In memoriam: Sgt. Ben Kuroki

Ben Kuroki at Heart MountainWe’re very sorry to learn of the passing at 98 of the war hero, Sgt. Ben Kuroki, the “Boy from Nebraska.” His life merits long remembrances in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and in the Rafu Shimpo, which includes comments from his daughter Julie.

We were fortunate to be able to interview Mr. Kuroki at his home in Camarillo, California in 1998, the very last piece of new footage to go into the documentary. Ben graciously agreed to appear, despite his initial misgivings, to share how his story intersected with that of the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain. After the PBS broadcast he sent a nice note to say how pleased he was at his fair treatment in the film, and to invite us to visit him anytime.

In this excerpt from the outtakes in our DVD extras, Kuroki answers the criticism he endured during the war for his fervent patriotism.

To learn more about Ben’s life, we encourage you to acquire a copy of our friend Bill Kubota’s excellent 2007 PBS documentary, Most Honorable Son.

Our condolences to Ben’s widow, Shige, daughter Julie, and all his family and many friends.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS: the power of the real

Curfew violator Gordon Hirabayashi was a draft resister too. He resisted the 8 pm military curfew placed only on Japanese Americans, when he saw it didn’t apply to his white classmates at the University of Washington. He resisted the mass incarceration all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he resisted the draft when an induction letter was sent to him after his high court conviction was upheld

actor seated in chair
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

In her solo play on the lone resistance of Gordon Hirabayashi, playwright Jeanne Sakata shows that the truth of the Japanese American experience can work as powerful drama onstage, without violating the history or resorting to melodrama.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS, which is ending its longest run ever of four weeks at the ACT Theater in Seattle, uses nothing but the actual word and deed of the UW student and Quaker pacifist, based on Sakata’s hours of interviews with him. Where she compresses events or fictionalizes Gordon’s letters from jail, the words are always drawn from his actual writings, the minimum of dramatic license is taken, and the intent is always to illuminate the real nature of Gordon’s character.

Her approach succeeds brilliantly. Sakata brings Gordon’s inner life to the surface while retaining respect for the facts. She makes it look simple, but her craft is quite accomplished.

Having known Gordon through his visits to Seattle later in life, it’s odd to see him portrayed on stage by someone who bears such a striking resemblance. Ryun Yu captures something about the tilt of the head when Gordon would pursue a thought. He finds an expansive energy in the younger Gordon, while staying true to his pure convictions and measured speech. Yu holds the stage for 90 minutes, and earns a standing ovation every night.

lone actor on bare stage
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

At a pivotal moment in the play, Yu as Hirabayashi trembles at the gravity of his decision to violate the military curfew, and take on the government. He realizes his will be a test case, and the line he writes in a letter, “Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation,” precedes by two years the nearly identical stance of the draft resisters at Heart Mountain: “Therefore, we hereby refuse to go to the induction, or to the physical examination, in order to contest the issue.” The difference was Gordon had no organized resistance around him, no model for his selfless stand. He did it alone, and the Heart Mountain resisters had his example as a guide.

Seeing the play performed in Seattle is  especially meaningful, at a theater just a few blocks from the federal courthouse where Gordon was first arraigned in 1942, and a few blocks more from the King County Jail where he served nine months. Hearing a stage voice announce the wartime exclusion order in terms of real Seattle territory – Roosevelt and N. 85th – made the history all too tangible for an audience that can visualize those streets today.

That federal courthouse was also the scene where Gordon in 1985 was given a chance to put the government on trial for withholding evidence that could have changed the outcome of his Supreme Court test case.

Being a Courageous Citizen on July 20th at the Town HallTo promote the return to Seattle of HOLD THESE TRUTHS, I was pleased to moderate a July 20 panel at Town Hall Seattle featuring Jeanne and three of the Sansei attorneys who gave their time to back Gordon and Fred Korematsu in their attempt to overturn their high court convictions in 1985.

moderator with four panelists on stage
(L to R) Frank Abe, Jeanne Sakata, Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga. Photo by Monica Kong.

Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga took us inside their legal strategy to refute the claim of military necessity used to justify the wartime incarceration. On the eve of the hearing, Kawakami described how the government offered Gordon a Presidential pardon in exchange for dropping the case; it was revealing of Gordon’s character that he rejected the offer, saying “We should be the ones pardoning the government.”

While preparing for the panel, I dug up an article I wrote for the Pacific Citizen in November 1985 that examined in detail the final written arguments in the “Clash of Legal Arguments in ‘Civil Liberties Case of the Century.’” It was remarkable that we could share our memories of being in the same place at the same time — Rod and Daniel representing Gordon, me covering the hearing as a reporter — and each of us feeling the weight of history being re-enacted in that courtroom.

See more pictures from the panel in this Facebook photo album. HOLD THESE TRUTHS runs through Sunday, August 16.

REVIEW: A jarring addition to new edition of “No-No Boy”

No-No Boy cover illustrationWhen the University of Washington Press republished one of its most enduring titles with a new cover and introduction, editor Alan Lau of the International Examiner’s Pacific Reader section asked me to critique the new edition, to report on whether the book still stands the test of time after nearly 60 years, and what it says to us now. What I found was a jarring and misguided addition made by the Press to John Okada’s text, in its otherwise fine new paperback edition.

Still the Great Japanese American Tragedy

No-No Boy by John Okada
the new University of Washington Press edition

reviewed by Frank Abe
special to the International Examiner, July 15-August 4, 2015

The appearance of the first new edition of John Okada’s No-No Boy in nearly 40 years offers the chance for re-evaluation of his work. As someone with a long connection with the novel, I find there’s much to like about the new edition – and one thing profoundly wrong.

After more than 100,000 copies in 13 printings, the University of Washington Press has republished this foundational work along with five others in its “Classics of Asian American Literature” series, with new covers and introductions.

First, the good. The new cover illustration reflects a lot of thought. I’ll miss the menace of the 1976 design by Bob Onodera of San Francisco, with the flags of the U.S. and Imperial Japan peering from the eyes of draft resister Ichiro Yamada’s surly face, partly because Bob based it on a photograph of myself taken the year before at the Asian American Theater Workshop. He designed the title with Army stencil font against a brown background that suggests the texture of a paper grocery bag of the kind used at Yamada grocery …

So here’s the problem with this new edition: At the end of the Preface, someone added the name “John Okada,” as if he had signed it as a statement from the author.

This attribution never existed in the original Tuttle hardcover overseen by Okada, or the CARP paperback reprint. It was not authorized by the Okada family. It interrupts the dream woven by Okada’s fiction, and violates Okada’s artistic intent. Read more …

page from newspaper

How happy ending in staged “NO-NO BOY” bowdlerizes Okada’s novel

Successfully adapting any work to the stage presents a challenge. The fact that it isn’t easy doesn’t justify violating the author’s intent.

Pan Asian Rep posterIn response to our commentary about the slapping of a happy ending on the staged version of No-No Boy that is still being pitched for a national tour by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater of New York, dramatist Ken Narasaki acknowledges in a recent Discover Nikkei blog that he couldn’t find a way to make the original ending work onstage. He also says we cannot criticize his ending without having seen the script.

John Okada’s No-No Boy is the great Japanese American tragedy. Much of its power stems from its open-ended conclusion that sends draft resister Ichiro Yamada into the darkness of postwar Japanese America, searching for answers not just for himself but for all those in his world.

The last scene of this stage adaptation reduces Okada’s epic vision to sentiment and schmaltz, so as to leave the audience with a comfortable feeling of tidy resolution, complete with callbacks to isolated lines from earlier in the novel to support an outcome never intended by Okada.

As Mr. Narasaki permits scrutiny of his adaptation only by those who have seen or read it, here then is the last scene. It is as we described it:

Lights shift:

Ichiro and Emi dance, slowly, close together.
Ichiro laughs.

EMI:  What’s so funny?

ICHIRO:  I don’t know. I was … enjoying this, you know? And then, a funny thought came into my head.

EMI:  What?

ICHIRO:  Nobody’s looking twice at us.

