Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Steve Sumida

As some of you already know, Asian America is a small town, and there are often only one or two degrees of separation from person to person.  One of the guys who helped discover and republish Okada's NO-NO BOY was Stephen Sumida, the head of the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington.  I was surprised when I returned to the novel a couple of years ago with an eye towards adapting it when I saw his name mentioned in Frank Chin's Afterward in the novel because I had played Steve's son in a 1977 production of Momoko Iko's THE GOLD WATCH.  Still another coincidence and proof of how Asian America is a small town:  Greg Watanabe, the actor playing Kenji, turns out to be Stephen's cousin.  Years ago, Stephen hoped that HE could play Kenji in the movie version of the book - I hope he gets to see Greg, who will be brilliant in the role.

Greg struck up an email correspondence with Stephen about the play and asked if we could include some of his thoughts in this blog - Stephen graciously said we could, so here are a couple of excerpts from his emails to Greg:

"Ted Maneki told me about your being in Ken's play.  That stirs up a lot of thought and memory for me, about Ken and about No-No Boy.  I've just finished teaching the novel to 152 students in one class, 45 in another.  I tell you, even though we'd like to think that teaching and learning would help to resolve conflicts that are comforting for us later generations to resolve, the splits between veterans and No-No Boys, among Nisei, are still there, I think mostly because of ignorance about a lot of things.  (...)  What do you think, in the context of the play--is it better to have been a Yes-Yes Boy who resisted only when your draft notice arrived in the summer of 1944, or to have been a No-No Boy who protested from the start, in response to the 1943 "Loyalty Oath"?  Back in the day when we talked about how good it would be to make a movie of No-No Boy, we'd talk about how I'd be Kenji.  In class, I mimic Kenji's best moment in the novel, when he comes to Ichiro's rescue from Taro's goons pantsing Ichiro in the parking lot.  This scene is Okada having fun.  It's a samurai movie starring the one-legged swordsman.  When I do the scene in class, I take my wooden sword, bokken, or when my wife isn't watching to forbid me to do it, I take a live blade, a katana that goes "swish" when I cut that guy's wrist.  That's a good scene, Greg.  What's your part in Ken's play?"

"You asked if you could share my earlier messages about No-No Boy with Ken.  By all means, please do so.  I'd be more than happy to discuss any of it and more with you and Ken.  Here's one piece that I don't think I told you yet.  About four years ago a student in the big lecture class, all excited, came to me and said, If Ichiro is like Okada's friend the No-No Boy Jim Akutsu, then is Kenji like Okada himself?  If so, what's Okada's handicap, to match Kenji's missing leg?  I don't know why my reply was so quick.  I said, Okada didn't have a tongue.  His tongue was cut out.  I explained that as a Nisei veteran of the Military Intelligence Service, Okada was ordered not to speak of his war experiences for thirty years--silenced until 1975, beyond his death.  He could not write his own war story.  He couldn't even tell his children (...) He chose instead to write not about a war hero, whom few if any could emulate in life once the war was over, but about the lowest one in Nikkei society, a No-No Boy.  If the lowest one can survive, then we all can survive.  So, if Okada gave Kenji something of his own character and concerns, then you have a huge role to play, full of compassion, irony, wit, and an understanding of pain.  I'm now grading papers about the novel, and I see all over again the struggle people have to grasp and articulate some of its most basic truths.  That's why your coming production is still so timely."

"You know, you might tell Ken Narasaki that the current wariness about
distinguishing Resisters from No-No Boys may be a red herring--as usual
with red herrings, one that serves somebody's purpose.  In nearly thirty
years Gail and I have met No-No Boys (who answered No No or, as Soji
writes, refused to answer 27 and 28 at all) whose accounts of how they
were punished are really various.  I don't think the government had the
means or comprehension or whatever to treat them consistently across the
ten concentration camps.  For example:  one was a fourteen-year-old boy
when he was required to answer the 1943 questionnaire, and being a very,
very good boy, he understood that 27 and 28 were false questions, so he
answered No No thinking he was right.  He probably saluted when he wrote
those two final answers in the questionnaire.  This boy was then
segregated from his family and sent to Chicago, his punishment being his
exile and lack of support.  Just a kid.  This man, Yuzuru Takeshita, then
carried the burden of thinking he had done wrong after all, but he didn't
know what.  More than forty years later he heard me speak about the novel
No-No Boy at the U of Michigan.  He stood up and told his story.  The
scholars in the room were struck dumb--I mean, when was the last time a
book come to life for them in the actual body and testimony of somebody in
the room?  Professor Takeshita wept when he talked.  He said that for
forty years he'd thought he had committed some wrong.  And now to hear
about No-No Boy he felt exonerated.  Some years later his wife repeated
some of this, when she said I was the one who had made her husband cry one
night!  Yuzuru Takeshita was a prominent Professor of Public Health, at
UM, at that time.  He had spent his entire career trying to do right, for
everybody, to make up for his unknown wrong.

