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December, 2003

My Arkansas Roots

by George Takei

LOS ANGELES -- It was sixty years ago that my family and I came to Arkansas. My father had told me that we were going on a "long vacation" to a far away place called Camp Rohwer. Together with some eight thousand other Japanese Americans, we arrived at a barbed wire enclosed campground of black tarpaper barracks. Soldiers with guns watched over us from high guard towers. Outside the barbed wire fence, thick, wooded swampland surrounded us. All we had was the luggage we carried. President Roosevelt had signed an executive order imprisoning Japanese Americans in 10 camps like this one simply because we happened to look like the enemy.

I had never gone back to Rohwer since we left. This was my first trip back to a place about which I actually have fond boyhood memories mingled with my understanding of the break down of American democracy under the stress of war. I remember the fun of catching pollywogs in the ditch and watching them turn into frogs. I also understand now the tears I saw well up so often in my mother's eyes at the sight of the barbed wire fence that symbolized her loss and confinement. I remember the joy of that wondrous winter morning when we woke up to find everything covered in white - my discovery of the magic of snow that first winter in Arkansas. And I cherish now so much more deeply my father's resilience, energy, and dignity under conditions of groundless injustice. I returned to Rohwer resolved that America must not forget the lessons of its history. I was coming back as the Chairman of the Japanese American National Museum working with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to plan a series of exhibits next year on the internment camp history of Arkansas. I was returning to the place of my childhood memories to build a better future for our democracy.

The Rohwer that I came back to, however, was not that of my memory. It was utterly changed. The swamp that I remembered had been drained completely. The trees of the dense forest that surrounded us had all been chopped down. Rohwer today was mile after mile of open farmland. The only reminder that there had once been an internment camp was the cemetery - the rows of markers of those who had died in imprisonment. The most prominent of the markers was a tall, crumbling concrete monument to the Japanese American young men who left the internment camp to fight for this country and had perished in the war. The irony was excruciating. Standing before that soldiers' monument in an American internment camp, sharp, painful tears welled up in my eyes. These incredible young men had fought and died to make my America today possible. I vowed then that the ideals of this nation, the civil liberty for which they so bravely fought, shall not be tarnished - not in my time, when the tensions of war are again challenging those ideals.

Funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Japanese American National Museum are planning a series of major events in Little Rock to coincide with the opening of our exhibits there in September 2004. One of them will be a bus trip back to Camp Rohwer. I will be there again. I hope many of you that live in the South - or, for that matter, anyone interested - might join us for that journey.

The much-vaunted southern hospitality certainly more than lived up to the legend while I was in Little Rock. I still savor the warmth and graciousness extended to me by so many people of Little Rock while I was there. A special treat was a hardhat tour of the construction of the President William Jefferson Clinton Library conducted by its President and CEO, Skip Rutherford. I was flattered to learn from him that a copy of "To The Stars," my autobiography that I'd sent to the White House because of our mutual Arkansas boyhoods, was to be a part of the preview exhibit of the Clinton Library. I will certainly look forward to the opening of the President Bill Clinton Library in November 2004.

Two days after returning from Arkansas, I was before the camera playing a Japanese priest in two installments of the CBS soap opera, "The Young and The Restless." Neil and Drucilla of the series run off to Japan to get married. The character I play, Rev. Tanaka, officiates at their wedding. It reminded me of Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett's marriage in Japan. Gene and Majel were married in a full Shinto ceremony elegantly dressed in formal wedding kimono. In "The Young and The Restless," however, I was the only one in formal Japanese attire. When the dresser came into my dressing room to dress me properly, I understood why the other actors were not similarly dressed. There were layer upon layers of under kimono. Each layer of kimono had to be worn in a specific way and tied with a certain kind of knot. Not only was it complicated, the process of putting on the kimono was extremely time consuming. But, for me, it was great fun wearing the costume. As I walked about, the layers of silk rustled softly with each movement. I felt elegant and transported in time and culture. It was hard to believe that only a few days before, I had been laughing and joking, enjoying southern fried chicken with Arkansans. The two episodes of "The Young and The Restless" in which I appear will air on December 22 and 23. I hope you'll be able to catch me on the show.

Immediately upon finished the soap opera, I was on a plane again to appear at a Star Trek convention in El Paso, Texas. I was once again back in the south - but the rhythm of the accent this trip had a different sound. That's what I love about regionalisms. They come in such wonderfully varied flavors - drawls, brogues, burrs, and that unmistakable Texan twang. Accents make language so savory.

This convention brought the four of us from the show, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Jimmy Doohan, and me, together again. I hadn't seen Jimmy in ages and it was wonderful to be with him once again. He had lost a lot of weight since his illness and had slowed down considerably but that bullheaded spirit of his was unchanged. The El Paso convention is one that we will all fondly remember seeing lovably irascible Jimmy back in action. It's hard to believe but Christmas decorations are starting to appear everywhere. December is already upon us. So, as we all start making lists and preparing holiday greeting cards, I extend to all of you, my heartiest holiday cheers. May the New Year bring us all health, wealth, and peace.

 



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