By KEN NARASAKI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 11, 2010)
I am the proud son of 442 veteran Richard Narasaki, a past Commander of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee.
Growing up, we disagreed on a lot of things, but we never disagreed about his service and the debt we all owe to his generation, not to mention his parents’ and grandparents’ generations, without whom we wouldn’t have had our cushy, suburban upbringing. One of the things we did disagree on was the role civil disobedience played in the growth of civil rights for all minorities, including Asian Americans. This was mostly a generational thing, a disagreement being played out all over the country during the 1970s, but years later, when he saw me play a character in Wakako Yamauchi’s internment camp drama 12-1-A, he was angry: My character worked for the WRA and was accused of being a “collaborator” and called an “inu” – he was rejected by the girl he was dating and lost his best friend because of his stance that the Nikkei should cooperate with the authorities. My father normally let his kids have their own opinions, and we are all a pretty opinionated bunch, but this was too much for him; he had to explain to me that my character represented the vast majority of Nisei and the characters who ultimately signed “No, No” to the infamous Questions 27 and 28 were in the minority, and in his opinion, dead wrong. “Hell, I didn’t like it,” he told me, “But when the time came to choose, I knew I had to choose to fight for this country because this is where you kids were going to grow up.”
Years later, some time in the 1990s, when the JACL began talking about drafting an apology to the draft resisters, he was one of the Seattle Nisei Vets who was opposed to this and when I talked to him about his stance on the phone, I was shocked at how angry he remained about this fifty years (at that time) later. I hadn’t heard him yell in years, and even though by then I was a father myself, I had a tough time standing my ground. I told him then, as I continue to believe now, that ultimately, the Nisei veterans, all of the Nikkei who made the best of a bad, bad situation, AND all of the No-No Boys, the draft resisters, and the so-called “troublemakers” all contributed to our standing in this country, and to our standing to ourselves as a people. Part of the reason he was so angry was he felt the Sansei tended to want to lionize the No-No Boys because that’s what we believe we would have done, and he correctly said that we have no idea what we would have done had we been born when he was.
I loved my father, partly because of the strength of his convictions. But I also loved him for the fact that he liked a good argument, and much to my amazement, a few months later, apropos of nothing, he blurted out to me that maybe “you kids are right, maybe it took some courage to do what the No-No Boys did after all,” though he instantly changed the subject and that was the end of that discussion.
I never forgot the shock I felt at the immediacy of his anger 50-plus years after the Loyalty Questionnaire forced him and his generation to make the choices they made. Of course, after further study and talks with some of the people involved, I have a little better understanding: After all, these were literal life-and-death decisions being made by teenagers and young adults, exacerbated by the horrible circumstances of the internment camps and the horrible losses that accompanied both internment and the horrors of war. My dad rarely talked about his service, and when the Densho Project videotaped an interview with him a year before he died, I was again shocked when I heard some of what he faced; things he never told any of us, but things that have helped me to understand just why he felt as strongly as he did about his service.
Still, what I primarily felt when we were arguing about the No-No Boys was sadness over the gulf that existed in the community, the split that was mostly not spoken about, but was clearly still deeply felt, a rift that I feared might never heal. And that is the reason I really wanted to adapt John Okada’s “NO-NO BOY” to the stage: There are many things I loved about the book, but what I loved more than anything else were the characters Okada created. What gets lost sometimes in discussions about the more explosive aspects of the book is the fact that Okada really created a spectrum of characters that touch on so many aspects of the Japanese American experience immediately after the war. And it is the compassion with which he looks at these characters that I believe can be the greatest tool towards healing.
I believe theater has the greatest power of all the arts when it comes to empathy: It’s so much harder to hate characters when one can see what makes them do what they do and say what they say, and those characters are literally in the same room with you. Okada’s characters are the type of people rarely seen in Japanese American drama and literature and I believe anyone who spends 90 minutes with them, as played by the cast we’ve assembled, will find it impossible not to feel for them all. This play is not a polemic, and we aren’t out to change anyone’s mind or pretend to say what’s right or wrong – even Okada doesn’t do that. All we want to do is get a variety of people who have a variety of experiences and a variety of opinions in the same room to share the experience, and let the story do the rest.
Lawson Inada, the poet laureate of Oregon, wrote in the forward to John Okada’s novel that “Whoever reads this book will never be the same. Whoever reads this book will see, and be, with greater strength and clarity. And in this way does the world begin to change.” It is my fervent hope that our play will reach that same high standard and that after seeing it, our audience will never be the same.
Playwright Ken Narasaki’s most recent work “No-No Boy” opens on March 27 at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.