EMI:  They’re busy.

ICHIRO:  Yeah. I know. They’re livin’.

EMI:  You know, there’s something about this place.

ICHIRO:  There’s something here, huh? What is it?

EMI:   I don’t know.

Ma and Pa enter:

PA:  Maybe it is done. Maybe…

MA:  …you can hold your head high. Maybe…

Freddie enters.

FREDDIE :  …you can be proud of what you done. Maybe…

Taro enters.

TARO:  …because we were born here, we’re gonna have kids here.  Maybe…

Kumasaka-san enters.

KUMASAKA-SAN:  …you can finally understand. Maybe…

Kenji enters.

KENJI:  (to Ichiro)  …we’re just people. Maybe…

Mrs. Kanno enters.

MRS. KANNO:  …it doesn’t figure but that’s how it is:

Jun enters.

JUN: Ping!

ICHIRO:  …and I’m alive.

He kisses Emi.  She kisses him.

Slow fade to black.

The sight of Ichiro and Emi dancing occurs four-fifths of the way into the novel. Through the character of Emi, Okada suggests the chance for Ichiro of love and salvation. Emi is lonely and frustrated in her marriage, and takes Ichiro as a lover. Okada then frees up her marital status by having her absent husband ask for a divorce. Emi expresses a wish for Ichiro to take her dancing, and he impulsively takes her to a roadhouse south of Seattle. That’s the scene above. But here’s the rub: Okada places this second romantic interlude 40 pages and two chapters from the end of Ichiro’s journey.

Through his brilliant organization of the material, Okada states clearly his artistic intent. He refuses the idea of a happy ending for Ichiro. Emi and Ichiro go dancing, but it’s not enough to redeem the young resister. Newly released from “two years in camp and two years in prison,” Ichiro is far from ready to pursue his American dream. He needs time to sort out who he is and where he stands in the rearranged and distorted new landscape for Japanese America through which he has just passed. Love itself cannot cure all. As Ichiro might say, “the problem is bigger,” and with his ending Okada makes it clear it is something that Itchy will have to fight through for years to come.

Bringing Ma back from the dead to encourage Ichiro to “hold your head high” twists her words from their original meaning and changes her character. The line is from an early scene in which she recites from memory a letter from a fellow fanatic who relays news that Japan won the war, exhorting followers to “hold their heads high” in this delusion. Repeating it at the end as Ichiro and Emi cling to each other makes Ma appear approving or forgiving. She was neither; she killed herself because she was incapable of approval or forgiveness.

It is not a question of staging the original ending as written on the page; it’s a question of what you do to create “an entirely new solution” for ending the play on stage. The problem here is not the artistic difficulty of adaptation; it’s a problem of the artistic integrity of the result.

The hopeful, happy ending of the stage adaptation cheapens the work. It’s now mush. The power of Ichiro’s emotional journey is that he is unable or unwilling to settle for the easy answer; in this adaptation, he settles. In a 2009 essay, Mr. Narasaki acknowledges he changed Ichiro’s journey and the author’s intent, in order to coddle his audience:

“… audiences usually desire, if not require, some sense of resolution.  In this case, knowing what we know now, I think it’s possible to end this play on a note of hope, rather than despair…  How much change is sacrilege?  How much change constitutes a desecration?

“I suspect people will let us know.”

Sacrilege? Desecration? Reject this adaptation for what it is: a bowdlerizing of the work of John Okada.

The first ceremonial homecoming for the Heart Mountain resisters

Boys of Mtn View-San JoseFlashback Friday: Thanks to JK Yamamoto, former editor of the Hokubei Mainichi, for reminding us that it was on this date 23 years ago that we staged the first ceremonial homecoming for the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

Under the sponsorship of Prof. Wendy Ng at San Jose State University, the May 29, 1992 event was a special evening program for the national conference of the Association for Asian American Studies, held in the Studio Theater of Hugh Gillis Hall.

