'Lost Freedom.' Actor George Takei performs at the Moab Music Fest, recalling his childhood days in a WWII Japanese-American concentration camp
The sun is setting on a patch of desert in southeastern Utah. You can just make out the din of the state highway, carrying travelers back and forth from nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
But here, minutes from those popular destinations, is a simple dirt road, a little muddy after recent rains. A spot you definitely would miss if you weren’t looking directly for it.
Composer Kenji Bunch tunes his viola near some of the only remaining evidence that nearly 80 years ago, Japanese American men were imprisoned at this site. A concrete slab and two cottonwood trees are some of what’s left from the Moab Isolation Center.
This is George Takei’s first visit to the site. Throughout his life he’s made many pilgrimages to such places, unearthing their histories. There were 10 major Japanese American confinement camps. Smaller isolation centers like this one in Moab imprisoned people who showed any sign of resistance to their own incarceration.
“The World War II years was filled with madness on the part of the United States Government,” began Takei.
He was five years old, his brother four, and his sister just a baby when the government removed them from their homes. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order sending the Takei’s and thousands of other Japanese American families into imprisonment.
“Approximately 120,000 of us, summarily rounded up with no charge, no trial. Due process, the central pillar of our justice system, simply disappeared,” Takei adds.
The top US decision-makers justified the incarceration of their own citizens with a racist stereotype. They called the Japanese ‘inscrutable,’ impossible to understand.
Takei continues: “And because we can't tell what they're thinking, as a preventative, it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything. The absence of evidence was the evidence. We were subjected to the same kind of attitude toward Asian-Americans that we are going through now with the pandemic.”
Violist Bunch composed the score to Lost Freedom: A Memory. He’s speaking to me outside a popular Moab coffee shop, wearing a shirt that reads ‘Asian AF.’
“George will rightfully remind us that there's been anti-Asian sentiment since there have been Asians in this country,” says Bunch.
He’s proud of his Japanese ancestry, but says harmful racist stereotypes are as present as ever. He calls anti-Asian harassment and violence during the pandemic a flare up of a chronic condition.
“It's not a recent problem. It’s just an ongoing transgenerational racial trauma.”
It’s not lost on Bunch, that just one generation ago he also would have been incarcerated. He pictures his own young children behind barbed wire, as Takei was at five years old.
“Now as a dad with two little kids and just imagining them with their innocence, and their trust. Imagining them having to experience that…it breaks my heart,” Bunch says.
In Lost Freedom, A Memory, music and narrative weave together to center Takei’s childhood perspective in the performance. This creates bittersweet moments, like when young Takei is excited about sleeping a horse stall. But much of it, is simply heart-breaking. When his family is being moved to a higher security confinement camp, Takei’s father tells his children they’re all going on a vacation by train.
Lost Freedom is another legacy project for Takei. He’s spoken all over the world about Japanese American incarceration, written op-eds in major newspapers, starred in a musical, and has a graphic memoir for preteens about his experience.
He says he’s “using all the tools I have as an artist to educate Americans today, as few Americans can, to tell that very personal story, and share it so that we can have better Americans in the future.”
Back on-site at the former Moab Isolation Center, Bunch performs a piece for Takei. He wrote it after his own first pilgrimage to a confinement camp in Idaho. He says he wants to be like Takei, an artist activist helping restore humanity to those it’s been taken from. In a world where people can disagree on facts, Bunch says art might be the only way.
“We have a unique ability and responsibility as artists to do that. It's kind of our last best chance, isn't it?”
The Moab Music Festival continues this weekend. A short documentary about the creation of Lost Freedom: A Memory is in the works. And plans to debut it New York City are slated for 2022.
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This report was produced for the Rocky Mountain Community Radio Coalition, of which KSUT is a member. RMCR includes more than 15 member stations across Colorado and parts of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Kansas.
Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.