Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
George Takei said he is always looking for ways to tell the story of how he, as a boy not yet 5 years old, was forced along with his family — after the panic and prejudice that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor — to live in a Japanese American internment camp in 1942.
Takei, now 84, credits the memory of his father, and “a filial obligation to him to raise awareness of this chapter of history,” he said. “Not just Japanese American history — yes, we were affected — but of American history.”
Takei – the actor and human rights activist best known for playing Lt. Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the original “Star Trek” — has told his family’s story in his autobiography, a Broadway musical, a memoir in comic-book form and, coming in September, a chamber music work scheduled to premiere at the Moab Music Festival.
The work, “Lost Freedom: A Memory” by composer Kenji Bunch, is set to debut at the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab on Saturday, Sept. 4. Takei is scheduled to narrate the chamber-music piece, reciting passages from his own writings about his family’s time in the camps and their efforts to recover after World War II.
“Growing up after the internment, I saw how my parents really struggled,” Takei told The Salt Lake Tribune recently in a phone interview. “All week long, 24/7, working their fingers to the bones — particularly my father.”
Takei recalled that when he was older, after World War II, he would have after-dinner conversations with his dad, when “he shared with me his anguish and his rage at times, and his heartbreak with the imprisonment.”
Takei’s father also taught his sons to respect American democracy. “He said the ideals of our democracy are noble ideals. Equal justice under law, the government of the law. And particularly he emphasized due process as being the central pillar of our justice system. Which all disappeared for us, despite those noble ideals.”
Setting personal history to music
As a kid, Takei and his family were forced out of their home in Los Angeles in 1942, after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to move inland to government-run camps. Takei’s family members were first relocated to California’s Santa Anita racetrack, living for a time in the horse stables, before moving to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, then later to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Northern California.
It’s that experience Bunch aims to evoke in composing “Lost Freedom.”
“There are very few of us who were incarcerated in, as Mr. Takei calls them, barbed wire prison camps,” Bunch said in a phone interview recently. “To grow up there, as a young child, is a messed-up experience. But all of us have been kids, and it’s those universal experiences I want to draw from, tap into, so that anyone listening can connect in some way.”
Takei and Bunch have not yet met, except for a Zoom call, Bunch said. The two were connected by Michael Barrett, music director of the Moab Music Festival, who knew both men’s work.
Barrett was conducting the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap, near Washington, D.C., in 2018 for a 100th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein, and Takei was one of the featured performers. To craft the narration for “Lost Freedom,” Barrett worked with Takei to compile text from the actor’s speeches and other writings.
Bunch has performed at the Moab festival three times before. In 2019, he premiered a solo work he wrote for viola, called “Minidoka” — based on Bunch’s visit to the internment camp near Sun Valley, Idaho, which he said was a moving experience.
“There was one moment where there was a little stream that was flowing through the grounds, and there was a barbed wire fence,” Bunch said. “There was a plaque that said the prisoners would go right up to the fence, and get as close as they could to the stream, because just seeing the running water brought them a little bit of comfort.”
The chamber music of “Lost Freedom” is just the latest medium in which Takei has recounted his story. He published his autobiography, “To the Stars,” in 1994. A musical based on his family’s camp experience, “Allegiance,” debuted at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2012, and played on Broadway from 2015 to 2016. And he collaborated with writers Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, and illustrator Harmony Becker, on “They Called Us Enemy,” a 2019 graphic memoir.
Takei said he told his story in comic-book form “to reach young Americans when they are at an age when they are absorbing information.” With the chamber-music piece in Moab, he said, “there’s a whole different level of society that goes to symphony concerts. That’s another opportunity to tell the story, and to remind my fellow Americans of the responsibility we all have to have as American citizens right now.”
Bunch said he admires Takei’s “inexhaustible energy, and commitment to having this story be heard by as many different people — from different generations, different walks of life — as possible. … There’s going to be different people who receive it in a Broadway musical, from a graphic novel, from speeches, or from a work of modern classical music.”