Boys of Mt View SJWe called it “The Boys of Mountain View – San Jose,” and what lent it the ceremonial feel was the readers’ theater script compiled by writer Frank Chin that threaded together the original writings of the resisters, the editorials in support of the resisters by Rocky Shimpo editor James Omura, and a warm narration provided by poet Lawson Inada. Omura, Frank Emi, Mits Koshiyama, Dave Kawamoto, and Gloria Kubota read their own words from the time, from the scripts in the music stands in front of them. For a bit of dramatics we staged part of the interrogation of Frank Emi by camp director Guy Robertson, with Emi’s words read by the current editor of the Nichi Bei Weekly, Kenji Taguma.

We shot the event with three cameras, thinking that cutting between them would provide the framework for a documentary about the resisters. But once we got the tape into the editing bay, we immediately saw the problem: all the readers were looking down at their scripts in the music stands, and making no contact with the audience. It just wasn’t visually compelling.

That began an eight-year journey to shoot new interviews and gather archival film and stills for what would eventually become Conscience and the Constitution. The San Jose State homecoming  was the first event we shot, and it turned out to provide the last shots in the finished film, with the applause from the audience and the recovery of their history providing an emotional lift to help cap our story.

While only a few moments from the evening survived in the final cut, you can get a feel for this first ceremonial  homecoming for the Heart Mountain resisters in the DVD outtake, “The Return of the Fair Play Committee.”

CONSCIENCE DVD part of new online teachers course

Densho Online CourseThe Densho online video archive is already a remarkable accomplishment: the filming, transcribing, archiving and posting of more than 1,600 hours of video interviews and over 12,000 historic photos, documents, and newspapers, all sharing the direct experience of incarceration in one of America’s concentration camps for Japanese Americans in World War II. The raw tapes of all 26 interviews we conducted for CONSCIENCE are archived there and available online, in what’s unavoidably dubbed the “Frank Abe Collection.”

Executive director Tom Ikeda and company have now taken their collection to the next level. After years of work they have synthesized the stories and images in their collection and organized them into a new online course, “Teaching WWII Japanese American Incarceration with Primary Sources.”

But there’s more. Among the benefits for completing the course and filling out an evaluation, teachers will receive a certification of completion to document professional development hours, and a copy of our new Two-Disc Collectors Edition DVD of CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, documenting the largest organized resistance to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

“The online course helps teachers create classroom activities to encourage students to closely examine and question what people say,” says Ikeda. “The men in Abe’s film questioned the government’s action to draft them from behind barbed wire, which led to their civil disobedience. We want teachers and students to see how thinking deeply about an issue can lead to action.”

Thanks to Densho for its longtime support of our project and for sharing our DVD with new teachers and students. The complete course takes about six hours to complete and it’s completely free, so sign up now.

Discovering my father was a no-no boy

chef George Heart MtnThis is the story of a rank-and-file supporter of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, one of the many never named who chipped in two hard-earned 1944 dollars to the defense fund for the young draft resisters.

His name was George Yoshisuke Abe, and yes, he was my father. Dad died in his sleep on April 1, his last laugh on all of us. He was 91.

Ht Mtn crew cropIn preparing for his service, I revisited a chronology he wrote some years ago, and was startled to discover something I’d completely overlooked: Dad was in fact a no-no boy.

This is what he wrote of the time he was handed the loyalty questionnaire in 1943.

At first I answered Yes, Yes to questions 27 and 28 but late after talk with Mr. Oda and Nisei friends I changed the answer to No, No and went to administration building to have it notarized. Before that Nisei girl officer in the office wrote explanation for reason of changing the answer in loyalty questionnaire. After notarized I hand the letter to hakujin officer in the same office. At that time I never realized the seriousness of Yes, Yes and No, No. I sure found out the consequence later.

About a month later Yes, Yes and No, No groups were separated. The Yes, Yes and the disloyal to U.S. about 1000 of them were shipped to different camp later known to be Tule Lake segregated camp in Calif. I went to see departure of Yes, Yes group [here he probably means the No-No group] because some of my friends were going. It was terrible scene to see. Loved ones and family being separated and tears were flowing everywhere. Out of segregated, some had change of heart and some were shipped to Japan.

