george kermit

George Takei and Kermit Roosevelt at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum

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I never learned about the Japanese internment camps as a schoolgirl. Had I learned about them, perhaps I would have learned, before George Takei informed me of this, that they were not Japanese internment camps at all. You see, they weren’t Japanese, not being located in Japan, not having been controlled by Japan. They were American, in the United States, created due to Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. They also weren’t, properly speaking, internment camps. Many historians and scholars use the term “internment,” only specifically for confinement of enemy aliens, not for imprisonment of a country’s own citizens. FDR himself called them “concentration camps,” and indeed, about 80,000 of the 120,000 people so imprisoned were American citizens.

The only reason I knew anything at all about this history when I was young is because I’d happened to read a book called The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida, which told of a young girl and her family being forced out of their home (the bracelet was a token of remembrance and friendship given to the Japanese girl by a white neighbor). I imagine the camps must have been at least mentioned when I studied WWII in high school, but if anything, it was a footnote. The topic was covered a bit at my law school in a theoretical way, when discussing the limits of the executive in terms of separation of powers and when we talked about civil rights and immigration laws, but even so, I was quite ignorant of the specifics.

As I was privileged to be in the audience at a conversation between George Takei and Kermit Roosevelt, on the 75th anniversary of the signing of this infamous executive order, I learned quite a lot about the specifics. Mr. Takei described his personal story: he and his family were forced out of their two-bedroom Los Angeles home by soldiers, who showed up pounding at their door and terrifying him and his younger brother, carrying rifles attached with bayonets. His sister was an infant, not yet a year old, and his mother was in tears, carrying her baby girl in one hand and a duffel bag of what they could pack in the other. They were first taken to horse stables at a racetrack, where each family was assigned a stall to sleep in. It was filthy, still stinking of horse manure, and although it was a bit of an adventure for the five year old Takei, for his parents it was humiliating and degrading. They were eventually put on a train to Arkansas and imprisoned in a camp there, surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by armed sentries. The harsh treatment that his family and many others experienced, along with insulting and clumsily worded “loyalty” questions on a required questionnaire regarding military service, he explained, turned some Japanese-Americans from loyal citizens and residents into enemies of the United States.

Takei had never been to the FDR Library and Museum before, and, he explained, he had mixed feelings being there…visiting the estate of the man who had put him behind bars, yes, but also the man who had led our country through the Great Depression. He loved Eleanor Roosevelt, however, wholeheartedly…as she had done all that she could, and faced criticism for her advocacy for the Japanese-Americans, even going so far as to visit the camps and offer support. He even had a story about meeting her when he was working on the Adlai Stevenson campaign after the war was over, and in telling it he sounded just like a gushing Star Trek fanboy, excited to meet one of his television idols. (I’m an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt too…I understood.)

All of his experiences weren’t bad…to this day, he explained, he has a fondness for big band music, since there would be dances in the camps in attempts to create a sense of normalcy, and he’d fall asleep listening to the sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. People got married there, babies were born, children grew up. His parents, and many others, despite the circumstances, did what they could to protect their children and create spaces for beauty and art. And after his family’s release, when they returned to California (after a brief stay on skid row), they moved to a Mexican-American neighborhood, where he made good friends, learned Spanish, and enjoyed tortillas and beans at his friends’ houses. (Young George Takei would sometimes have his friends over and his mother would give them delicious snacks too: usually toast with sugar.)

The other speaker, Kermit Roosevelt, didn’t share so many personal anecdotes, and I rather wish he’d had more time to speak to us. He’s a Theodore Roosevelt descendant (so…from “the other branch of the family”), a law professor, an expert on Constitutional law, civil liberties, national security, and the Supreme Court, and a novelist. His second novel, Allegiance, which concerns Executive Order 9066 and the moral and political issues associated with it, has a character with the surname Takei—and Roosevelt did admit that it was in tribute to his co-presenter (it’s not a common name). He also provided us with some background and legal analysis of the Supreme Court cases which arose out of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans, Hirabayashi vs. United States and Korematsu vs. United States.

Neither Roosevelt nor Takei were shy about drawing parallels between this painful history and today’s affairs. They explained that the reparations eventually authorized by congress, decades later, came to $20,000 for each surviving detainee: welcome as a symbolic gesture and an apology, to be sure, but not nearly enough redress to cover the loss of property, businesses, jobs, and liberty. A presidential commission ultimately concluded that the decision to incarcerate was based in racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. We are, of course, not immune from such things today.

After the talk was concluded, I purchased Allegiance and George Takei’s autobiography, To the Stars, and headed over to wait for Takei to autograph my copy. There were some Star Trek fans behind me in line, a little nervous to meet the famous actor, and wondering if they’d be too embarrassed to ask for a selfie, which I found kind of sweet. (Although I do appreciate the idealism of Star Trek in its various incarnations, I’ve never been a Trekkie…so I wasn’t star-struck.) When I made it to the front of the line, I suppose I could have asked some questions, or posed for a photo, but really, after learning about Takei’s early life and what he had to say, instead, I took a moment to thank him for his activism. He stands up for LGBT rights, he’s a former board chair of the Japanese American National Museum, and he is currently standing up for Muslims. I told him that I was never taught about this history and that I was glad that he’s doing this work, and he told me that it was his life’s mission. He’s already lived long and prospered…let’s all hope that we have Takei, and his powerful voice, for many more years.

The event was produced in association with a new special exhibit at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, Images of Internment: the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.  And here’s NewsWhistle’s take on a Hyde Park road trip from 2015: http://newswhistle.com/road-trip-destination-hyde-park-ny.

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum