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Friday, May 27, 2005

Embrace diversity, 'Star Trek' star says

Recalling internment camp, show, Takei urges Japan to have open mind


Staff writer

For Japanese-American actor George Takei, the popular television series "Star Trek" was novel in the sense that, when it was launched nearly 40 years ago, it portrayed a world full of people with various racial and ethnic backgrounds in a good light.

News photo
Actor George Takei speaks during an interview in Tokyo.

But after spending part of his childhood in an internment camp during World War II, Takei also knows the struggles that a minority group in a diverse society can face.

As Japan faces the prospect of becoming a more ethnically diverse society, given its projected need for immigrant labor in the future, Takei feels obliged to share his experience being a Japanese-American in the United States -- often described as a melting pot of cultures -- so Japan can be more prepared for its future.

"For the leading nations in this global society to really be able to function, we need to know the struggles that a diverse nation went through," Takei, chairman emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Takei, well-known for his role as Mr. Sulu on the popular television series, was in Tokyo on Wednesday to attend a symposium on Japanese-Americans and their role in the future of Japanese-U.S. relations.

Takei, 68, pointed out that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek," used the starship Enterprise as a metaphor for the global community, and that the importance of its strength was diversity.

Roddenberry deliberately made Takei part of the Enterprise crew to represent Asia. He also put in a Russian man, Chekhov, and an African-American woman, Uhura, as characters, he said.

"To be able to see a challenge from many different perspectives and many different experiences made the team that much stronger in assessing the challenge and knowing how to deal with it," Takei said.

Born in Los Angeles, Takei and his family were taken to an internment camp in Arkansas when he was 5 years old.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps throughout the U.S.

Despite the circumstances, Takei quickly adjusted to life in the camp, including lining up three times a day for meals and bathing with his father in the communal shower.

"But now thinking back in retrospect, I can imagine what it must have been like for my parents to lose everything -- business, home, property and freedom," Takei said.

He remembers the irony of pledging allegiance to the American flag at the camp school while surrounded by barbed-wire fences and sentries watching from guard towers.

Even after the war, the nation's attitude toward Japanese-Americans was still harsh, prompting most of them to disassociate themselves from Japan and its culture to survive in U.S. society, he said.

They were targets of hostility during the Japanese-U.S. trade disputes of the 1980s, when Japanese car exports to the U.S. were linked to unemployment in Detroit and elsewhere, Takei noted.

On the other hand, American public awareness about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war was still not high, Takei said, even though the federal government in 1988 offered an apology to the surviving former internees and $20,000 in redress for each of them.

That was one of the reasons Takei wrote his autobiography, "To The Stars."

In the book originally published in 1994, Takei wrote about his experience in the internment camp, hoping his popularity from "Star Trek" could get more Americans to learn about the history of the Japanese-Americans. The Japanese-language version was published in March.

For Takei and other Asian actors, the entertainment business was a frustrating world to live in.

Ever since his film debut in 1959, Takei has been disappointed with the roles he and other Asian actors have been offered -- an enemy, a buffoon, a quiet servant -- stereotyped characters that reflected and reinforced the way most Americans were viewing them.

Japanese, Chinese and Koreans were all mixed together and categorized as "Oriental," a term Takei said described the "very disrespectful and ignorant attitude" people had toward Asians.

Takei pointed out the need to produce more artists, directors and producers from the Japanese-American community and other communities of Asian descent so they can bring full-dimensional characters to the entertainment industry.

"So when the rest of America sees (Asian) faces in movies," Takei said, "they will see them not as servants that they can just denigrate."



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