Photo archives of Kaz Takeuchi/Visual Communications
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. He sent about 70,000 American citizens to internment camps for years, including a very young George Takei.
“I was five at the time,” the actor recalls. “It was a terrifying morning that I will never be able to forget. Literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our house.”
Best known for playing Mr. Sulu in the original star trek, Takei is a lifelong activist whose causes include LGBT rights and reparations for Japanese-American survivors of internment camps. In 1942, his family was sent to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, then later at the Tule Lake segregation center in northern California. The Takei were among thousands of Americans who lost their homes, farms, stores, cars, churches, temples and countless possessions to xenophobia and racism.
“Some people had their savings taken away just because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor,” Takei says.
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Collectively, Japanese Americans forced into internment camps lost more than six billion inflation-adjusted dollars, according to an estimate by the Commission on Wartime Civilian Resettlement and Internment. . It’s a story George Takei has told many times: in a memoir, on Broadway, and to members of Congress in 1981. Takei testified at a hearing as part of an effort to obtain redress.
“I urge restitution for the incarceration of Japanese Americans because restitution would, at the same time, be a bold move to strengthen America’s integrity,” Takei told a federal commission.
By working with other activists, he succeeded. In 1988, then-President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed legislation granting $20,000 and a formal apology to Japanese Americans who had survived internment.
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George Takei dedicated the money he received from the federal government to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Now he is a passionate supporter of reparations for the descendants of slaves in the United States.
“For us, it was four horrible years,” says Takei. “For African Americans, it’s four centuries of torture.”
Such solidarity warms the heart of André Perry, renowned repatriation specialist and fellow of the Brookings Institute. “George exerts a level of patriotism that we don’t see today,” he says. “You may be of a different belief but share a common cause, a common goal. I may not be related to you, but civically I am your brother. I am your sister. I am your friend.”
“If he was there, I would give him a big hug,” he adds.
Perry notes that the historical experiences of Black Americans and Japanese-Americans are obviously very different, but ultimately, he says, it’s about getting to a similar place. “Even with slavery, it is not impossible to know who deserves reparations”, he underlines. “And it’s clearly not impossible with the atrocities of redlining and criminal justice. That was not too long ago. We can identify who is hurt and who deserves how much. It’s really a question of will.”
Last year, composer Kenji Bunch set George Takei’s testimony to Congress to music. His piece, titled Freedom lost: a memory, premiered at the Moab Music Festival. Takei himself provided the narration. “I believe that the American of today is strong enough and confident enough to recognize a bitter failure,” he reads in his inimitable baritone. “I think it’s fair enough to acknowledge that damage has been done. And I’d like to think it’s fair enough to provide appropriate redress for the harm that has been done.”
Does George Takei still believe in it in 2022? He says he does.
He says he believes America — and Americans — are still strong and honorable enough for this country’s best ideals to prevail.