Conrad Hamanaka/Conrad Yama
|Born||October 8 1919|
|Died||March 10 2010|
|Birth Location||Fresno, CA|
He was born Kiyoshi Hamanaka in Fresno, California, in 1919, one of three children of Asakichi Hamanaka, a Japanese immigrant restaurant proprietor, and his wife Harue. In his youth, Kiyoshi joined the Boy Scouts and was named a patrol leader. An omnivorous reader, he learned German so he could read Goethe. Meanwhile, inspired by his reading of Tolstoy, he absorbed himself in socialist and pacifist ideas (he took the English name Conrad because it sounded like "comrade") and became politically conscious. In 1938, he published a letter in the Fresno Bee denouncing racial prejudice against Japanese Americans. "In school we are treated as equals, but outside we find that we are considered by the Americans who do not know us as inferior. We are not allowed in certain swimming pools, dance halls and skating rinks. We are not allowed to sit in the better seats of certain theaters, and we cannot get employment in certain companies even if we are better qualified."  He affirmed that Nisei were proud of their Japanese heritage, but noted that it was thus all the more impressive that they had chosen an American identity. He closed by challenging white Americans to prove their adherence to the Golden Rule by wiping out racial prejudice. The following year, he followed with another letter in the Bee deploring segregated residential districts for "Negroes, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans and other minority races." 
In fall 1938, Hamanaka enrolled at Fresno State College, where he majored in speech and psychology, and became interested in acting. He performed in a production of Maxwell Anderson's verse play Knickerbocker Holiday , and also acted in college and Boy Scout skits.
In early 1941, Hamanaka was drafted. He asked to be excused as a conscientious objector, as he did not believe in using "arms to kill human beings to solve world problems."  (Because of his stand, he was asked to resign from his position with the Boy Scouts). His request was refused, and he was sent to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and confined in the stockade. Hamanaka's refusal was not well received by Japanese American leaders desperate to prove the group's loyalty, and his mother faced community pressure over his actions. To resolve the situation, he agreed to enlist in a noncombatant role as a medic and ended up serving for seven months.
Hamanaka was discharged on February 12, 1942, and reenrolled at Fresno State. However, in May 1942, as a result of Executive Order 9066 , Hamanaka was confined with his family at Fresno Assembly Center. Initially assigned as a teacher, he gave drama classes for children and organized a theater troupe, the Thespians, which gave a performance of a set of skits and one-act plays in July 1942. He also led a Town Hall discussion forum for adults.
In mid-1942 Hamanaka became an editorial writer for the assembly center's newspaper, the Fresno Grapevine . For example, in the October 14, 1942 issue he ran an editorial "Our Common Ground for Abundant Living" in which he called for marriages and friendships that transcended differences of race and background. (This position may have reflected the fact that, according to family legend, Hamanaka began dating a woman at Fresno, and then encountered family opposition to the match because of his girlfriend's alleged " burakumin " [Japanese outcaste] ancestry).
Meanwhile, he stood up for free speech. When his editorials for the Grapevine on the condition of Japanese Americans were censored by the assembly center administration, Hamanaka sent on the censored stories and speech text to outside supporters, notably Socialist leader Norman Thomas and Northern California ACLU director Ernest Besig . Besig proceeded to publish an editorial in the American Civil Liberties Union News . Shortly afterwards, after a proposed talk on the cooperative movement by an outside speaker, Rev. George Burcham, was banned by the WCCA as "political," Hamanaka sent an outline of the talk and his censored editorial on the subject to outside supporters.
In October 1942 Hamanaka, along with many other inmates from Fresno, was sent to the Jerome camp in Arkansas. Once at Jerome, he was employed as a co-op educational assistant. In November 1942, he chaired a public meeting on cooperatives and gave an educational talk. In 1943, he was selected by the camp administration as a community analyst to study the impact of the segregation process on the Jerome camp, and was charged with interviewing inmates who had arrived from Tule Lake as a result of segregation. He eventually rose to the position of acting head of the Community Analysis Section . During this same period, he served as director of the adult forum, led singing events in the barracks, and organized a Nisei theater group. In July 1943, Hamanaka's group presented a program of short plays he directed, including an original work, Lily Matsumoto's "Jiggers the Chiggers." In May 1943, he married Mary Takaoka, a former actress and vaudeville performer. Their son Vale Hamanaka (later known as V. Vale) was born some time later.
The WRA's development of the leave clearance program proved troublesome for Hamanaka. On the one hand, he was an outspoken advocate of Japanese American resettlement and participation in democratic society. In July 1943, he published an article in the Pacific Citizen advocating group resettlement so that inmate families could remain intact and pro-American Issei could be better assured physical and economic security. However, he bitterly criticized the "loyalty questionnaires" as needless and punitive, noting that the inmates had no idea how the information in them would be used, and that the provisions asking Nisei to "foreswear allegiance" to Japan seemed to indicate that they had previously felt such allegiance. Hamanaka drafted a critical article on the "loyalty questionnaire" and sent it to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas. With Thomas's encouragement, he tried to place the article in the liberal magazine Common Ground and the policy magazine Far Eastern Survey , but without success.
