria directed toward Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. “We need to educate people, and for them to not see race as something that they’ve got to act on with violence.

“We as Americans should commit to never allowing that again.” 

Making progress

Takei still vividly remembers the day two soldiers marched up his driveway, banged on the front door and violently ordered his family out of their two-bedroom home in Los Angeles.

“I was 5 years old, but the terror of that morning is burned into my memory,” he said. 

He was 8 ½ when his family was released from the more militaristic Tule Lake internment camp in Northern California, where they had been sent due to their responses to a controversial loyalty questionnaire that asked, among many things, if they would be willing to serve on combat duty for a country that had stripped them of their liberties. 

But being released didn’t immediately translate to a welcoming return to society. Prejudice still abounded, and Takei’s first home beyond barbed wire was the Skid Row neighborhood in Los Angeles. 

 “It was for us kids, the most terrifying part of the entire second World War,” he said. “Imprisonment means order and regimentation, and children adjust to that. But Skid Row was complete chaos. … That’s how horrible the end of the war was for us.” 

As a teenager, Takei said he was shocked to not find any mention of the internment camps in his civics and history books. With time, he came to see that period of American history as not just an assault on a group of people but as an assault on the Constitution. 

“It is a story of man’s inhumanity to man — unthinkable cruelty,” he said. “I love this country and I love the ideals of democracy, but they’re just words on a paper. … It’s not true if it isn’t made true by the people. … We, as citizens, all have responsibilities to make those ideals true.” 

Over the years, though, Takei has witnessed substantial progress. In 1988, President Ronald Regan issued a formal apology, signing legislation that paid $20,000 in compensation to the surviving victims of the internment camps. Takei’s own check came three years later, signed by then-President George H.W. Bush, and he donated it to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. 

He’s seen the TV and film industry move away from stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans — his own role as Captain Sulu on “Star Trek” played a major part in that shift in the 1960s.

More recently, “Parasite,” a South Korean film, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2020. The 2020 film “Minari” depicts a Korean American family in search of the American Dream in Arkansas — an especially poignant story for Takei, who lived behind barbed wire in Arkansas for a year and half. Yuh-Jung Youn won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in that film.

And events like the Moab Music Festival, which is shedding light on what Takei calls a “sobering story in American history,” work to reduce the probability of such a tragedy happening again.

“I’m an optimist, because I maintain pessimists don’t make progress — they’re too grim,” Takei said. “We are making progress, because I see all these positive steps going forward. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back, but nevertheless, put them all together and the progress is definitely forward.”