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October, 2002

Historic Travels
by George Takei

LOS ANGELES - September was a month rich with resonance from the past. The shock and terror of a year ago still haunts us with silent anxiety. The media, though, was not so quiet. The air was filled with reminders of the horrors of September 11, 2001. There were for me, however, other reminders of other events from history that brought a larger context.

The month began for me with a visit to Sacramento, California. The trip took me back to another kind of horror that occurred almost sixty years ago. I went to my state capital for a reunion of the people interned during World War II in the American internment camp for Japanese Americans in northern California called Tule Lake. That was one of the two camps in which my family and I were incarcerated simply because of our Japanese ancestry. I was the keynote speaker at the reunion banquet. I spoke of my childhood memories of my years of confinement at Tule Lake. I also spoke of the power of our American democracy to learn from and heal the wounds of its past errors. Where else is there a government where the victims of the violation of our civil liberties can initiate a process for redress, with the effort led by Japanese American legislators in the U.S. Congress who themselves had been incarcerated? Where else is there a nation with its Constitutional principals set so shiningly high that its history has been a constant work-in-process? To the elderly people there at that banquet with memories of internment and to the younger people there with searching, inquiring minds about that history, I made the point that ours is a participatory democracy that calls for and is crucially dependent on the involvement of good, principled citizens.

My next trip was to Hawaii. This one took me a few more months further back into history. It was here in Oahu that the attack that precipitated the war occurred at Pearl Harbor. That attack also ignited the hysteria that put Japanese Americans into those internment camps. I had the honor of serving as co-master of ceremonies, together with the first Miss Universe from Hawaii, Angela Baraquio, of a concert called the Aloha Peace Concert. The program was dedicated to world peace sponsored by the International Committee of Artists for Peace. The featured performers were the great jazz artists, pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The show was a huge success and played to a sold-out house.

The irony, however, of a peace concert in the city where an historic war began was compelling. Herbie, Wayne, and I, together with members of the International Committee of Artists for Peace, made a pilgrimage to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The Hawaiian afternoon was bright and sunny but the atmosphere was solemn as a special U.S. Navy barge took us out to the Arizona Memorial where 1,177 sailors are entombed in the sunken ruins of the battleship, USS Arizona. Floral wreaths had been prepared for us to present to those who perished in the devastating surprise attack. My wreath was on behalf of the Japanese American National Museum. I approached the marble wall etched with the names of those sailors whose bodies lie in the waters just below us. It was these men -- most of them mere boys -- who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be there advocating for peace. It was a deeply moving experience.

My final trip of the month was to Washington, DC and the autumn Board of Trustees meeting of the Japanese American National Museum. We had recently become an affiliate of the Smithsonian family of museums, so we scheduled this meeting in a conference hall at the National Museum of American History on the great mall. This trip was also an opportunity for me to connect with more current history. The Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism during World War II had recently been completed near the Capitol building. The Memorial is made up of a long granite wall with the names of the 10 internment camps and the number of people incarcerated in each. Further down the wall are the names of all the Japanese American soldiers who died fighting for this country in World War II. In the center of the plaza is a sculpture of two cranes caught up in a tangle of barbed wire struggling to reach for the sky. The names of the two camps where I, together with my family, was incarcerated, Rohwer in Arkansas and Tule Lake in California, happened to be placed right next to each other. The irony and the power of this newest of monuments in our national capital is deeply personal to me as well as gravely important to our nation.

At the conclusion of our board meeting, our Museum hosted a symposium addressing the aftermath of September 11th. The participants were Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who happens also to be a trustee of our Museum, and photojournalist Stan Honda, who captured some of the iconic images of the horrors at the World Trade Center on that devastating day. I served as the moderator. Intrinsic to any discussion of September 11th by Japanese Americans is dialogue weighing civil liberty with national security. The generational perspectives brought to the discussion by Secretary Mineta, who had himself been incarcerated during the World War II and Honda, who had not yet been born at the time, added another dimension to the discussion. Nevertheless, there was agreement that our government made a severe Constitutional error then and that Japanese Americans have a singular responsibility to do all that we can to prevent that from being repeated with another group of people just because they happen to "look like the enemy."

The travels of September took me on a time journey from the immediate history of a year ago to those of more than six decades past, then full circle round back to a discussion on the responsibilities we bear as Americans today. We must not forget the lessons from our history. It was a full and thought-provoking month of travels.

 



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