sponsored links
TEDxKyoto

George Takei: Why I love a country that once betrayed me

June 11, 2014

When he was a child, George Takei and his family were forced into an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, as a “security" measure during World War II. 70 years later, Takei looks back at how the camp shaped his surprising, personal definition of patriotism and democracy.

George Takei - Actor and activist
The beloved Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek, George Takei is an activist for human rights (and a master of Facebook memes). Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a veteran of the starship Enterprise.
00:11
I soared through the galaxy
00:16
driving a huge starship
00:19
with a crew made up of people
00:22
from all over this world,
00:23
many different races, many different cultures,
00:26
many different heritages,
00:30
all working together,
00:32
and our mission was to explore strange new worlds,
00:34
to seek out new life and new civilizations,
00:37
to boldly go where no one has gone before.
00:41
Well —
00:46
(Applause) —
00:48
I am the grandson of immigrants from Japan
00:54
who went to America,
00:59
boldly going to a strange new world,
01:01
seeking new opportunities.
01:04
My mother was born in Sacramento, California.
01:07
My father was a San Franciscan.
01:11
They met and married in Los Angeles,
01:13
and I was born there.
01:16
I was four years old
01:20
when Pearl Harbor was bombed
01:22
on December 7, 1941 by Japan,
01:24
and overnight, the world was plunged
01:29
into a world war.
01:33
America suddenly was swept up
01:36
by hysteria.
01:39
Japanese-Americans,
01:43
American citizens of Japanese ancestry,
01:44
were looked on
01:48
with suspicion and fear
01:49
and with outright hatred
01:53
simply because we happened to look like
01:56
the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.
01:58
And the hysteria grew and grew
02:01
until in February 1942,
02:05
the president of the United States,
02:08
Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
02:10
ordered all Japanese-Americans
02:13
on the West Coast of America
02:15
to be summarily rounded up
02:17
with no charges, with no trial,
02:20
with no due process.
02:23
Due process, this is a core pillar
02:26
of our justice system.
02:28
That all disappeared.
02:30
We were to be rounded up
02:33
and imprisoned in 10 barbed-wire prison camps
02:35
in some of the most desolate places in America:
02:39
the blistering hot desert of Arizona,
02:43
the sultry swamps of Arkansas,
02:47
the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado,
02:50
and two of the most desolate places in California.
02:54
On April 20th, I celebrated my fifth birthday,
02:59
and just a few weeks after my birthday,
03:04
my parents got my younger brother,
03:07
my baby sister and me
03:10
up very early one morning,
03:12
and they dressed us hurriedly.
03:14
My brother and I were in the living room
03:18
looking out the front window,
03:20
and we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway.
03:23
They carried bayonets on their rifles.
03:26
They stomped up the front porch
03:31
and banged on the door.
03:34
My father answered it,
03:36
and the soldiers ordered us out of our home.
03:38
My father gave my brother and me
03:43
small luggages to carry,
03:45
and we walked out and stood on the driveway
03:47
waiting for our mother to come out,
03:51
and when my mother finally came out,
03:54
she had our baby sister in one arm,
03:57
a huge duffel bag in the other,
04:00
and tears were streaming down both her cheeks.
04:03
I will never be able to forget that scene.
04:09
It is burned into my memory.
04:12
We were taken from our home
04:17
and loaded on to train cars
04:20
with other Japanese-American families.
04:22
There were guards stationed
04:25
at both ends of each car,
04:27
as if we were criminals.
04:30
We were taken two thirds of
the way across the country,
04:33
rocking on that train for four days and three nights,
04:37
to the swamps of Arkansas.
04:41
I still remember the barbed wire fence
04:45
that confined me.
04:47
I remember the tall sentry tower
04:49
with the machine guns pointed at us.
04:52
I remember the searchlight that followed me
04:56
when I made the night runs
04:59
from my barrack to the latrine.
05:00
But to five-year-old me,
05:04
I thought it was kind of nice that they'd lit the way
05:06
for me to pee.
05:08
I was a child,
05:11
too young to understand the circumstances
05:13
of my being there.
05:16
Children are amazingly adaptable.
05:18
What would be grotesquely abnormal
05:23
became my normality
05:27
in the prisoner of war camps.
05:30
It became routine for me to line up three times a day
05:33
to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall.
05:37
It became normal for me to go with my father
05:42
to bathe in a mass shower.
05:44
Being in a prison, a barbed-wire prison camp,
05:47
became my normality.
05:51
When the war ended,
05:55
we were released,
05:56
and given a one-way ticket
05:58
to anywhere in the United States.
06:00
My parents decided to go back home
06:04
to Los Angeles,
06:06
but Los Angeles was not a welcoming place.
06:08
We were penniless.
06:13
Everything had been taken from us,
06:14
and the hostility was intense.
06:17
Our first home was on Skid Row
06:19
in the lowest part of our city,
06:22
living with derelicts, drunkards
06:27
and crazy people,
06:29
the stench of urine all over,
06:31
on the street, in the alley,
06:34
in the hallway.
06:37
It was a horrible experience,
06:39
and for us kids, it was terrorizing.
06:42
I remember once
06:46
a drunkard came staggering down,
06:48
fell down right in front of us,
06:51
and threw up.
06:54
My baby sister said, "Mama, let's go back home,"
06:55
because behind barbed wires
07:00
was for us
07:03
home.
07:05
My parents worked hard
07:08
to get back on their feet.
07:10
We had lost everything.
07:12
They were at the middle of their lives
07:13
and starting all over.
07:15
They worked their fingers to the bone,
07:17
and ultimately they were able
07:20
to get the capital together to buy
07:23
a three-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood.
07:25
And I was a teenager,
07:29
and I became very curious
07:30
about my childhood imprisonment.
07:32
I had read civics books that told me about
07:35
the ideals of American democracy.
07:38
All men are created equal,
07:42
we have an inalienable right
07:45
to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
07:48
and I couldn't quite make that fit
07:53
with what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment.
07:55
I read history books,
07:58
and I couldn't find anything about it.
08:00
And so I engaged my father after dinner
08:03
in long, sometimes heated conversations.
08:07
We had many, many conversations like that,
08:12
and what I got from them
08:14
was my father's wisdom.
08:17
He was the one that suffered the most
08:19
under those conditions of imprisonment,
08:22
and yet he understood American democracy.
08:25
He told me that our democracy
08:29
is a people's democracy,
08:32
and it can be as great as the people can be,
08:34
but it is also as fallible as people are.
08:37
He told me that American democracy
08:42
is vitally dependent on good people
08:44
who cherish the ideals of our system
08:48
and actively engage in the process
08:52
of making our democracy work.
08:56
And he took me to a campaign headquarters —
08:59
the governor of Illinois was
running for the presidency —
09:03
and introduced me to American electoral politics.
09:06
And he also told me about
09:11
young Japanese-Americans
09:14
during the Second World War.
09:15
When Pearl Harbor was bombed,
09:18
young Japanese-Americans,
like all young Americans,
09:21
rushed to their draft board
09:24
to volunteer to fight for our country.
09:27
That act of patriotism
09:30
was answered with a slap in the face.
09:32
We were denied service,
09:37
and categorized as enemy non-alien.
09:40
It was outrageous to be called an enemy
09:46
when you're volunteering to fight for your country,
09:49
but that was compounded with the word "non-alien,"
09:52
which is a word that means
09:56
"citizen" in the negative.
09:59
They even took the word "citizen" away from us,
10:03
and imprisoned them for a whole year.
10:07
And then the government realized
10:12
that there's a wartime manpower shortage,
10:14
and as suddenly as they'd rounded us up,
10:18
they opened up the military for service
10:22
by young Japanese-Americans.
10:25
It was totally irrational,
10:27
but the amazing thing,
10:30
the astounding thing,
10:32
is that thousands of young
10:35
Japanese-American men and women
10:37
again went from behind those barbed-wire fences,
10:40
put on the same uniform as that of our guards,
10:44
leaving their families in imprisonment,
10:47
to fight for this country.
10:51
They said that they were going to fight
10:53
not only to get their families out
10:55
from behind those barbed-wire fences,
10:58
but because they cherished the very ideal
11:01
of what our government stands for,
11:04
should stand for,
11:06
and that was being abrogated
11:08
by what was being done.
11:11
All men are created equal.
11:14
And they went to fight for this country.
11:17
They were put into a segregated
11:21