Hamanaka likewise felt a personal dilemma in regard to the "loyalty questionnaire." While he considered himself a loyal American, he felt that he could not honestly give positive answers to the main questions on the form, as his allegiance was qualified by definition due to his status as a conscientious objector. As a result, Hamanaka's request for a leave permit was denied by the Joint Board , and he remained in doubt as to whether he would be sent to Tule Lake . In December 1943, Hamanaka was informed that he would be recommended for a leave permit to leave Jerome. He applied to the University of Chicago to pursue a degree in psychology, and was accepted. However, the promised permit was denied by the WRA. Ernest Besig protested the refusal to director Dillon Myer , who responded after a month that a leave permit had been issued. Hamanaka finally received the promised leave clearance permit in late May 1944. However, almost as soon as he and his family arrived in Chicago, he was arrested for draft evasion, as government lawyers insisted that his discharge from the army had been wiped out by the reinstitution of conscription on Nisei. It was only after heroic efforts by Besig and intervention by WRA director Myer that he was released. Even then, after the army lifted exclusion at the end of 1944, Hamanaka received a provisional individual exclusion order. Though he had little intention of returning to the West Coast, he considered such an order unjust. At Hamanaka's request, Ernest Besig sent a letter of protest to the Western Defense Command , and the last restrictions on Hamanaka were finally lifted in late February 1945.
Postwar Life and Acting Career
Once settled in Chicago, Hamanaka hoped to attend the University of Chicago, but was unable to secure a scholarship to support himself and his family. Instead, he worked at the National Tea Company. In September 1945, he published a set of important opinion pieces for The Pacific Citizen . In the first one, " Cooperative Projects May Be Alternative ," Hamanaka decried the WRA's plans to close down the remaining camps and to cut Japanese Americans adrift. Instead, he proposed again group resettlement for those who wished to leave, then audaciously suggested that for those who wished to remain, the existing camps could be transformed into cooperative agricultural and manufacturing communities on the model of kibbutzim in Palestine. These cooperatives would be run by former inmates who would divide the labor and profits, and who would receive assistance from government experts. In the second article, "Behind the Story of the Tule Lake Segregees," Hamanaka defended the "no-nos" at Tule Lake as victims of official injustice, and even compared their situation with that of Jews fleeing persecution. Hamanaka deplored the entire official registration and segregation process as fatally flawed and unfair, and argued that the inmates at Tule Lake should be spared involuntary deportation and offered "enlightened" treatment. Coming in the first weeks after Japan's surrender, when Japanese Americans remained under intense pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to the US government, the article provoked a sensation. Soon after, at the Japanese American Citizens League's first postwar convention in Denver in early 1946, conservative forces called unsuccessfully for Larry Tajiri 's ouster from his position as editor of The Pacific Citizen over his publishing of Hamanaka's article.
In 1946, Hamanaka moved with his family to New York. With aid from the GI Bill , he enrolled at the New School, where he remained until 1949. He meanwhile wrote for the student journal 12th Street and immersed himself in Manhattan intellectual and bohemian circles. (According to family legend, Hamanaka was close to the circle of Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and attempted to sponsor his own literary magazine, one that would have featured Kerouac's first published writings). During this period, he formed a new relationship with a new partner, Fumie Nakashima. The couple had two daughters, Lionelle and Sheila. Sheila Hamanaka has become a notable author of children's books. Conrad Hamanaka remained involved in Japanese American questions. In 1948, he carried on a debate with Harry Oshima in the pages of The Pacific Citizen over Nisei support for Henry Wallace's presidential candidacy. Hamanaka insisted that Stalinist domination of Wallace's Progressive Party made it unacceptable.
At length Hamanaka decided to become a professional actor. His first recorded professional appearance was in 1951, as a Chinese butler in Dorothy Baker's play Trio at the Woodstock Playhouse. Soon after, he took up the stage name Conrad Yama. In 1958 Yama received his first break when he was cast in the original Broadway production of Rogers and Hammerstein's musical Flower Drum Song as Dr. Li, the immigrant Chinese father of Miyoshi Umeki's heroine. He remained with the play throughout its Broadway run, and was featured on the cast album. He continued to perform in touring productions, in the larger role of Master Wang.
Yama received his biggest fame when he was cast to portray Mao Zedong in the 1969 film The Chairman . (Although it was the title role, Yama's appearance was limited to a single scene). The film, a rather silly thriller with Gregory Peck as an American scientist spying in China, was not a success, but Yama was hailed for his performance—which included a scene of dialogue conducted while playing a ping-pong match! Yama's work led to his casting in other movies, including The Virgin President , Midway , The King of Marvin Gardens and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three . He likewise continued his theater work. In 1974, Yama starred in Frank Chin's Year of the Dragon at the American Place Theatre, playing Pa, a domineering Chinese patriarch who speaks English in malapropisms and refuses to understand Caucasians. He repeated the role in a TV production in 1975, with George Takei in the role of his son. Yama returned to Broadway in Steven Sondheim's Pacific Overtures in 1976, and performed in David Hare's off-Broadway drama Plenty in 1982.
Conrad Yama died in New York on May 10, 2010.
For More Information
Robinson, Greg. The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches . Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2016.
- Kiyoshi Hamanaka, "Prejudices Against Japanese are Decried," Fresno Bee , Oct. 20, 1938.
- Kiyoshi Hamanaka, "Racial Intolerance in Community is Decried," Fresno Bee , June 7, 1939.
- Nichibei Shimbun , July 13, 1941, 1.
Last updated Aug. 31, 2020, 3:40 p.m..