Back Story: Revealing a Painful Past

In addition to playing Mr. Sulu in the original cast of Star Trek, George Takei has done movies, voice-over work, and reality TV. But it was the years he spent imprisoned with his family and other Japanese Americans during World War II that fuel his passion for preservation.

Q: Tell me about the time you and your family spent at Rohwer internment camp in southeastern Arkansas.

A: We were incarcerated there, my family, during a part of the Second World War. We were later transferred from there to another camp in Northern California. Actually, because I was a child I have fond memories. A child is remarkably adaptable and some of the most grotesquely abnormal situations become, certainly for me as a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old, normality. The barbed-wire fence just became part of the landscape.

Q: Now looking back, how has your perspective changed?

A: It’s dramatically different. It was one of the darkest chapters of American history, certainly from my perspective, and it was an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution. And unfortunately it is still very little known and even less understood by Americans, and that’s why I think this effort to preserve those structures and sites of events that are shameful is so important: We need to learn from that history.

Q: You provided your voice for the self-guided walking tour and other preservation efforts at Rohwer. What was that experience like?

A: These projects have been my life mission—I’m the former chairman of the board of the Japanese American National Museum. Rohwer is very personal to me. When I first went back, in 2004, I was surprised when it was nothing like I remembered. The forests had been cut down, and the swamp had been drained. It was just miles of cotton fields. There was nothing that I remembered seeing there but the cemetery.

To me, the most stinging, poignant monument in the cemetery was the monument to the young men who had served in the U.S. military. There’s a crumbling concrete marker that bears the names of these young men who went from behind American barbed-wire fences to fight with amazing heroism. The 442nd regimental combat team is the most decorated unit to come back from the entire Second World War. The American flags that covered their coffins were delivered back to their parents or their wives still imprisoned. The irony of that was just unbearable.

Q: Have you been involved in other preservation efforts? Have you always been interested in saving historic places?

A: I’ve been on the board of the L.A. Conservancy. I was born in Los Angeles; that’s my hometown, and that’s our primary residence. I’m an architecture buff and a longtime, card-carrying member of the National Trust.

Q: Why would you say looking to the past is so valuable?

A: It’s preserving the glory of our achievements, taking pride in what we have been able to do and where important events took place, and learning from them. We’re not so good about preserving where we failed. We have a history of slavery, we have a history of women in unequal positions in our society, and historic places that are representative of those aspects of American history are important because we are moved to make our society better, to not repeat it.

Online Exclusive: George Takei’s experience as an interned Japanese American during WWII inspired us to learn more about the inspiring legacy of segregated Japanese American military units.

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