Monday, July 18, 2011

"Our Town - Manzanar"

Searching Wilder’s “Our Town” on Google, I was led by chance to “Our Town –Manzanar”, a play by Hisashi Inoue (1934-2010), a Japanese playwright. “Our Town” is, I’m sure, a reference to Wilder, as he liked such wordplay. The question is, if Manzanar, the World War II concentration camp in the U.S., had retained all the spontaneous elements called as a town. He must have visited Owens Valley and Los Angeles to get a feel for "his" town. Quoted among the play references are Toyo Miyatake’s photo albums, Manzanar Diaries of Karl Yoneda (1906-1999), etc. The play was published in 1993, about the time I decided to leave California. I didn’t know that he wrote about Manzanar until very recently. It was January this year that I traveled to Tokyo to see Wilder’s “Our Town” played by the reading circle I once belonged to. I found that the Zushi City Civic Theatrical Group called “Nanja-Monja” had just performed “Our Town – Manzanar” in December as their 25th Anniversary event and their tribute to the author who passed away in April 2010. (Zushi performed the same play in 1996 on their 10th Anniversary). I could have hastened to Zushi, near Shizuoka had I known. I also wanted to read the book, but it was unavailable even as a used book.

Inoue was generally known as a slow writer. When we see the list of his works and a number of literary prizes (over twenty something), I acknowledge him as a prolific writer, covering a wide range of subjects, from Shakespeare to Chekhov, mysteries and scientific fiction, with a humorous touch and many twists. Inoue likened himself to a bird - his poems come from the head; plays from the body; novels, both polite and popular literature from two wings; and others like biographies, etc. from the tail.

The first Inoue play I saw was fascinating: Misako Watanabe’s “Kesho” (Makeup), which I volunteered to help promote in Southern California. A 50-minute show, wherein, an actress preparing her makeup and costume, keeps talking to her unexpected visitor and troupe members (to the audience), until she is ready to perform a play within the play. Could this visitor be her son she deserted years ago? The drama comes from the heightened emotions of the actress and likewise, the audience. English subtitles were supplied for the audience.

Upon my return to Japan, I read his “Face of Jizo” (translation by Roger Pulvers, literally “Life with my Father”). The “Face of Jizo” dealt with a female survivor of the Hiroshima Bomb. She is reaching marriageable age, and the dialog between father and daughter was all in Hiroshima local dialect, somewhat hard to decipher. Inoue was born in Yamagata, northern Japan and he was an expert in Tohoku dialects, but not Hiroshima dialect. Maybe he spent a lot of time in figuring out the Hiroshima dialect. The English translation is much easier to read.

Five girls appear in "Our Town – Manzanar". They are Sofia Okazaki, an LA Japanese Newspaper staff; Otome Amatsu, a Japanese immigrant from a farm village and “Naniwabushi” (3-string shamisen accompanied ballad) reciter; Sachiko Saito, a stage magician; Lilian Takeuchi, a singer; and Joyce Tachibana, an actress. These five girls were instructed by the Manzanar camp superintendent to perform a reading drama “Our Town, Manzanar”. The reading script was said to be compiled by a Relocation Center Intelligence Officer, but it was later disclosed that it was written by Sachiko Saito. While they practiced reading, girls were split into two groups, pro-American and pro-Japanese. Sachiko stayed aloof, joining neither. Sachiko admitted that she was a Chinese American sent from the State Department. They went through the feminine slanders and accusations, but settled down amicably to pursue the essence of being human, regardless of race or color.

The play starts as the curtain rises:

Sofia: Where the Sierra Nevada Mountains range in Eastern California

Otome: Where Mt. Whitney soars

All in Chrous; Manzanar! Manzanar!

Joyce: Our town, our plaza!

Note: Jizo is a guardian deity of children

1 comment:

rodinsd said...


This is Rod Lanthorne responding from San Diego. Your blog about 'Our Town-Manzanar' hits home, as Lois and I visited the Manzanar facility on September 11 on our way back from a short holiday at Lake Tahoe. Manzanar has a visitor's center housed in the gynasium that was built in 1943 that housed the social events (dances, athletic events, etc.) for the internment (i.e., concentration) camp. There were in excess of 12,000 Japanese-American internees held there during the war. This was a most shameful chapter in U.S history. The films and other presentations at the visitors' center are very poignant.

Lane Nishikawa (Jim's son) was the screenwriter, producer, director and lead actor in the film 'None but the Brave', which depicted the story of Japanese-American soldiers in the famous 100th/442th special regiment comprised mostly of volunteer Japanese-American soldiers. The film told the story of the valor and patriotism exhibited by these soldiers (the lead character was copied from the experiences of Lane's uncle/Jim's brother), while their loved ones were still incarcerated at Manzanar. (By the way, Lane is now living in Jim and Kei's house in TerraSanta).

Dennis Otsuji, the chair of the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego's Balboa Park and a director of the local Kyoto Prize Symposium Organization, is a landscape architect , and he was involved in the design of the Manzanar Historic Site. Dennis also serves on the National historic society chapter involved in remembering the internment camps. I look forward to sharing your blog with Dennis.

One last comment: you later mention the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty that formally brought the end of war and launched Japan as a soverign nation in your rememberance comments about the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and your excellent discussion on the WTC designer. You may recall that there was an initiative from the Japanese private sector, but also including the Jpanese government, to commerate the 50th anniversary of the peace treaty. It was called the 'A50' project. The idea was to thank the U.S. for the 50 years of friendship and support following the trewaty and to celebrate the friendship borne out of the terrible war period. The main ceremony took place in San Francisco in early September 2001. Afterwards, different groups from Japan fanned out to various U.S. cities to spread the celebration of friendship and harmony. I attended the local celebration for San Diego at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista during the evening of September 10th. I recall that it was a wonderful ceremony that left everyone with a the sense that we had celebrated the mutual friendship from the horrors of the war years. The Japanese delegation visiting San Diego were scheduled to depart for Pittsburgh on the morning of 9/11. One of the searing memories I have of that awful day was the contrast between the wonderful message generated by the A50 project and the acts terror. But, at the same time, the A50 thoughtfulness also held out the hope that, eventually, we could overcome the deep divisions of mistrust and rebuild relationships based upon the principles of Love, Sincerity and Harmony. Alas, we still have much work to do to create a more positive environment, but, by the grace of God, we can still work towards that end.

All the best to you and Tamiko. I find your blog exceptional!
Warmest regards,