Shame and self-annihilation in 1919 Kauai


Philip Kan Gotanda’s play “Ballad of Yachiyo” was first staged by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1995 in a production I’m sorry I missed. Reading it, it seems difficult to stage, easier to film with cinematic jump cuts. A potter who acquires (and molests) an assistant is central to the story and it must be difficult to manage the different pots he makes in a stage production.

The play is set in 1919 on the island of Kauai, where Gotanda’s Japan-born parents first lived in the US (a Yonsei [third generation] he was born in California’s Central Valley city of Stockton in 1951, after his parents returned from the Manzanar concentration camp). The Matsuomtos are struggling to make ends meet and send their 17-year-old daughter Machiyo across the island to live with a childless couple, the Takamuras. Papa had aided the Takamura patriarch when they first crossed from Japan to Hawai’i.

Hiro was the wastrel son of a respected potter in Japan who was adopted into the (sonless) Takamura family by a merchant who had made a success in Hawai’i. Shamelessly explaining his (culturally shameful) backstory to Yachiyo, he says:

His only child [Sumiko] was his only weak spot. And since his daughter wanted me, he made sure she got me. The old man offered me a proposition. I got a second chance to be an artist, to redeem myself in my father’s eyes. In exchange, I marry his daughter and I give up my [family] name…. So, you see, her father bought me for her, like a pet dog. And she knew what I was, what she was getting. We had an agreement. This one was between Sumiko and me. Her father didn’t know. I told her I didn’t love her and that she must allow me my freedom. That I would be discreet and never bring her shame.

In Japan and Japanese enclaves on Hawai’i marriages were generally arranged by parents, not love matches, and husbands were expected to have concubines on the side, while continuing the family line (that is, producing sons) and providing for it. Sumiko may be anguished by her husband’s no-longer discreet womanizing, but he does not seem to feel any guilt or shame about that (just about having been adopted in and not perpetuating his natal family name)

Hiro has been getting careless about discretion for his extramarital affair (with the public figure of a taxi-hall dancer).

The assistance in his work/art of Yachiyo inspires Hiro to do better work than he has done since leaving Japan. She is attractive and right there in reach, and it’s not very surprising that he seduces her.

Yachiyo had an Okinawan labor-activist suitor, Willie Higa, at home, one who is willing to take her back even knowing she is no longer a virgin, but the pregnant young woman commits suicide rather than deliver “soiled goods” (how she views herself) to the man who loves her. She drowns herself and the play ends with her tombstone life dates: 1902-1919 (and the surviving photo of the real-life Yachiyo).

Ironically, her father has taken on a business of writing love letters for cane workers and is able to support Yachiyo (as is Willie). He regrets sending her away and does not seem crushed by shame of a daughter getting present.


Gotanda was imagining the story of his father’s eldest sister, Yachiyo, who killed herself (ingesting ant poison, a method someone else reportedly used within the play) in 1916, at the age of 16 (that is younger, and earlier than the play’s Yachiyo) after being impregnated by a married man. He only heard of this aunt who had died two and a half decades before he was born as an adult, in a slip from the decades of silence from his father. Yachiyo was erased from family history, even from stories about the Kauai days of his father’s growing up. Gotanda imagined the characters… and was familiar with how shame is managed (buried) in Japanese families.

I find all of them sympathetic, including the somewhat self-hating (along with other-blaming) Hiro. At the time of rehearsing the first production, Gotanda said: “The play is my gut’s response to stories that have to do with my own bloodline. I think it is a great luxury and adventure to be able to dive into one’s own history, one’s own lineage, psychology and story, and illumine and at the same time fictionalize it.”

(In that Gotanda’s preface begins with his discovery that he had a paternal aunt who killed herself  when she was impregnated by a married man in Kauai in 1916, long before he was born in California (in 1951), I don’t think that revealing Yahiyo’s suicide here is “plot-spoiling.”)


I’m not going to attempt a review/analysis of Gotanda’s “Fish Head Soup,” first staged at Berkeley Rep in 1991. It seems too schematic to me, with a “seemingly mentally ill” Papa, the return of a faked suicide, flashbacks of being suspectly similar looking to Viet Cong, the present day for being a “gook.”

And “Yankee Dawg You Die,” first staged at Berkeley Rep in 1988 seems a pat reversal between the older actor who has worked steadily in often demeaning roles under the name “Victor Chan,” though his ancestry is Japanese and the judgmental younger actor Bradley Yamishita, who gradually acquiesces to stereotypical roles, while Victor, who had regularly announced that he never turned down an offer of work as an actor, turns down one to appear as a character like his father (in pre-WWII Salinas). There is a lot of speechifying about having to do what is written in order to work and various examples of stereotypical roles.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Also see my discussion of Gotanda’s “Life Tastes Good” and “The Wash.”


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