Category Archives: Hiroshi Kashiwagi

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.

“NO-NO BOY” and “JOHN OKADA” in NY Times and American Book Awards

You’d never expect John Okada and the entire literature of Japanese American incarceration to be featured in the Style magazine of the New York Times … but thanks to the passionate interest of Thessaly La Force, features director for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, her deeply felt essay is now online. It will appear in print in the Sunday Times edition on November 17th.T: The New York Times Style Magazine

Many thanks to Thessaly for reaching out to Shawn Wong and myself to learn more about this history, and the life and work of John Okada in particular. The literature of Japanese American incarceration is a field that JOHN OKADA co-editor Floyd Cheung and I are researching for a new anthology scheduled for 2021.

Floyd was not present, but Greg Robinson and I were, when our volume on John Okada was honored Friday with an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

American Book Award recipients onstage

Here are my prepared remarks for the acceptance:

I need to take a moment to acknowledge the passage of a previous winner of the American Book Award.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi was a real “no-no boy.” He refused the government’s loyalty questionnaire while in an American concentration camp. He fought to rescind his renunciation of American citizenship signed under the duress of incarceration. Hiroshi passed away earlier this week, at his home in Berkeley. He planned to be here today. He and his voice will be missed.

Frank Abe with Greg RobinsonJohn Okada wrote of another resister like Hiroshi in the celebrated novel, No-No Boy – a book ignored when first published in 1957 and recovered here in the Bay Area in 1974. That act resonates so strongly with this recognition today.

It was the 1970s when Frank Chin, Jeff Chan, Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong formed CARP, the Combined Asian American Resources Project. They found a copy of No-No Boy in a used bookshop and included a chapter in their groundbreaking anthology of Asian American writing, with the provocative title of Aiiieeeee!

Aiiieeeee! 1974 coverAiiieeeee! was my own awakening, for it presented the simple idea that Asian America meant not just Asian and not just American – not just the best of the east and the best of the west – but a third thing, with its own voice and sensibility. Forty-five years ago that was a radical new idea.

Aiiieeeee! would not have been possible without its publication in 1974 by Howard University Press, the first black university press in the country, and backing from its chief executive, the late Charles Harris. The following year another chapter of No-No Boy was included in the third issue of Yardbird Reader, thanks to its publisher, Ishmael Reed. And with the public reaction to these excerpts, CARP republished the novel in its entirety.

No-No Boy became a foundational work in the emerging field of Asian American Studies. It joined a broader movement to diversify our notion of American literature that included establishment of the Before Columbus Foundation itself.

Forty-five years ago was also when I first arrived in San Francisco as a wide-eyed, know-nothing kid from the South Bay, to join Frank Chin’s Asian American Theater Workshop at the American Conservatory Theater – and I need to thank Ishmael for being so kind and tolerant of me at the time. It was a time of continual discovery and great possibilities, and at the center of it, for me, was this great novel that gave voice to a Japanese American vernacular none of us had seen or heard before.

The afterword to the CARP edition was an essay by Frank with the few scraps of information he could gather about the novelist, called “In Search of John Okada.” It ignited in me a desire to learn all I could about this author and his urge to write The Great Nisei Novel about a Japanese American draft resister. That search led to our book, which includes a much-needed  biography of Okada and recovery of his unknown works. I want to thank the University of Washington Press for supporting our vision, editors Larin McLaughlin and Mike Baccam, and Aiiieeeee! 45th anniversary edition coverproduction manager Margaret Sullivan.

And to close the loop: UW Press has just reissued Aiiieeeee! in a 45th anniversary edition.

As our co-editor Floyd Cheung would say if he were here: If the Before Columbus Foundation were around when No-No Boy was first published, we imagine Okada himself would have won an American Book Award.

So it’s with great humility that we accept this honor as a kind of posthumous prize for John Okada. Thank you all very much.

The event was recorded in its entirety by C-SPAN2 for “Book TV,” and was  cablecast on Saturday night, November 9, at 8:00 pm  Pacific Time.  Here is a link to see the acceptance speeches from Frank Abe and Greg Robinson, and a link to see the entire two-and-a half hour program, including Genny Lim’s reading from the novel in her introduction of us.

Frank Abe at American Book Awards