Another story is of a prominent figure here in Seattle, Tsuguo "Ike"
Ikeda, who stood up in a class I ran especially for Nisei.  We ended by
discussing No-No Boy.  Being of Seattle, the Nisei knew the setting and
even characters.  Ike told everyone that he answered 27 Yes, but he was
puzzled and then bothered by 28:  you know, how can one "forswear
allegiance" to the Japanese Emperor unless one has already sworn
allegiance in the first place?  So, being upright and conscientious, just
getting into draft age, Ike Ikeda answered "No" to 28, he said.  This
makes him a No-No Boy.  Then he said he doesn't understand it, but they
drafted him anyway.  The eyes of the Nisei in the room were spinning.
They said, Ike, we know you for sixty years, and we never knew you're a
No-No Boy!  That ended our course.  It was terrific.  Some of the Nisei,
by the way, couldn't even recall that there had been a questionnaire, and
the veterans were away in the military when the Resisters (who used to be
called "No-No Boys") made their protests.  So much of the hostility is
based on less than hearsay.

As you may know, and I hope Ken knows, an actual model for Ichiro was
Okada's friend, the No-No Boy Jim Hajime Akutsu.  Frank Emi and Frank Abe
say that Akutsu was not a No-No Boy but was a Resister, because Akutsu was
not sent to Tule Lake after he answered No No in 1943.  So, they argue,
Akutsu must have been a Yes Yes Boy, served his draft orders in 1944,
resisted, and charged, tried, and convicted of draft evasion.  But to his
death in 1998 Akutsu (and his surving brother Gene, also a No-No Boy)
insisted that he answered No, because of horrid experiences he, his
brother, and their mother had suffered in camp.  I have a photocopy, from
Jim Akutsu, of his draft order.  It's dated June 10, 1944.  It orders him
to report to he pre-induction physical exam--on May 21, 1944.  Akutsu knew
that this was the other shoe dropping, how they would get him for
answering No a year earlier.  "I was framed," he said.  He was charged,
tried, and convicted of draft evasion.  When he tried to explain the false
order he had been served, the judge said, "Did you or did you not appear
for your physical as ordered?"  "Well, no sir, but you see . . ."  "Did
you or did you not report?  That's the only question that matters to this

For purposes of Ken's play, he's right in thinking that the Resister-No-No
Boy difference is not very important, given the different ways that No-No
Boys were treated.  Maybe to the Resisters theirs is a cleaner case.  They
were Yes-Yes Boys who later resisted the draft.  But were they?  Frank Emi
still talks as if he refused to answer 27 and 28.  You see, there's a
smokescreen hiding the Resisters from clear view, too.

By the way, Greg--the place called Club Oriental in the novel is still
here, on Maynard Alley, in Chinatow, except its name is the Wah Mee Club,
padlocked since February 1983 when three young Chinatown thugs massacred
13 gamblers in the upstairs room.  It's a creepy place.  You want to see
it some day?  A student and I stopped at the doorway the other night.
Down the alley is the parking lot, still, where your Kenji whacked Taro's
goon with his cane, twice.  This is one of the few clubs where Nisei were
welcomed to drink and dance, and maybe gamble, after the war.  This is
where Okada taught his new buddy Jim Akutsu to drink.

I find myself telling you all this because I have to keep these stories
alive--too much even to tell in my classes.  Thanks very much for Soji's
words.  Can you tell me--may I forward his message to my classes?  Soji
and his Camp Dance came to us a few years ago.  The old people--this
includes me--were sentimental about it all with no shame.--Steve

Stephen H. Sumida, Professor

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