BERKELEY, Calif. — Japanese American Bay Area magician David Hirata sought to tell a story about magic, racism and Japanese in America. He instead, however, attracting ire over the use of a slur in the title of his show, decided to change the title. The Marsh Berkeley announced the name change Nov. 14.
In the show, Hirata “tells the extraordinary story of magician Namigoro Sumidagawa, who traveled America in 1866.”
Originally premiering in the Bay Area Oct. 26 as “The Jap Box” at the Berkeley theater, Hirata renamed his magic act to “A Box Without A Bottom: Soko-nashi Bako,” the original Japanese name for a magician’s prop that had been appropriated by American magicians in the late 19th century. Hirata said he decided to change the title Nov. 8 after a series of discussions with Japanese American community members, including the Japanese American Citizens League.
He apologized, expressing his regret for hurting Japanese American community members. Hirata said he had initially discussed the title with friends and family, and met positive reviews when he premiered the show in San Diego last year.
The higher-profile run at The Marsh, however, led the magician to realize he had “underestimated the raw pain of the ‘J’ word. The title itself provides insufficient context to justify its use,” he said in an apology on The Marsh’s Website.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Weisman, founder and artistic director of The Marsh, also apologized on the theater’s Website, stating, “We are profoundly apologetic for not immediately understanding how deeply affected many Japanese Americans were by the use of what was a vicious slur in the original title of David’s work. Once we were made aware of this issue, we worked with David to rectify the situation immediately. We have tremendous gratitude to all the community members who took the time to bring to our attention how hurtful it was to see this epithet and thank everyone for helping to enlighten us.”
Prior to changing the show’s name, Hirata thought about the reasoning behind why he featured the ethnic slur in the title. The titular magician’s prop got its racist name sometime in the late 19th century and continued to be used throughout the 20th century.
“I think the persistence of terms like that … has to do with the fact that in magic, the classical textbooks that you use to learn the foundation principles of the craft, most of them were written in the 1920s and ‘30s,” he said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. “These things don’t get rewritten and … so the language of magic from these earlier periods has been kind of engraved in stone.”
Hirata said other magicians “dance around” the controversial name for the prop and its use has largely fallen out of favor today.
While Hirata had initially premiered his show more than a year ago to positive reviews, he told the Nichi Bei Weekly the current show had a much larger reach.
“The Marsh, is a 30 years-established San Francisco producer of theater with the clout to get the title of the show on page one of the Datebook in the San Francisco Chronicle. So the reach of the show and its title is much greater,” he said. “(Criticism) was not a complete surprise. I guess … I had gotten used to the pattern up to that point, but it was not wholly unexpected.”
Local activists such as John Ota read the Chronicle coverage of Hirata’s show and were incensed that the title was put into print “without context.” Though Hirata had felt proper consideration was given to contextualize the title in his show’s promotional poster, coverage for the show and some promotional images released by The Marsh neglected to include them.
Ota took to posting on Facebook, asking his friends to write to Hirata and The Marsh to condemn the show’s title.
“I strongly object, because I think it normalizes the use of that racial slur, which has a very long and ugly history in our community,” Ota said. “It helped in the campaign to incarcerate people on a mass scale during World War II. It was also used in the movement which resulted in the exclusion of Japanese immigration to the United States. It was also kind of the rallying cry a lot of anti-Japanese violence that had occurred throughout our history.”
Karen Kiyo Lowhurst attended the Nov. 9 showing with two other members of the Berkeley chapter of the JACL, and the chapter sent The Marsh and Hirata a letter protesting the title dated Nov. 11. She told the Nichi Bei Weekly she was initially horrified to learn the title of the show.
“A friend of mine — a non-Japanese friend — who is an actor, thought that, because I’m Japanese American, I would be very interested in the show,” she said. “Of course, I would be, but when I saw the title, I was sort of horrified. And I was also horrified that he would just send it to me without saying anything to acknowledge the power of that word.”
Following the apology, both Lowhurst and Ota expressed their appreciation over Hirata’s willingness to apologize.
Concern over the title also grew when David Inoue, executive director of the JACL, called Hirata Nov. 8 to request he change the title. Inoue also felt the title needlessly normalized the slur. Inoue said he felt Hirata’s apology was genuine and that he had taken the Japanese American community’s concerns to heart.
“So there were obviously questions. Is this being done to be provocative or trying to get some publicity out of this? And in speaking with David, that didn’t seem to be the goal at all,” Inoue said. “I think that for him, it was a good opportunity for him to hear from many of us in the community. And I think a lot of us spoke from our own personal experience of having heard the word and the pain that it caused. I think that really touched him and made him realize that, it’s the not just the word. There is this additional meaning to it that he wasn’t fully acknowledging or recognizing.”
Hirata thanked the Japanese American community for engaging him in discussion. Though he initially contemplated whether the outrage was just a vocal minority, he said he realized what was important was to address the hurt he caused.
“No community is homogenous, but that portion that is hurt by it, they’re the voices that mattered to me,” Hirata said.
“The Box Without a Bottom: Soko-Nashi Bako” runs through Dec. 1 at The Marsh Berkeley at 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, Calif. on Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Limited $5 discount tickets available with coupon code “JACL19” while supplies last, $10 tickets available with coupon code “BAKO10.” $25 regular price. Tickets are available at https://themarsh.org/performers/david_hirata/box-without-a-bottom/#buy-tickets or by phone, (415) 282-3055, additional fees may apply.