In Memoriam: Hiroshi Kashiwagi — poet, playwright, no-no, and renunciant

Hiroshi with Frank AbeHiroshi Kashiwagi once confided that when he was young he felt his real calling was as an actor. He had the soul of a poet, modest and soft-spoken, until he got on stage. Then he could command a voice that was measured and determined, almost Shakespearean in tone. He held a strong sense of right and wrong, and pushed himself to write and to study public speaking in order to be heard.

artwork for “The Valiant” in McClure’s Magazine

The child of sharecroppers, he was more likely to dress in cardigan sweaters. When incarcerated at 19 in Tule Lake, he was pleased to discover “The Little Theater” group and sent for the script of a piece called “The Valiant” so he could have the lead role of a condemned prisoner. His friends came to the performances to see him smoke a cigarette onstage.

In camp he was a participant-observer, someone who kept to himself while seeing through the personalities of others, someone who took action only when pressed. His shyness on the surface belied a toughness underneath. He could be angered to the point of rage when treated with less than respect.

The Little Theater was broken up over the government demand for registration. Hiroshi refused to register. He may have best expressed his reasoning through a character in his play, “The Betrayed:”

Hiroshi Kashiwagi in Tule Lake“Why do we have to prove ourselves over and over again? Aren’t we good enough the way we are? I’m sick of saying yes, to everything. Yes, I’ll go to camp. Yes, I’ll register. Yes, I’ll declare my loyalty … I’m proving my loyalty by fighting for my rights.”

When Congress later offered Tuleans the chance to renounce their U.S. citizenship under the duress of incarceration and segregation, his mother feared release back to a hostile world outside and the family renounced together as a means of staying in camp, along with 5,000 others. Hiroshi quickly realized it was “a really dumb thing to do,” and fought to rescind his renunciation. He was among those who recruited attorney Wayne Collins to represent them. He helped raise money for the Tule Lake Defense Committee.

Hiroshi was the first person I knew to have the courage to go public as a former Tulean. I met him at a forum held in the 1970s by the Center for Japanese American Studies, at the old Pine United Methodist Church in the outer Richmond District. He wrote throughout the decades, earning even wider recognition for his works late in life.

When Tamiko Nimura and I were commissioned by the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle to write a graphic novel about camp resistance, there was no question that we’d feature Hiroshi, her uncle by marriage, as one of our three main characters. He gracefully put up with my detailed questions over the past two years, so that we could dramatize his story as closely as we could.

I was looking forward to taking Hiroshi and Sadako to dinner last week, near their new home in Berkeley. He was a previous winner of an American Book Award, and planned to attend the ceremonies with me the following day. But Tamiko called with the news that Hiroshi had passed away at breakfast on Oct. 29, days short of his 97th birthday today.

cover of Nichi Bei WeeklyPatricia Wakida has published this warm remembrance of Hiroshi’s life in the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Hiroshi and his voice will be missed. We will honor his life by telling his story in the graphic novel We Hereby Refuse, forthcoming from the Wing Luke Museum/Chin Music Press sometime next year.

His memorial service is set for Saturday, November 23 , 11:00 am, at the San Francisco Buddhist Church, 1881 Pine Street, San Francisco, CA 94109. Donations and memorials can be sent payable to “The Kashiwagi Family” in care of the SFBC.

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