Dad then wrote of the later JACL campaign to solicit volunteers for the Army as a demonstration of Nisei loyalty, and the reinstitution of the draft in early 1944.

Some volunteered.  Others resisted draft and taken to jail. There were talk of drinking soy sauce that made heart rate to go way up so that Army examiner will reject on ground of bad heart. Somehow the draft never came to me. I had already registered for draft before the evacuation in 1941 in County of Santa Clara draft board #111. I carried draft card with me so I wasn’t worried too much.

1948 portrait croppedIt’s regrettable the things one never thinks to ask until it’s too late. Why did he change his answer from yes-yes to no-no? Since he did register as no-no, why wasn’t he segregated to Tule Lake with the others? And since, on paper at least, he was 22 when Selective Service was reinstituted for the Nisei in 1944, why didn’t he get the call until  1947? He may not have known himself.

I can’t say that Dad’s personal wartime resistance was the reason for making CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, or for maintaining this blog. I’ve never drawn the direct connection. But it’s not hard to see how one’s origins shapes a person and motivates them.

He will, of course, be deeply missed. Goodbye, Dad, and thanks for everything.

“Stop the Fence at Tule Lake” lawsuit update

Tule Lake mapWe received this news update from leaders of the Tule Lake Committee, which  has filed suit to stop construction of a massive 8-foot high, 3-mile fence around the local airport that will cut off public access to the Tule Lake site.

“Besides being utterly unnecessary in such a desolate place, such a fence would desecrate the physical and spiritual aspects of Tule Lake, which has great historical and personal importance to me and many others,” says filmmaker and therapist Satsuki Ina in her petition on

The Herald and News of Klamath Falls, Oregon, recently reported on a March 19 meeting  on National Park Service planning for the overall site. In discussing what it calls the” knotty lawsuit,” the article quotes locals who support the fence without getting comment from Japanese American opponents.

Here, then, is the comment from fence opponents:

NEWS UPDATE: Thank you for your support of our action to stop the fence at Tule Lake.

We maintain that this $3.5 million dollar plan to erect a massive 3-mile long, 8-foot high perimeter fence around the Tulelake Airport, accompanied by a dozen related projects, will cause destruction to Tule Lake’s historic fabric and close most of the site to future visitation.

In American history, the Tule Lake concentration camp was the site of devastating offenses to our Constitution, the rule of law, and the right of due process. It is a place of mourning, a place where thousands of lives were destroyed. Rather than helping to heal the wounds of the wartime injustice, the proposed Tulelake airport expansion on this historic site continues to send an unfortunate message of exclusion.

Herald and News photo by Gerry O'Brien
Mike Reynolds, superintendent of Lava Beds National Monument and the Tule Lake Unit, WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, describes the size and scope of the Newell project to about 60 people March 19 at Tulelake High School — Herald and News photo by Gerry O’Brien

Under California law, Modoc County’s plan to extend an expiring 40-year land lease for another 30 years requires environmental review because Tule Lake is a California Historic Landmark. Attorneys for Modoc County believed they could waive compliance, leaving the Tule Lake Committee little recourse to filing a Writ of Mandamus so the courts could decide.

We are currently in pre-trial discussions.  Parties to the lawsuit include Modoc County, the City of Tulelake, the Macy’s crop dusting business, and the Tule Lake Committee.

In the meantime, if you haven’t yet signed the petition to Stop the Fence at Tule Lake, please consider doing so now. You’ll be joining nearly 26,000  signatories, most of whom signed thanks to the support of actor/activist George Takei on the basis of this one single tweet:

Here also is Mr. Takei’s personal testimony on the petition:

When I was but a small child, my family and I were forced at gunpoint from our home in Los Angeles and spent years in two internment camps, first in the swamplands of Arkansas, and then at Tule Lake. I have spent my life ensuring that we never forget, and never repeat, these mistakes of the past. This fence would prevent any visitors to the grounds of the former internment camp, include the infamous stockade. It would be a body blow to our efforts to keep this critical piece of American history, however blighted, from fading from our collective memory.

