Title of play at The Marsh Berkeley prompts accusations of racial insensitivity

David Hirata in his renamed play, A Box Without A Bottom, at The Marsh. Photo: Daniel D. Baumer

A Japanese-American playwright with a show playing at The Marsh Berkeley has changed the title of his play after complaints that it revived a racist slur.

David Hirata, the playwright and sole actor in the production, apologized for using the name The J-p Box (using a short pejorative word for Japanese) in a post on The Marsh’s website. He has now changed the play’s title to A Box Without A Bottom, which refers to a Japanese magic prop, the Soko-nashi Bako, or “bottomless box.”

“I deeply regret the pain that my choice has caused,” Hirata wrote. “Though I have a real connection with the account of the Soko-nashi Bako, the raw pain of the “J word” is not my story to tell. The pain caused in the Japanese-American community by the title was real and something I regret. I felt that making a title change with my apologies was the appropriate action.”

The change came after conversations with board members of the Berkeley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. A number of civic leaders heard about the play, attended the show, and made their concerns known to Hirata, according to Karen Kiyo Lowhurst, who alerted Berkeleyside to the issue on Monday when she submitted an op-ed about the controversy.


The JACL sent a letter to Hirata and Stephanie Weisman, the executive director of the Marsh, on Nov. 11.

The title, “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,” the JACL letter read. We were put behind barbed wire and guarded by armed sentries for years.”

The letter points out that 1,300 first- and second-generation Japanese and Japanese Americans from Berkeley were forced to leave their homes and businesses during World War II after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. They were ordered to report to the First Congregational Church (“one-half mile from your theater”) and were herded onto buses to go to the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno where they “were placed in horse stalls before being moved 800 miles to the Topaz concentration camp in Utah.”

“These Berkeleyans lost their businesses, homes, life savings, their basic human dignity,” reads the letter. “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,” according to the JACL letter.

Hirata, a magician who was hailed as “a master of deceit” by KRON 4 TV, wrote the play to highlight the story of the Japanese magician Namigoro Sumidagawa, according to play notes on the Marsh’s website. In 1866, Sumidagawa became the first Japanese citizen in more than 200 years to leave the country legally. He came to the U.S. as part of the “Imperial Japanese Troupe,” and “dazzled audiences across Victorian America with his exotic stage magic and became a media celebrity,” according to a description of the play.

But jealous American magicians appropriated Sumidagawa’s celebrated trick, Soko-nashi Bako, and started to perform it themselves in yellow-face.

“A century later, Japanese American magician David Hirata excavates the mysteries and stories of the Soko-nashi Bako,” according to the play’s description. “Through monologue and magic, he unveils illusions and surprises from the Japanese American story.”

Hirata portrays three magicians in the play: himself, Sumidagawa and the American magician Wellington Tobias.

Hirata said he conferred with family members about the original title. His mother’s family was incarcerated at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Modoc and Siskiyou counties in northern California. Family members thought the title was “provocative,” but was all right in the context of what the play was about, Hirata wrote.

“I am grateful to those who reached out to me directly in this discussion,” wrote Hirata in his apology. “As with all works of theater, we hope that this living dialogue can continue.