BERKELEY — A one-man show originally titled “The Jap Box” has a new title due to objections from the Japanese American community.
Written and performed by David Hirata, the show — now known as “A Box Without a Bottom: Soko-nashi Bako” — opened Oct. 26 and closes Dec. 1 at The Marsh Berkeley.
Hirata gives the following explanation of the show: In 1866, magician Namigoro Sumidagawa became the first Japanese citizen in over 200 years to receive a passport to leave the country. As part of the “Imperial Japanese Troupe,” he dazzled audiences across Victorian America wth his exotic stage magic and became a media celebrity. By the time he returned home, his prize trick, Soko-nashi Bako, had been appropriated by American magicians in yellowface and rechristened as the “Jap Box.” A century later, Hirata excavates the mysteries and stories of the Soko-nashi Bako. Through monologue and magic, he unveils illusions and surprises from the Japanese American story.
Hailed as “a master of deceit” (KRON 4 TV), Hirata has amazed audiences throughout the Bay Area with theatrical magic creations at the Exploratorium, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Oakland Museum, and many private events. Previous shows include “Kanji by Starlight” at The Marsh and “American Wizards” at the California Magic Dinner Theater. “A Box Without a Bottom” premiered at the 2018 San Diego International Fringe Festival, where it won the award for “Outstanding World Premiere Production.”
Hirata addressed the name change: “When I considered ‘The J*p Box’ as a title, I felt that I had vetted its use properly. I had several conversations with family members, some of whom had lived through internment during WWII, as well as Japanese American audience members at the show’s initial run at the San Diego International Fringe Festival in 2018. The reaction to the show was uniformly positive, and it seemed that the artistic considerations of the title justified its use.
“Subsequent discussions with the Japanese American community here in the Bay Area have led me to realize that I have underestimated the raw pain of the ‘J’ word. The title itself provides insufficient context to justify its use. I deeply regret the pain caused by my mistake.
“I’m grateful to all those who reached out to me to discuss this issue and have been happy to listen and learn. As with all artistic decisions, the conversation about this change has been interesting (and remarkably civil), and I hope that this living dialogue can continue.”
In a Nov. 11 letter to Hirata and Stephanie Weisman, executive director and board member of The Marsh, the board of the Berkeley JACL said that they were “deeply offended” by the show’s original title. The letter continues:
“It revives a hateful racist slur that causes deep pain for us and recalls a tragic period within the living memory of our community, when 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes during WWII because of racial hatred, war hysteria and greed. We were put behind barbed wire and guarded by armed sentries for years.
“Some 1,300 Berkeley citizens and immigrants, including members of our chapter and the parents and grandparents of board members, were rounded up and moved by the military to the Tanforan Racetrack from the First Congregational Church, one half-mile from your theater. There, they were placed in horse stalls before being moved 800 miles to the Topaz concentration camp in Utah.
“These Berkleyans lost their businesses, homes, life savings, their basic human dignity. Their education was interrupted, their friendships and community relationships were halted.
“The word ‘Jap’ is at the epicenter of this experience because it was used not only as a racist epithet by strangers, but in newspapers and by the government itself during this horrific time.
“By marketing this performance, printing programs, selling tickets online, and posting a sandwich-board sign in front of the Marsh theater with this slur, you normalize it. In an age when swastikas and nooses are revived among white nationalists, it now joins the permanent digital traces on the Internet along with ‘Japs Keep Moving — This Is a White Man’s Neighborhood’ (1923), ‘A Jap’s a Jap’ (Gen. John L. DeWitt, 1943) and the ‘Jap hunting license’ (WWII).
“The normalization of this vicious term signals a disturbing lack of regard for our history and our community.
“Three members of the board saw the show Saturday night. We met with David Hirata afterward and had a discussion with him about the title. He explained his intent in suing what he considers a historical term — the racist renaming of what was originally the ‘bottomless box’ (soko nashi bako) by its originator, the accomplished late-19th-centruy Japanese magician Namigoro Sumidagawa, who toured the U.S. in the late 1800s. A white magician later appropriated the signature magic box and tricks, changed its name to ‘The Jap Box’ and performed the show in yellowface.
“We appreciated Mr. Hirata’s sincerity and willingness to listen. We suggested that his mesmerizing performance, his lifelong interest in magic and the story of how his identity as a Japanese American became intertwined with a Japanese magician’s object represents an opportunity to further interrogate his family and community history.