REVIEW: Frank Chin’s Great Chinese American Novel

Confessions coverThis 1970s-era novel by Frank Chin, published for the first time today by the University of Hawaii Press, predates his work with the Heart Mountain resisters who are the subject of this blog. But as a Friend of the Fair Play Committee, the surprise recovery and restoration of Frank’s unpublished first novel is a story as notable as his recovery of the buried history of the resisters.

For the occasion, I wrote a review of the book for International Examiner arts editor Alan Lau:

A first look at Frank Chin’s Great Chinese American Novel

The Confessions of a Number One Son by Frank Chin
edited with an introduction by Calvin McMillin

reviewed by Frank Abe
special to the International Examiner, April 1-April 14, 2015

newspaper coverThe emergence 40 years later of a tightly edited, slimmed-down version of a long-lost novel from the writer who first defined Asian American literature is an unexpected gift.

That’s because to read The Confessions of a Number One Son in 2015 is to peel back the decades and discover the creative foundation of the plays and later fiction of Frank Chin, in the moment before he became consumed with the polemics of separating the real from the fakery in the work of others.

In an early 1970s America where the postwar generation was just coming of age—where the world still celebrated the model minority, the Chinese Christian autobiographies of Betty Lee Sung and Pardee Lowe, and the movie stereotype of Charlie Chan—Frank Chin was putting a self-proclaimed Chinaman voice at the center of his stories. It was an act of self-invention he was perfecting in tandem with his better-known stage plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and Year of the Dragon.  Read more …

Chin review

Stage adaptation of “NO-NO BOY” violates John Okada’s novel

A headline first written by Frank Chin in 2010, “Don’t F**k With No-No Boy,” captures the insistence with which audiences should reject the recent stage adaptation of John Okada’s landmark novel No-No Boy.

Pan Asian titleA New York theater company is now pitching a national tour. with stops in the Midwest and West Coast, of an adaptation of No-No Boy that violates the art of John Okada by tacking on an artificially happy ending to his story.

After more than 100,000 copies sold in 17 printings over nearly 60 years, it is well-established that much of No-No Boy‘s power and authenticity lies in its furiously violent and tragic ending. Okada cuts to the bone. He holds nothing back, and most importantly he tries to please no one.

After “two years in camp and two years in prison,” draft resister Ichiro Yamada returns to find his Seattle hometown shattered and its people divided. Parents mourn sons lost in battle; veterans return maimed and succumb to their wounds; resisters are blamed and ostracized; a woman abandoned by her soldier husband finds comfort in Ichiro’s arms; his mother goes mad when forced to admit Japan lost the war and drowns herself. Having fun yet?

At the Club Oriental (a stand-in for  the Wah Mee Club in Seattle), Ichiro and fellow resister Freddie Akimoto raise their glasses in a toast to fallen friends when the angriest of the Nisei vets, a man called Bull, yanks Freddie off his stool and shoves him out to Maynard Alley. Ichiro tries to break it up and wrestles Bull to the ground, but driven by fear he slams his fist into Bull’s face and draws blood. Freddie kicks Bull in the gut, but the enraged man lurches up. Freddie jumps into his car to flee, but Bull pulls open the door. Freddie clubs him with a wrench and hits the gas, shooting onto a cross street where his car is instantly struck by another and flips into the air, throwing him halfway out the open door and nearly severing him in half upon crashing. Numb with shock, Bull asks Ichiro for a drink. Ichiro brings a bottle of whiskey and Bull grabs it and drinks:

“Agggggggghh,” he screamed and, with the brute strength that could only smash, hurled the whiskey bottle across the alley. Then he started to cry, not like a man in grief or a soldier in pain, but like a baby in loud, gasping, beseeching howls.

Ichiro walks slowly away from the scene, desperately searching in his mind for some kind of redemption for white racism, Pearl Harbor, and the war; the mass eviction and incarceration based solely on race; and the conscience that led to his own resistance, prison, and social ostracism.

In the stage adaptation now being shopped, this vicious climax is muted and the unsettled ending is omitted.

