OBITUARY: Hiroshi Kashiwagi, 96; Poet Laureate of Tule Lake

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Nisei chronicled camp experience through plays, poetry.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi of San Francisco, poet, playwright, actor, writer and recognized poet laureate of Tule Lake, passed away on Oct. 29. He would have turned 97 on Nov. 8.

Kashiwagi was the oldest of four children born to Fukumatsu and Kofusa Hai Kashiwagi.

San Francisco-based poet, playwright and actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, pictured in 2016, was a regular participant in the Tule Lake Pilgrimage. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

He was delivered by a midwife in her home in Sacramento but grew up mostly in Loomis in Northern California, where his parents managed a fish market.

During his senior year in high school, his father took him down to Los Angeles to work, so Kashiwagi enrolled at Dorsey High. With the encouragement of a teacher, he enrolled in a drama class, began writing more prolifically, and in his free time, would go to the movies.

Shortly after graduating from high school, the U.S. entered World War II, and Kashiwagi, his mother and two siblings were incarcerated at the Tule Lake War Relocation Authority camp.

By the time the war broke out, his father was hospitalized with tuberculosis and was never sent to camp.

At Tule Lake, Kashiwagi joined a theater group and pursued his interest in acting and writing. his involvement in these activities, however, came to an abrupt end after the US government came out with the controversial loyalty questionnaire in 1943. Kashiwagi took into consideration all the racist incidents he had had to endure and refused to register for the questionnaire.

He recalled seeing the men from Block 42 being taken away at bayonet point for refusing to register for the so-called loyalty questionnaire. As someone who lived in Block 41, Kashiwagi was prepared to be the next one to be taken away, although that never happened.

Because his mother was so concerned about keeping the family together, they remained in Tule Lake after it was converted into a segregation center. Later, the family decided, as a unit, to renounce their U.S. citizenship.

After the war, Kashiwagi became one of close to 5,000 Japanese Americans who had their U.S. citizenship restored through the tenacious efforts of civil rights attorney Wayne M. Collins, who worked for close to 30 years on these cases.

Upon his release from Tule Lake in 1946, Kashiwagi returned to Loomis and worked as a farm laborer for two years before making his way back to Los Angeles and enrolling in Los Angeles City College as an English major.

In 1949, he wrote his first play for the Nisei Experimental Group, a theater group that he co-founded with Hirotaka Okubo.

In 1952, Kashiwagi received his bachelor’s degree in Oriental languages from UCLA. From there, he pursued a graduate degree in art history at UC Berkeley, where he performed in several theater productions and wrote a one-act play titled “Laughter and False Teeth.” He was also elected into the Mask and Dagger Society, an honorary drama group on campus.

“Laughter and False Teeth,” which was first produced in 1954, is considered the first play to be set inside a World War II Japanese American concentration camp. It was later produced by Asian American theater companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

He married Sadako Nimura in 1957, and the couple had three sons.

While working to support his family, Kashiwagi returned to UC Berkeley and received a master’s degree in library science.

In 1966, he was hired by the San Francisco Public Library, becoming one of the few minority librarians working in that system. When he worked at the Western Addition Branch, near Japantown, he started what is now considered the largest Japanese-language book collection on the West Coast.

He retired in 1987 but in 2010, he was recognized for his efforts as a librarian by the San Francisco Public Library Commission with a plaque at the Western Addition Branch.

During the 1980s redress movement, Kashiwagi testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in San Francisco in 1981.

When the younger generation started organizing pilgrimages back to the former Tule Lake camp site, Kashiwagi was among the early Nisei to agree to return. Since then, Kashiwagi and his wife became a fixture at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, where he gave numerous readings of his poetry and was recognized as the unofficial poet laureate of Tule Lake.

Today, his son Soji continues the family’s creative legacy and has had his plays performed at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

At the age of 64, Kashiwagi revived his acting career when he co-starred with Nobu McCarthy in the play “The Wash” by Philip Kan Gotanda. He went on to appear in numerous other theater and movie productions, including “Black Rain,” directed by Ridley Scott; “Hot Summer Winds” and “Rabbit in the Moon,” directed by Emiko Omori; “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner” by Visual Communications; and “Resistance at Tule Lake” by Konrad Aderer.

His most recent film credits include “The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash,”“Infinity and Chashu Ramen” and “Kikan: The Homecoming,” all directed by Kerwin Berk.

Mako and Hiroshi Kashiwagi in a scene from “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner” (1980). Set in 1942, the scene was shot in Little Tokyo. (Visual Communications)

In 2009, the Grateful Crane Ensemble, a performance group founded by his son Soji, received a California Civil Liberties Public Education Program grant to produce Kashiwagi’s play “The Betrayed,” which involved the issue of the loyalty questionnaire.

In 2011, Kashiwagi was invited to the White House by then President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to participate in “An Evening of Poetry & Prose.”

His experience is among several subjects in an upcoming manga being scripted by Frank Abe.

Plays:

“The Plums Can Wait” (1949), “Laughter and False Teeth” (1953), “Kisa Gotami, a Buddhist Parable” (1955), “Mondai wa Akira” (The Problem Is Akira), a bilingual play (1956), “Blessed Be” (1977), “Window for Aya” (1979), “The Betrayed” (1993).

Books:

“Starting from Loomis and Other Stories” (2013), “Swimming in the American, a Memoir and Selected Writings” (2005), “Shoe Box Plays” (2008), “Ocean Beach, Poems” (2008).

Densho contributed to this obituary.

 

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