“We also suggested that he take this opportunity to better understand why the title he chose is painful and a dangerous revival of a deadly term. His family history includes his father being held in the notorious military stockade at the Tule Lake Segregation Center and an uncle who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“David Hirata also spoke about this issue with the executive director of the JACL, David Inoue, last week. We are aware of other outraged Japanese Americans who have contacted the theater to protest this title, some of whom received no response. We are heartened by Mr. Hirata’s statement that he plans to change the name of the show.
“We fully understand and appreciate that art can and should raise difficult issues and make us uncomfortable — that’s not what this is. The cavalier use of the word ‘Jap’ in the title of this production, without historical context, signals a disturbing lack of concern for the trauma of a group of people and normalizes a tragedy that, now of all times, should be highlighted as a serious cautionary tale.
“As Japanese Americans, residents of Berkeley, defenders of civil rights and supporters of the arts, we look forward to prompt action by The Marsh to begin to repair this harm.”
There was also extensive correspondence between Hirata and John Ota, a Bay Area activist who has been involved in redress and other civil rights campaigns. An excerpt follows.
Ota: “The use of the racial slur in the title of your work is irresponsible because it normalizes hateful racial slurs in a time of rapidly rising race bigotry and hate groups, fueled by Trump’s racist signals. The fact that you are JA makes it worse in some way. If you can get away with using this slur, it makes it harder for us to object to racists using the term.”
Hirata: “First, I apologize for the hurt I’ve caused you by the use of the term. Choosing the title for the piece was not a decision I made lightly. By presenting the history of this prop, and using it as a symbol, I wanted to put Japanese American history and the issue of racial tolerance in a new light. After conversations with Japanese Americans of my and my parents’ generation, I felt that the artistic purpose of the piece was served by the title, and I accept responsibility for that choice.
“In part, I felt that people would understand the nuance of language and context. The title both specifically references a particular object, and metaphorically references the ‘boxes’ (and some quite literal) that are put on and around groups of people. The show in no way excuses the use of the term in this day and age, any more than Flannery O’Connor’s story ‘The Artificial Nigger’ excuses the use of that slur.
“But there is the old saying about good intentions and the road to hell. I also knew that the show and its title would be exposed to many people who would never see the show and understand the title in context of the show — that’s the reality of media and the Internet.
“During the show’s development, Japanese American audience members responded enthusiastically to the piece in San Diego and San Francisco, but the higher profile of the show in the Berkeley run has brought me your message, and several other similar ones. “At this time, I do not know what the future of the show will be after the run in Berkeley. It may never again be produced, or I may produce it under the same or a different title. The conversations I have with audience members and people like you who reach out as you have will affect that decision. So I thank you for your frank and reasoned message.”
In an opinion piece for Berkeleyside, Karen Kiyo Lowhurst, a Yonsei, Berkeley resident and deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice, wrote:
“I was one of three JACL board members who attended the play. Turns out, Hirata knows quite a bit about Japanese American history. He agreed to meet with us after the show. It became clear that Hirata, like many Japanese Americans, did not hear much from his second-generation family about the impact of the incarceration. This is typical because it was too painful and shameful to discuss.
“Hirata also shared that he spent most of his childhood without a larger Japanese American community, on the East Coast and in Colorado. He heard our concerns with respect and an open mind. He told us he said intends to adjust the name of the show.
“Most strikingly, he had decided to change the name before we even met.
“This was important to me because inasmuch as the word ‘J*p’ for me is like the N-word for African Americans or the C-word for women, I am not interested in telling an artist how to do their art. That for me is the beauty of the Marketplace of Ideas. Hirata can say what he wants. And so can I. Thank you, Berkeley, for being a place where this can happen.”
Remaining showtimes: Saturday, Nov. 16, 23 and 30, at 5 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 17 and 24, and Dec. 1, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$35 (sliding scaled), $55 and $100 (reserved seating). No intermission. For ages 13+. Do not bring infants to the show.
Audience talkback on Nov. 17 with storyteller and performer Brenda Wong Aoki. Talkbacks were also held on Oct. 26 with historian and translator Frederick Schodt and Nov. 9 with magician Jade.
The Marsh Berkeley is located at 2120 Allston Way in Berkeley. For more information, call (415) 282-3055 or visit http://themarsh.org.