SPOILER ALERT: Instead, after a brief knife fight, Freddie escapes. Ichiro goes out dancing — a scene from earlier in the book, with Emi the abandoned wife and Ichiro alone on the dance floor, finding momentary acceptance in the indifference of the whites around them.  And as they hold each other close on the floor, all the characters from the play, including the ghosts of those departed, REENTER the stage to offer final words, of blessing and hope for the future. Ichiro and Emi kiss. They are going to live happily ever after, doggone it.

It’s a theatrical moment. It’s probably very moving in performance. It’s also schmaltz. And It’s very wrong.

Suggesting that Ichiro is capable of romance this early in his re-entry to this world is contrary to the internal evidence we have of Okada’s intent. A close reading of the text by Floyd Cheung and Bill E. Peterson of Smith College in the journal Centennial Review establishes that the social context of late 1940s America simply did not allow for a happy ending for Ichiro. Okada shows him walking away from the crowd around Freddie’s death. If we can divine anything about Okada’s intent, it is that “He remains an outsider,” and the ideological setting surrounding Japanese American men at this time “is not yet fertile enough for Ichiro to ground his identity within it.”

The problem with reading the end of No-No Boy with a strong sense of optimism, though, lies in the fact that … the ideological setting of postwar America provides impoverished imagoes from which to choose for Japanese American men. Neither the no-no boys nor the yes-yes boys are happy…  The social context of postwar Seattle influences whether individual stories of identity will have the tone and content of a comedy, tragedy, irony, romance, or some other story form.

To convey his vision of Japanese America after Pearl Harbor, the camps, combat, prison, and resettlement, Okada carefully constructs Ichiro’s social context to end with tragedy. To substitute romance at the end violates Okada’s story form.

This is not an issue we are eager to take up. The adaptation is done by Southern California actor and dramaturg Ken Narasaki, a former comrade from the halcyon days of Garrett Hongo’s seminal Asian Exclusion Act in Seattle in 1977.  We’ve both been inspired and mentored by writer Frank Chin, who had this exchange with Narasaki in 2010 on the original Santa Monica production of this script:

Narasaki offers his reasons for rewriting Okada’s end to No-No Boy, that amount to, he’s dead. I can do what I want with the dead — “We intended to show that in the end, there was hope for Ichiro … that he would discover love and life. I’m sorry you disagreed with the ending, but I continue to believe that if John Okada were alive, he wouldn’t be quite as harsh a critic, but of course, we’ll never know.”

It’s because we’ll never know, that we should not fuck with the end as written. Okada isn’t the same rewritten, and Narasaki knows he’s violated the work he claims inspired him. If Shakespeare had lived longer he might have rewritten a happy end for Romeo and Juliet instead of one dying after the other. Then again he might not. — Frank Chin

Chin followed a further exchange with this rebuttal: “What makes his claim offensive is he is sure that had Okada lived he would have written an ending more like Narasaki’s.”

We agree. John Okada isn’t here to defend his work. This impulse to eschew the darkness that is the power of No-No Boy, and replace it with sentiment to leave the audience happy, is as old as Hollywood itself — a place where Mr. Narasaki has a background in writing coverage of screenplays for film producers.

We’ve seen this impulse in others who’ve held an option on Okada’s book. One such ill-conceived film treatment added a full page of patriotic praise for the 442 at the funeral of the Nisei veteran Kenji and then, after Ma’s funeral, we see Emi returning to the Yamada grocery in a sporty car and inviting Ichiro to go for a ride. Instead of staggering away from a Chinatown alleyway lost and alone, this movie version of Ichiro offered his final upbeat line as something like, “Say, this might be a good day after all.”

As a forthcoming study of John Okada will show, he was certainly capable of comedy, satire, and upbeat endings. If he wanted No-No Boy to end on a happy note, he would have written it that way. The evidence we have on the page extends to claimed representations of his work on the stage and the screen. Accept no substitutes.

UPDATE: This essay was reprinted April 29, 2015, on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei blog, where Mr. Narasaki also provides a response. Read our rebuttal, published here on June 26.

PBS film and two hours of new bonus features on the largest organized resistance to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans