George Takei was once one of the thousands of Japanese Americans put in a US internment camp during World War II. Today he says he loves his country.
Takei, who's best known for his role in Star Trek, told the story of his transformation at a TED event in Kyoto, Japan.
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, hysteria against Japanese Americans was at an all-time high. Many Americans saw their fellow citizens of Japanese descent as potential traitors. That hysteria reached a critical point when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans on the West Coast into internment camps.
A few weeks after his fifth birthday, Takei and his family were abruptly taken from their homes. They were put in trains and were shipped — without charges or trial — to an internment camp. Takei described it:
I still remember the barbed wire fence that confined me. I remember the tall sentry tower with the machine guns pointed at us. I remember the searchlight that followed me when I made the night runs from my barrack to the latrine. But to five-year-old me, I thought it was kind of nice that they'd lit the way for me to pee. I was a child, too young to understand the circumstances of my being there.
After the war, Takei and his family were released with a one-way ticket to any place of their choice. Penniless, they went back to Los Angeles and were forced to rework their entire lives from scratch in impoverished conditions. The conditions were so bad, Takei explained, that his sister once asked to go back "home," which, at the time, meant the internment camp that once imprisoned them.
The conditions took a toll on Takei. As a teenager, he had to reconcile what he was taught in school — about the land of freedom, civil liberties, and other principles of America's founding — with his childhood experiences. Often, Takei argued with his father.
"He was the one that suffered the most under those conditions of imprisonment, and yet he understood American democracy," Takei said. "He told me that our democracy is a people's democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are."
It was a tough, conflicting journey for Takei. But he said that, eventually, it defined his own brand of patriotism: to love his country, through good and bad, to make it a better place.
"I am dedicated to making my country an even better America, to making our government an even truer democracy," Takei said. "And because of the heroes that I have and the struggles that we've gone through, I can stand before you as a gay Japanese American — but even more than that, I am a proud American."