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George Takei Got Reparations. He Says They 'Strengthen the Integrity of America'

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Black and white photo of two men and one woman sitting at a desk with microphones in front of them
George Takei testifies with other witnesses in front of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in California in 1981. (Kaz Takeuchi/Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It sent approximately 70,000 U.S. citizens into concentration camps for years, including a very young George Takei.

"I was 5 years old at the time," recalls the actor. "It was a terrorizing morning I will never be able to forget. Literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home."

Best known for playing Mr. Sulu in the original "Star Trek," Takei is a longtime activist whose causes have included LGBTQ rights and reparations for Japanese American survivors of concentration camps. In 1942, his family was sent to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, then later to Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northern California. The Takei family was among thousands of American families who lost their homes, farms, stores, cars, churches, temples and countless belongings because of xenophobia and racism.

"Some people had their life savings taken from them just because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor," Takei says.

black and white photo of a car in front of a downtown Oakland storefront, with a large sign saying 'I AM AN AMERICAN' hung above the entrance
A sign on the Wanto Co. grocery store in Oakland on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The store was closed and the Matsuda family, who owned it, was relocated and incarcerated by the U.S. government. (Dorothea Lange/Getty Images)

Collectively, Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps lost more than $6 billion adjusted for inflation, according to an estimate from the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

This is a story George Takei has told over and over: in a memoir, on Broadway, and to members of Congress in 1981. Takei testified at a hearing as part of an effort to push for redress.

"I urge restitution for the incarceration of Japanese Americans because that restitution would, at the same time, be a bold move to strengthen the integrity of America," Takei told a federal commission.

Working with other activists, he succeeded. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed legislation to give $20,000 and a formal apology to Japanese Americans who had survived incarceration.

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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's a passionate supporter of redress for descendants of enslaved people in the U.S.

"For us, it was four horrific years," Takei says. "For African Americans, it's four torturous centuries."

Reparations in California

Such solidarity warms the heart of Andre Perry, a renowned scholar of reparations and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. "George is exerting a level of patriotism that we don't see today," he says. "You can be of a different persuasion but share a common cause, a common purpose. I may not be related to you, but civically, I'm your brother. I'm your sister. I'm your friend."

"If he were around, I'd give him a big hug," he adds.

Perry notes that the historic 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's not impossible to find out who deserves reparations," he points out. "And it's clearly not impossible with redlining and criminal justice atrocities. That was not that long ago. We can identify who is injured and who deserves how much. It's really about willingness."

profile shot of george takei
Actor George Takei in Hollywood in September 2012. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Last year, composer Kenji Bunch set George Takei's testimony before Congress to music. His piece, called "Lost Freedom: A Memory," premiered at the Moab Music Festival. Takei himself provided narration. "I believe that America today is strong enough and confident enough to recognize a grievous failure," he reads in his inimitable baritone. "I believe that it is honest enough to acknowledge that damage was done. And I would like to think it is honorable enough to provide proper restitution to the injury that was done."

Does George Takei still believe that in 2022? He says he does.

He says he believes America — and Americans — are still strong and honorable enough for the best of this country's ideals to prevail.

Editor's note: KQED is using the term "concentration camp" to describe the facilities in which Japanese American and Japanese people were imprisoned by the United States during World War II. The term "internment" most appropriately applies to the detention of foreign nationals during wartime — but during World War II, 70,000 U.S. citizens were incarcerated in camps. The phrase "internment camp," in this context, is a euphemism and therefore misleading. "Concentration camp" is most associated with the facilities where millions of Jewish (and non-Jewish) people were forcibly relocated and massacred by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It is also appropriate for the experience of Japanese and Japanese American people in the U.S. during World War II, as the definition of "concentration camp" is "a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.org.

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