As he writes “Lost Freedom,” which is still a work in progress, Bunch said he’s challenging himself “to write without any traditional Japanese-sounding gestures. I’m trying to see if I can thread that needle, to evoke the culture involved without being too specifically referential.”
Bunch is also trying to strike the balance between music and narration. The trick, Bunch said, is to “have the most impact with an audience within [a certain] length, but tell enough of the story. If there’s too much detail, we can’t get the music in.”
Bunch is also taking into account Takei’s famous baritone voice, which he called “such a distinct, beautiful instrument. So I have to think about register and timbre. In those sections where I’m scoring underneath his words, I have to stay out of that sonic space. … If I was writing a cello concerto, I’d be thinking the same things about not getting in the way of that register.”
Generations forgetting and remembering
In his one Zoom conversation with Takei, Bunch said, the 47-year-old composer acknowledged that even though he is Japanese American, he had not learned about the internment camps until he saw the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid.”
That lack of knowledge didn’t surprise Takei. “I’m discovering,” he said, “that many Japanese Americans of my generation had parents that were so wounded by the internment experience that they didn’t tell their children about their experience, their pain.”
Takei said that when he was performing “Allegiance” on Broadway, “younger Japanese Americans would come back stage and tell me, ‘My parents were in a camp, too.’ … Because we had that in common, I’d ask, ‘Which camp were they in?’ And their faces were blank. They didn’t know the name of the camp where their parents or grandparents were in. To help them out, I’d ask, ‘Was it in Wyoming? Idaho? Arizona? Utah?’ And they had no idea.”
Utahns, Takei said, “have direct access to the legacy of that experience.” A few miles north of Moab is Dalton Wells, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp that became a detention center for so-called “troublemakers” from other internment camps. About 200 miles west, near Delta, is the site of the Topaz internment camp, where thousands of Japanese Americans were held.
Takei’s effort to retell the story, he said, “is for younger Japanese Americans, too. Because they don’t know their own personal family history. But I need [to tell] it for all Americans — because it is our American ideals, and they can be so fragile.”
Telling the story is also Takei’s way of honoring his father, and for atoning for what Takei once said to his father as a teen, years after the war was over.
“I said, ‘Daddy, you led us like sheep to the slaughter to the internment camp.’ And suddenly my father was quiet. And just as suddenly I realized I had hit a nerve, of this man that I loved so much who went through such a horrific experience,” Takei said. “And this arrogant child was hurting him again.”
His father fell silent, Takei said, “for what felt to me like an eternity. And then he looked at me and said, ‘Well, maybe you’re right.’ And he got up and went into his bedroom and closed the door. That was the end of that discussion. I felt terribly, and I felt like going and knocking on the door and apologizing, but I felt very awkward. And so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll apologize tomorrow morning.’ And when tomorrow morning came, it was even more awkward. And then tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and it got worse and worse. And I never did apologize.”
Recounting the history of the internment camps is also important, Takei said, because history repeats itself. “We were subjected to anti-Asian American violence back then, and it’s happening again,” he said, citing violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bunch added, “I feel it’s my responsibility, as an artist, specifically as an Asian American, as a Japanese American artist, to present stories like this, and present them in a way that can amplify the humanity involved … so that people can connect in that human way and realize that these were real people who had these experiences. And each of us has the potential to help see that this doesn’t happen again.”
Takei said his father was fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln’s line from the Gettysburg Address — about “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
“It’s a people’s democracy, and it’s a participatory democracy,” Takei said. “And the people have the responsibility to participate in giving meaning to those noble ideals. They’re empty words on parchment or on paper or wherever you read it. … Our activity has to give meaning to it.”
‘Lost Freedom: A Memory’
The chamber-music work “Lost Freedom: A Memory” — composed by Kenji Bunch, with narration by George Takei, based on Takei’s accounts of his childhood years in Japanese American internment camps — will have its premiere at the Moab Music Festival.
Where • Red Cliffs Lodge, near milepost 14 on State Highway 128, a 17-mile drive northeast of Moab.
When • Saturday, Sept. 4, at 7 p.m.
Tickets • Available at moabmusicfest.org.