all Japanese-American unit
11:22
and sent to the battlefields of Europe,
11:25
and they threw themselves into it.
11:27
They fought with amazing,
11:30
incredible courage and valor.
11:33
They were sent out on the most dangerous missions
11:37
and they sustained the highest combat casualty rate
11:40
of any unit proportionally.
11:43
There is one battle that illustrates that.
11:47
It was a battle for the Gothic Line.
11:50
The Germans were embedded
11:53
in this mountain hillside,
11:56
rocky hillside,
11:58
in impregnable caves,
12:00
and three allied battalions
12:02
had been pounding away at it
12:06
for six months,
12:07
and they were stalemated.
12:09
The 442nd was called in
12:11
to add to the fight,
12:14
but the men of the 442nd
12:17
came up with a unique
12:20
but dangerous idea:
12:23
The backside of the mountain
12:25
was a sheer rock cliff.
12:27
The Germans thought an attack from the backside
12:30
would be impossible.
12:33
The men of the 442nd decided to do the impossible.
12:35
On a dark, moonless night,
12:40
they began scaling that rock wall,
12:44
a drop of more than 1,000 feet,
12:48
in full combat gear.
12:51
They climbed all night long
12:54
on that sheer cliff.
12:57
In the darkness,
13:02
some lost their handhold
13:04
or their footing
13:06
and they fell to their deaths
13:07
in the ravine below.
13:09
They all fell silently.
13:12
Not a single one cried out,
13:16
so as not to give their position away.
13:19
The men climbed for eight hours straight,
13:22
and those who made it to the top
13:26
stayed there until the first break of light,
13:29
and as soon as light broke,
13:33
they attacked.
13:36
The Germans were surprised,
13:38
and they took the hill
13:40
and broke the Gothic Line.
13:41
A six-month stalemate
13:44
was broken by the 442nd
13:47
in 32 minutes.
13:49
It was an amazing act,
13:52
and when the war ended,
13:55
the 442nd returned to the United States
13:58
as the most decorated unit
14:01
of the entire Second World War.
14:04
They were greeted back on the White House Lawn
14:07
by President Truman, who said to them,
14:10
"You fought not only the enemy
14:12
but prejudice, and you won."
14:15
They are my heroes.
14:20
They clung to their belief
14:24
in the shining ideals of this country,
14:27
and they proved that being an American
14:30
is not just for some people,
14:34
that race is not how we define being an American.
14:37
They expanded what it means to be an American,
14:43
including Japanese-Americans
14:46
that were feared and suspected and hated.
14:49
They were change agents,
14:53
and they left for me
14:56
a legacy.
14:58
They are my heroes
15:01
and my father is my hero,
15:02
who understood democracy
15:05
and guided me through it.
15:07
They gave me a legacy,
15:11
and with that legacy comes a responsibility,
15:13
and I am dedicated
15:17
to making my country
15:19
an even better America,
15:21
to making our government
15:24
an even truer democracy,
15:26
and because of the heroes that I have
15:30
and the struggles that we've gone through,
15:34
I can stand before you
15:37
as a gay Japanese-American,
15:39
but even more than that,
15:42
I am a proud American.
15:45
Thank you very much.
15:49
(Applause)
15:51

sponsored links

George Takei - Actor and activist
The beloved Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek, George Takei is an activist for human rights (and a master of Facebook memes).

Why you should listen

George Takei is known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series and films, but since serving as the helm officer on the USS Enterprise, he's become a pop culture icon here on this planet. To Be Takei, a documentary on his life and career directed by Jennifer M. Kroot that premiered at Sundance in January 2014, will be released theatrically in August 2014.

Takei is a master of Facebook virality, and has written two books about it: Oh Myyy! - There Goes The Internet and Lions and Tigers and Bears - The Internet Strikes Back (known collectively as Life, the Internet and Everything, Books 1 and 2). He's also the host of the YouTube series Takei's Take.

Along with Lea Salonga and actor-singer-songwriter Telly Leung, he stars in a new musical called Allegiance (music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, book by Jay Kuo, Lorenzo Thione and Marc Acito). The musical is an epic story of love, family and heroism during the Japanese American internment.

Takei is an important advocate for LGBT rights; in 2005, he came out of the closet, and has been an active campaigner for the right of all people to marry. 

sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.