From The J*p Box to A Box Without A Bottom: Soko-nashi Bako
When I began work on my show, I was immediately struck by the symbolism of this Japanese magic prop, the Soko-nashi Bako (“bottomless box”). The prop was appropriated by American magicians in the late 1800s and was marketed as the “J*p Box” by American magic manufacturers for nearly a century. It was something of a standard for many years, and I encountered it as a kid magician in the 1970s. The relationship of the prop to the three real-life magicians portrayed in the piece—myself, Japanese magician Namigoro Sumidagawa, and American magician Wellington Tobias—suggested a through-line worth exploring with the show.
In 2018, as I was working on early drafts, I asked my parents if they thought that the title “The J*p Box” might be artistically justified. I liked the idea of the implied box-like nature of the word itself, and of the way that boxes can symbolize confinement, exclusion, and containment, which were becoming themes of the piece. They agreed that the title was provocative, but that the use of the “J” word in reference to a specific object gave it context. As they had been members of Nisei and Sansei communities during World War II (Mom’s family was incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center), I valued their input.
The decision to use the title was mine alone, however. I ran an early version of the show at the San Diego International Fringe Festival in 2018, and I was pleased by the audience reception of the show. I had many positive conversations with Japanese-American audience members after several performances and began to feel that the show had something to say.
The higher-profile run of the show here in the Bay Area exposed the show to a broader audience. Subsequent discussions with the Japanese-American community have led me to realize that I have simply underestimated the raw pain of the “J” word. The title itself provides insufficient context to justify its use.
I deeply regret the pain that my choice has caused. While I do believe in the power of confronting ugly history and language through art, the story told by the show is a kind of personal meditation on cultural identity. And, 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.
Audience response to the show has been very gratifying, and I’m happy that this unique take on Japanese-American history has been able to reach an audience. As with all artistic decisions, the conversation about this change has been interesting (and remarkably civil). I am grateful to those who reached out to me directly in this discussion. As with all works of theater, we hope that this living dialogue can continue.
Photos by danscape
David Hirata’s A Box Without A Bottom: Soko-nashi Bako runs through Dec 1 at The Marsh Berkeley. Tickets and more info HERE!
Also at The Marsh!