THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: On corresponding with the late playwright and activist Hiroshi Kashiwagi

bioline_Greg RobinsonNov. 8, 2022 marks the 100th birthday of the late Hiroshi Kashiwagi. A playwright, poet, actor, storyteller and activist, he shined in diverse fields of endeavor, and was one of the outstanding members of the Bay Area Japanese American community. Thanks to the recent graphic history, “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration,” by Frank Abe and Tamiko Niimura (Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s niece), with artwork by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki, we now know more about the shattering experience that he and his family went through following Executive Order 9066, notably during the time that they were confined at Tule Lake. Unlike the mass of subjects whom I write about, he could not exactly be described as “unknown,” but I would still argue that his life and work deserve to be much more studied. Thus, today’s column is devoted to some of my personal reflections on him. Even though I did not get to know him well, I felt his influence and was a beneficiary of his support.

I first became aware of Hiroshi more than 20 years ago, when I saw “Rabbit in the Moon,” the now-classic documentary by Chizu and Emiko Omori. In interviews in the film, he told of the harrowing experience that his mother underwent following Executive Order 9066. Suffering from dental problems, she consulted a sadistic Japanese American dentist in Sacramento, Calif. who insisted that he could not perform dental work on her because of the official curfew orders against Issei, and instead insisted on pulling all her teeth. I was moved by such powerful testimony, though I did not realize that the witness was also a creative artist.

I then heard repeatedly over the next years about the writer Hiroshi Kashiwagi (and his son, playwright Soji Kashiwagi), and the name floated vaguely around my consciousness, but it was my dear friend Effie Lee Morris Jones who really made me aware of him. Effie Lee was a pioneering children’s librarian who had been “the first African American woman” to do a long list of accomplishments. She told me of Kashiwagi, with whom she had worked for an extended period at the Western Addition branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and her admiration for “Mr. Kashiwagi” as both a writer and a librarian. I said that I hoped to meet him some day.

It was in fall 2008, following publication of my book “Miné Okubo: Following her Own Road,” on the Nisei artist and writer, that the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League invited me to give a talk about Okubo’s career. Effie Lee kindly attended the event. After it was done, as I was chatting with various attendees, I saw that she was in animated conversation with an older man. The two of them came over and Effie Lee presented the man to me, “This is Hiroshi Kashiwagi.” I told him that I was honored to meet him. He responded that he had come to the event because he wanted to meet me. He was a fan of my book “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and had just cited it in a Day of Remembrance speech he had given. He generously offered to give me a copy of his memoir “Swimming in the American: A Memoir And Selected Writings.” I naturally said that I would be delighted to have it, and gave him my card with my address, but did not think more about it.

Some weeks later, I received a package with the memoir and also a book of his plays, both autographed. I quickly sent a thank-you note, but for whatever reason there was a problem with the address I used, and my letter was returned in the mail. It was not until a year or more afterward that I learned his e-mail address, and wrote to him there. Although I was embarrassed over the delay, I told him that at least I had had the chance to read the books, and I included my appreciation of them. He responded kindly and indicated that I could call him Hiroshi (I did so thereafter when writing to him, though when we were face-to-face I still called him “Mr. Kashiwagi” in deference to his age and renown).

Our exchange was the start of a sparse but valuable (at least to me) correspondence. I shared with him some copies of writings of his that appeared in the Pacific Citizen in the early postwar period, plus mentions of him that I had seen in my study of the family correspondence of the writer/artists Yasuo and Lily Sasaki. He kindly shared information with me, including some of his unpublished writings. In 2012 I wrote a column on the writer Mary Oyama Mittwer, who had been a mentor for Kashiwagi. At my request, Hiroshi provided me and Patricia Wakida with some memories of the Nisei Experimental writing group for whom Mittwer had been a patron, and once my piece was published, he wrote me a nice note about how much he enjoyed my column. Similarly, the next year I wrote a column about Soon-Tek Oh’s 1970 play “Tondemonai,” the first full-length, commercially-produced drama on the Japanese American wartime incarceration. I knew that Hiroshi had written a one-act play, “Laughter and False Teeth,” based on his mother’s horrific wartime experience that had been staged by amateurs in Berkeley, Calif. and San Francisco in 1954. I called him to ask about that initial production. Hiroshi kindly discussed with me his recollections of it, which I included in the column.

My column had a gratifying sequel. Shortly after, I went to San Francisco to attend the 2014 annual meeting of the Association of Asian American Studies. I saw from the conference program that Hiroshi was giving a poetry reading, so I went over to hear it. There was a large crowd already present in the reading room when I got there. Hiroshi gave a stirring performance, most notably of his poem about Tule Lake, “Radio Station KOBY in Medford, Oregon.” It was the first time I had actually seen him perform live, and I had to remind myself that this adept performer was by then over 90 years old. I congratulated him briefly afterwards, then went off to appear on my own panel. Professor Josephine Lee had invited me to join a session on the history of Asian American theater, for which I had prepared a more elaborate version of my article on “Tondemonai.” I was stunned and gratified to see Hiroshi in the audience. When I delivered my paper, I noted to the audience that Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s “Laughter and False Teeth” had been the very first play about the Japanese American wartime incarceration to be performed, and that we were immensely honored by the presence of its author among us. As the crowd broke into warm applause, Hiroshi’s face flushed to its roots. He stood and took a little bow in response. I was glad to be able to offer him such homage.

I had more sporadic contact with Hiroshi after that, but he continued to find ways to show his support for my work. He attended a reading I did for my book “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches” in 2016, and wrote me his wise observations on the text. He encouraged people with interesting family stories, such as Yuri Miyagawa, to consult me. By that time, I was working with my friends Frank Abe and Floyd Cheung on John Okada, a study of the legendary author of the 1957 novel “No-No Boy” that featured a set of Okada’s unknown writings. Frank told me that Hiroshi had expressed his support for the project and his wishes for its success.

When the book won an American Book Award in the fall of 2019, Hiroshi sent congratulations and announced that he would attend the award ceremony. I was deeply touched by this generous expression of support. Not only was Hiroshi an elder statesman of Japanese American literature — he was even older than John Okada, the “great forerunner,” and a one-time American Book Award winner himself — but he was also 96 years old and less mobile than in former times. More than that, I thought it would be great to see him, and help him celebrate his 97th birthday. Alas, Hiroshi died just a few days before the event, and I never had the chance to meet up with him.
Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s reputation will rest primarily on his poems and plays and performances, and rightly so. Still, the man behind the work was equally impressive. Because of his guidance, I absorbed some important lessons about dedication to craft, and also about sharing information and supporting younger scholars.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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