GUY RAZ, HOST:
So we've been spending a lot of time this episode in a particular galaxy far, far away, the one everyone's talking about. So maybe let's go to a different one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
WILLAM SHATNER: (As Captain James T. Kirk) Mr. Sulu, ahead warp one.
GEORGE TAKEI: (As Sulu) Accelerating to warp one, sir.
RAZ: That's "Star Trek" with Mr. Sulu, played by George Takei, who we just heard there. George Takei has also become pretty well-known for his outspoken support of LGBT rights and a master of viral posts and memes. Anyway, on every hero's journey there comes a series of tests, these phases where our hero faces the crucible.
TAKEI: There's that Japanese word gaman, which means fortitude, endure with dignity.
RAZ: And long before George Takei's success, he endured a crucible of his own.
TAKEI: Still, to this day, there are people that I consider well-informed who are shocked and aghast when I tell them about my childhood imprisonment.
RAZ: George Takei was one of the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps shortly after the U.S. got involved in World War II. His family spent the war behind razor wire under 24-hour armed guard. And George Takei told the story on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
TAKEI: I was 4 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. And overnight, America suddenly was swept up by hysteria. And the hysteria grew and grew until the president of the United States ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast of America to be summarily rounded up with no charges, with no trial, with no due process. On April 20, I celebrated my fifth birthday. And just a few weeks after my birthday, my brother and I were in the living room and we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway.
They stomped up the front porch and banged on the door. My father answered it, and these soldiers ordered us out of our home. And we walked out and stood on the driveway, waiting for our mother to come out. She had our baby sister in one arm, a huge duffel bag in the other, and tears were streaming down both her cheeks. I will never be able to forget that scene. It is burned into my memory.
RAZ: Do you remember - I mean, you were so young. What did your - like, what'd your parents say to you? Like, where did they say you were going?
TAKEI: Well, you know, we were first taken to Santa Anita racetrack. That was the assembly center. And then we were put on a train and taken to Arkansas. And in preparation for that, my father said we were going on a long vacation. And so I was excited by it. That sounded exotic. We're going on a vacation to Arkansas.
RAZ: What do you remember about day-to-day life? I mean, did you play with other kids? Was it sort of a terrifying place?
TAKEI: As an innocent child, that was normality for me. Everybody around us lived the same way. We lined up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. When I made the night runs to the latrine, searchlights followed us. But for me, I thought it was kind of nice that they lit the way for me to pee. And I have memories of going to school in a black tar paper barrack where we started the school day every day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Looking out the window, I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right there as I recited the words, with liberty and justice for all.
RAZ: After four years inside those camps, the Takeis were released at the end of the war, and the family made its way back to Los Angeles.
TAKEI: And the hostility was intense. It was palpable. People didn't want to rent to Japanese-Americans, so all we had was this shabby hotel room in Skid Row - stench of urine in the hallways, people, wild people, you know, carrying on, staggering about. We'd never experienced something like that. And my youngest sister was almost 5. She was an infant when we went into the camps. One occasion where we were walking down the sidewalk and this drunken man came staggering toward us, and we all froze up. And then he collapsed and he barfed right in front of us. And my sister shrieked, mama, let's go back home. Home behind barbed wires because coming out was so horrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
TAKEI: My parents worked hard to get back on their feet. We'd lost everything. They worked their fingers to the bone. And ultimately, they were able to get the capital together to buy a three-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood. And I was a teenager, and I had read civics books that told me about the ideals of American democracy. And I couldn't quite make that fit with what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment.
And so I engaged my father after dinner in long, sometimes heated conversations, and what I got from them was my father's wisdom. He was the one that suffered the most, and yet he understood American democracy. 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.
RAZ: At this point, George faced a test - whether he could reconcile his own experience with his faith in American democracy and society. And ultimately, that test was about forgiveness.
I mean, it's amazing to hear about what you experienced and what your family experienced, and yet you forgave. I mean, you really kind of decided that you were going to consciously forgive your country for what it did.
TAKEI: That's right. Actually, it was my father, a man who went through all the insults and the degradation, and yet he explained our democracy to me. He said, we have to be actively engaged, make it live up to its ideals. And that's why I've been active in raising the awareness of that history of the United States where our Constitution was egregiously violated.
But also, I came to understand how the career that I've chosen played a part in putting us into those prison camps. It was all those stereotypes - this is before the war - of how Asians were depicted, as either comic servants or the evil villain. And so I became active in trying to get better roles, more dimensioned roles, fighting stereotypes for Asian-American performing artists.
RAZ: Do you think of yourself as a forgiving person? Is forgiveness something that you embrace pretty easily?
TAKEI: Not easily, but yes because I'm aware of human fallibility, (laughter) as my father said, because, you know, if you don't forgive, the only person that's being punished is yourself. You can move forward.
RAZ: Actor and activist George Takei. He's one of the producers and stars of the Broadway musical "Allegiance." It's about the internment of Japanese-Americans. You can see his full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas around the hero's journey. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.