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George Takei on driving, equality and Japanese internment camps

Monday - 5/19/2014, 6:11am  ET

George Takei and his family were forced to live in Japanese internment camps during World War II. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

WASHINGTON -- If the past is prologue, then the utopian coexistence of beings from different parts of the universe in the original "Star Trek" series is what humans should strive to achieve in the present, actor George Takei said in D.C. over the weekend.

The outspoken gay rights activist addressed a crowd of scientists, researchers and geeks gathered for the second annual Smithsonian Magazine Future is Here Festival.

He joined a cast of researchers, physicists and cosmonauts as they explored the convention's theme: "The future is here."

But while people such as Google [x] developer Rich Devaul and NASA's Jon Lomberg explored how technology can propel humans into a new age, Takei sounded a familiar mantra: Diversity is king for a truly modern age.

"What we do today … shapes our future as well as that of our descendents," he says.

Takei used the U.S.S. Enterprise as an example of what true diversity looks like. Nyota Uruha was black; Sulu was Asian and Pavel Andreievich Checkhov was Russian. But even on "Star Trek," the multicultural cast caused ripples more than once.

Checkhov was one of the few Russian characters at the time not depicted as a Cold War-era villain, Takei says. And when Capt. Kirk kissed Uhura, some TV stations blacked out the scene.

Still, on the show at least, different races from Earth and other parts of the galaxy mingled peacefully. "'Star Trek' was a utopia of diversity," he says.

"Imagine an Asian driver in space?" he jokingly asks. "That put to rest that tired, old stereotype of bad Asian drivers."

Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in this hit TV show, was born in Los Angeles in 1937, just four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1942, Takei and his family were forced into exile. They lived in a horse stable at Santa Anita Race Track for a few months and were eventually shipped off to an internment camp in Arkansas. They were later relocated to another internment camp in Northern California.

"I still do remember that day when armed soldiers - soldiers with guns, bayonets on them - came to our home," he said in a 2011 interview with TV Legends.

"This was a dark chapter in American history."

Watch the full interview below:

But the United States had largely overcome that history, Takei says: "As daunting as it may be, we can come to grips with it. I know because of my own history."

Now 77, the native Californian has found his voice not only as a prolific Tweeter and social media ingénue, but also as a gay rights activist. He came out in 2005 after taking on a theater role as the psychologist of a troubled young man who mutilates horses in Peter Shaffer's "Equus." At the time, Takei said the character inspired him to discuss sexuality more publicly.

"The world has changed from when I was a young teen feeling ashamed for being gay," he said at the time.

"The issue of gay marriage is now a political issue. That would have been unthinkable when I was young."

Nine years later, Takei is ferocious in his defense of equality.

"I stand before you as a proud gay, Japanese-American," he says.

Takei finished off his speech with a modern take on a Shakespearean question, encouraging people to find a "common subscription of equality. ...

"To be or not to be -- that is the eternal question," he says.

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