By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
George Takei’s involvement in the Japanese American National Museum’s new Remembrance Project is a personal matter.
The actor and activist, a long-time trustee of the museum, attended a reception at JANM to launch the online project on Feb. 18 following a Day of Remembrance observance.
Chris Komai, JANM public information officer, explained that the Remembrance Project “encourages families to pay tribute to those who lived through the World War II experience. This is not about creating more historical documents as much as it’s about expressing our own feelings about our own families and our own communities.
“There is a saying in Japanese, okage sama de. What it means roughly is that I am what I am because of you. What you have done to create my life I owe to you, and I should thank you for that.”
Since Feb. 19 marked the 70th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, “we took this opportunity to pay tribute to those whom we love and who endured all the hardship and anguish and the loss while they were incarcerated during the war and to say thank you to them,” Takei said in an interview. “But at the same time in remembering those that endured it with such fortitude, we say, ‘Never forget.’ … We are using the Internet to have personalized stories shared.”
Takei, who also recorded a public service announcement for the project, posted biographies of his late parents, Takekuma “Norman” Takei, who was born in Yamanashi Prefecture and raised in the Bay Area, and Fumiko Emily Takei, who was born in Florin and raised in Hiroshima. They married in 1935 and raised two boys and a girl.
When war with Japan broke out, the Takeis were forced to give up their home and dry-cleaning business in Los Angeles and had to live in horse stalls at the Santa Anita Assembly Center before being sent to the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. When the government imposed a loyalty questionnaire on all adult internees, the couple answered “no” to two key questions as a form of protest. They were labeled as disloyal and sent to the Tule Lake camp in Northern California, which was turned into a segregation center.
As an immigrant from Japan, Takekuma was barred from U.S. citizenship. Fumiko renounced her U.S. citizenship in order to keep the family together in case they were shipped to Japan. They managed to stay in the U.S., and upon their release they were able to re-establish themselves in Los Angeles and send their children to college.
“I’m doing it for my parents,” Takei said of his participation in the project. “I’m also paying tribute to Wayne Collins, who was an extraordinary man of great courage and principle who passionately loved the Constitution.
“Japanese Americans were pariahs. No attorney would defend us, much less fight for us, particularly those that went to Tule Lake. He represented the Tule Lake Defense Committee from 1945 to 1960. He had the renunciants’ citizenship reinstated. He defended Iva Toguri D’Aquino (who was accused of being) ‘Tokyo Rose.’ Together with Ernest Besig of the ACLU, he challenged the internment while the war was raging, all the way to the Supreme Court, representing Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu …
“He was a courageous man to take that position … So I’m paying tribute to him as well with my remembrance.”
In his tribute, Takei wrote, “He fought to get my mother a mitigation hearing, saving her and her family from having to board the ship bound for a war-ravaged Japan. Had we been on that ship, I might have grown up in Japan to become a very different man. Sometimes I tantalize myself with the ‘what if.’ Wayne Collins made me who I am today.”
The Remembrance Project will help educate the general public as well as younger Japanese Americans, Takei said. “East of the Rockies, there are other people that don’t know such a thing happened. Even in our own communities, because the generation that was incarcerated felt so degraded, so shamed by that experience, they didn’t talk about it. So their children and grandchildren know that Dad and Mom, Grandpa and Grandma or Uncle and Auntie were in an internment camp, but they really don’t know the details.
“When I talked to them about the loyalty questionnaire, they said, ‘What’s that?’ … So yes, we need other Americans to know what happened to our Constitution, but the young members of the Japanese American community need to know precisely what happened … So we’re using the Internet to share the stories of the people we love and we are grateful for.”
Feb. 19 also happened to be the date of the season premiere of NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” hosted by Donald Trump and featuring 18 celebrities, including Takei. The winner gets a $250,000 donation to the charity of his or her choice — in Takei’s case, JANM.
Takei reported that all of the episodes have been shot except the last one. “We go back to New York in May for the finale.”
He declined to give further details, saying, “We are under contract not to talk about it.”
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who will receive JANM’s Distinguished Medal of Honor at the museum’s annual gala dinner in May, also attended the launch of the website.
“I think it is important to remember family and friends who experienced the evacuation and internment,” he commented. “Not only to remember them for their sacrifices, but more importantly to make sure that we never ever forget what happened as a result of Executive Order 9066. This only happened to 120,000 people, but the real impact was on all Americans in terms of their constitutional rights.”