Actor George Takei begins his TEDx talk in Kyoto with a slight smile, introducing himself as a veteran and former helmsman of the starship Enterprise. "I soared through the galaxy, driving a huge starship with a crew made up of people from all over this world... all working together."
That '60s-envisioned version of a tolerant distant future would have sounded completely alien to Takei just a decade or so earlier. As a child, Takei was taken from his home by armed men and relocated to a barbed wire prison camp. All because he, as a five-year-old, "looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor."
His tone describing the Japanese American experience during those war years could almost be mistaken for one of resignation, but what it sounds most like is a quiet defiance.
When the United States entered the war, he explains, young Japanese Americans left their families behind the barbed wire for segregated all-Japanese American units, weathering the most dangerous assignments to fight in the same uniform as their former guards. Their unwavering patriotism continues to defy belief.
One battle along the mountainous Gothic Line in Italy particularly underscores their bravery. In an effort to surprise German troops, Japanese American regiment the 442nd decided to scale a seemingly unscalable rock wall at night while fully outfitted. Those that slipped and fell from the height fell completely silently. These men who had been labeled "enemies, non-alien" refused, in their last moments, to give away their position.
When those that survived the battle returned to be honored on the White House lawn as the war's most decorated unit, President Truman said to them, "You fought not only the enemy, but prejudice. And you won."
"They proved being an American is not just for some people," says Takei. "They gave me a legacy, and with that legacy comes a responsibility, and I am dedicated to making my country an even better America. To making our country an even truer democracy."
That battle to protect American egalitarian ideals, Takei suggests, continues even today, if it's no longer embedded along the cliffs of the Apenine Mountains. That battle is being fought in courtrooms, in public policy, and in demonstrations of pride. It even continues, it seems, in Kyoto-based TEDx talks.