Long before he was Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, actor George Takei had to face a harsh reality. At the age of 5, Takei was one of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were ordered into internment camps during World War II.
Takei,who was born in Los Angeles, spent three years in the camps.
In an interview with The Post, Takei called the internment “one of the most egregious violations of our constitution. We were held without charge or trial.”
This Sunday, Feb. 19, marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the creation of the detention facilities. To commemorate the anniversary, the geneology site Ancestry.com is releasing two of its databases for free to the public: an index of internees’ biographical information as well as documents such as newspapers, employment reports and church records. Ancestry.com is also opening up its database containing passenger lists into Honolulu from 1900 to 1959.
“Seventy years is not that long ago,” said Ancestry.com’s Anastasia Harman. “It’s important for people to understand what their grandparents and parents went through.” For that reason, Ancestry.com agreed to partner with the Japanese American National Museum’s Remembrance project to bring more than 180,000 documents to the public for a week starting on Feb. 16.
Takei, who works with the museum, said that it’s important to educate people about this chapter of American history.
“It is a day that all Americans should know about,” he said. “Alas, I’m astounded by the number of people — particularly east of the Rockies — who say to me, aghast, ‘I had no idea such a thing had happened in the United States.’ ”
The museum, he said, has two important missions: to pay tribute to those who were placed in the camps and to learn a lesson from that to never let something like it happen again.
“I was a child, five years old to eight years old, when I was incarcerated. I had many many discussions with my father,” Takei said. Takei’s father told him that the strength and the weakness of American democracy is that it’s a true people’s democracy. “It’s as fallible as people are,” the actor said. “And fallible people can be swept up by hysteria.”
Those who value America and its democratic tradition have to revisit its darkest chapters, Takei said. “It’s because of that that I’m an activist. I want to hold democracy’s feet to the fire.”
Publishing the records on the Internet, Takei said, will give the museum the opportunity to share that message.
He also hopes that the release of the documents and the Remembrance project will spark discussion among Japanese-American families.
Within the community of internees, many families did not talk about internment and have not passed on their experiences to their children and grandchildren.
“With the internees, to be behind barbed wire and lining up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall, the degradation of all that, the shame, they don’t want to share that,” Takei said.
Takei said that he has seen firsthand how the museum itself can spark these discussions about family history.
“I saw two older men and two boys, 10 or 11, going through the internment exhibit asking ‘Grandpa, you were there?’ and the grandpa was sharing stories with the kid. And the boys’ father was saying: ‘Gee, Dad, I never knew that. You never told me that.’ His own son is hearing about it for the first time.”
The databases, which will be available through Feb. 23, were compiled in conjunction with the National Archives and Records Administration, Harman said. Ancestry.com also has additional records that may help Japanese Americans find information on their family histories that will not be made available to the public, she said, such as the 1930 Census and birth, marriage and death records.