(Editor’s note: The following piece was written for the Day of Remembrance program held on Feb. 25 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.)
It’s safe to say my experience as a son of a no-no boy has evolved over time. As kids, my brothers and I often heard cryptic references to this thing called “camp.” I remember wondering: Was this some kind of summer camp or something? We didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell. And that’s the way it was.
In my teenage years in the ’70s, my dad, Nisei poet and playwright Hiroshi Kashiwagi, was one of a few Nisei in San Francisco who was actually out there talking about camp. Because most Nisei at that time just wanted to bury everything about camp underground, and move on. But not my dad. He was angry, and he was speaking out.
The one thing I don’t remember my dad ever talking about, however, was the fact that he was a Tule Lake “no-no boy.” Not in public. Not at home. It was one of those dark family secrets, locked away in a closet, never to be opened.
When I was in high school and college, I wrote newspaper articles about the heroic and amazing all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion. At the time, I remember looking at my dad, and wondered why he wasn’t part of this famed group of Nisei soldiers. To his credit, though, he never had a negative thing to say about what I was doing or the story I was telling, nor did he try to tell me his side of the story.
I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell. Because that’s the way it was.
In my 20s I moved down to L.A., and became more aware of the conflict between those who said “yes-yes” and those who either said “no-no” or were draft resisters. Rafu Shimpo columnist Horse Yoshinaga and Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee leader Frank Emi had an epic battle play out in The Rafu for weeks, both arguing their positions, and pointing out how wrong each other was.
Things turned ugly when Horse started calling all those who resisted the draft or said “no-no” to the loyalty questions “troublemakers” or “disloyals” and basically questioned their courage for refusing to serve.
Seeing this told me that this conflict and the community climate were still hot and heated, even though 50 years had passed since the end of the war. I learned that it was part of a post-war narrative that had been created by leaders of the wartime JACL, and those who said “yes-yes” to the questions. There were two types of Japanese Americans: the good JAs were hailed as heroes and rightly so; the bad JAs, however, were branded as disloyal troublemakers, ostracized from our community — or they were simply ignored and left out of our historical narrative, as if they didn’t exist. and that’s the way it was.
In 2001, we started our theater group, the Grateful Crane Ensemble, and when someone asked me if I would write a play about the “no-no’s,” I said no, it was still too hot of a subject, and I didn’t want to touch it.
It wasn’t until after attending my first Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 2006 when things started to change for me. At that pilgrimage, I listened to no-no’s like Bill Nishimura tell their stories. My own dad said he was always loyal to America and would have proudly fought for his country — if his country released him from camp and gave him his rights and freedom back. “How dare you put me in camp and then question my loyalty,” he said. “I am already a loyal American. I don’t need to prove it to you or anyone else.”
And there it was: the truth. This is why my dad said “no-no” to the questions. He wasn’t a disloyal, a coward or the no-good troublemaker he had been made out to be. No. In the American tradition of dissent and protest, he said no and no to those questions, and he had every right as a citizen to do so. And as his son, I saw my dad in a brand new light, and realized i could stand with him and his position all day and every day of the week.
In 2010, I went on to produce my dad’s play called “The Betrayed” at JANM which depicted both sides of the conflict as seen through the eyes of a Nisei couple who were torn apart in camp. Let me tell you: not everyone was happy we were doing a “no-no” play.
But by then, I knew his story, and wanted to tell it, come what may. My new mindset was no longer one of shame and unease, and it was elevated even further when I randomly googled the word “troublemaker” and came across a website of “famous troublemakers.” And among several, there were photos of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton.
The word “troublemaker” — once so negative and shameful — had taken on a whole new meaning for me. And then I found this quote, from Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who said: “If a government violates the very rights it is supposed to protect, then it is the duty of the governed to rebel.”
That’s what my father was doing at Tule Lake in 1943. That’s what our African American brothers and sisters were doing at Selma, Alabama in 1965. And that’s what millions of americans are doing right now in 2017.
By standing up as unpaid protestors, we are rebelling against the current administration’s attacks on our core values, and are doing our duty as American citizens. It is who we are. It is who I am. And that, my friends, is the way it is.
Soji Kashiwagi is a San Francisco native who has been serving as executive producer of the Grateful Crane Ensemble since its founding in 2001. As a playwright, he has written “The Grapevine,” “The Camp Dance: The Music and the Memories,” “Nihonmachi: The Place to Be,” “The J-Town Jazz Club” and several other Grateful Crane shows. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.
So eloquently written, so well put… can we put this conflict behind us?