By Hiroshi Kashiwagi
(San Mateo, Calif.: Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc., 2010, 98 pp., $12 paperback)
For more than half a century now, Hiroshi Kashiwagi has been quietly building himself an eclectic and accomplished artistic career as a poet, playwright and performer. With the recent publication of his first collection of poetry, “Ocean Beach,” Kashiwagi takes his place on yet another stage with Nisei writers like John Okada, Hisaye Yamamoto, Wakako Yamaguchi and Toshio Mori — indeed, the very foundations of Japanese American literature.
Kashiwagi, 89, is also known as one of the most vocal and socially committed of the “No-No Boys,” the inmates who refused the infamous loyalty oath administered by the U.S. government during the World War II American concentration camps. Since the war years, the writer and performer has pursued numerous projects — including his play, “The Betrayed,” his autobiographical, multi-generic work “Swimming in the American” — committed to examining the difficult conditions and painful choices made during the camps.
In “Ocean Beach,” Kashiwagi continues his investigations into memory, history, racism, and the plight of the Nikkei identities and communities trapped between the two modern empires of the Pacific. Poems like “Dec. 1941” capture the dissonance between official histories and the experiences of those who lived through these moments in time. “Radio Station KOBY in Medford, Oregon,” named after one of two radio stations that Tule Luke radios could receive, loops together strands of personal pain with historical memory to explore the lingering traumas of the camps.
But equally remarkable is the alternative vision of history that Kashiwagi explores as he reflects upon his painful experiences during the war. In “A Meeting at Tule Luke,” a poem written 30 years after the war, he writes: “Whatever we did here/the commitments we made…it was right! Because the young people/ make it so/because they seek the history/from those of us who lived it.”
In placing his faith in the young, Kashiwagi attempts to envision a Japanese American experience no longer imprisoned by the camps, one where the generations to come will redeem the tragedies of the past by seeking the “history” from their elders, or “those of us who lived it.”
But Kashiwagi’s collection is also a poetic testament of an artist that came of age giving voice to what he went through as the world around him changed. Touching on subjects ranging from nature and impermanence, masculinity and sex, fragments of memories to tributes to family and friends, the reader gets a sense of Kashiwagi’s distinct perspective and poetic style. Many of the poems are funny; others are philosophical. Almost all of his pieces are personal in nature, particular in their sense of place. The book, after all, takes it’s title from the San Francisco beach down the street from which Kashiwagi has lived with his wife and family for 43 years:
“I like/ the smell/ when I get off/ the bus/like the taste of/ octopus/of course/it’s the sea/and I know/I’m home.”
But even from the edge of the sea, Kashiwagi’s voice is big enough to resonate across a wide audience and on a common ground of history. Nikkei or not, readers to come will be thankful for Kashiwagi’s continuing contribution to American writing.