A Maui Son’s Writing Brought Hawai‘i’s Okinawan Experience Into the Light
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I still remember the first time I read Jon Shirota’s “The Dawning of an Okinawan.” That was more than 30 years ago. My uncle on Maui, Roy Yonahara, had given me a copy of the manuscript that Jon had given to him.
Tears rolled down my face as I read it. Nothing I had read before, or have read since then, have captured the identity dilemma that so many Nisei faced growing up Okinawan in Hawai‘i as honestly and as poetically as that essay.
Jon Hiroshi Shirota died peacefully at his home in Los Angeles on July 28 with his wife Barbara at his side. He was 92 years old and a month shy of celebrating his 93rd birthday.
I met Jon in the late 1980s after having read “Dawning . . .” It was the start of a special friendship that lasted more than three decades and will continue with Barbara. He always let me know when he and Barbara would be back in Hawai‘i. My sister Joyce and I looked forward to their visits and always cleared our schedules to spend time with them. Over the years, he sent me many of his essays, stories and plays — writing he worked on every morning, except while traveling. Some of those pieces were published in the Herald during my tenure as editor.
Since retiring earlier this year, I have been working on a book that will chronicle Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu community from 1980 to the present. It’s being underwritten by a consortium of primarily Okinawan businesspeople. From the outset, I knew I wanted to open the book with Jon’s “Dawning of an Okinawan” essay. No piece of writing has bridged the Nisei and
Sansei Okinawan experience as honestly as that essay, which was first published in the 1990 award-winning book, “UCHINANCHU: A Pictorial Tribute to Okinawans in Hawaii,” by Chris Pearce, publisher of Hawaiian Airlines’ inflight magazine, Hana Hou! Pearce doesn’t recall who gave him the “Dawning . . .” essay.
“But as soon as I read it, I knew it had to be in our then-unnamed book about Uchinanchu in Okinawa and Hawai‘i,” he said. Pearce flew to Los Amgeles to meet with Jon and to get his permission to include it in his book. “It took a little arm-twisting,” he recalled.
Last September, I called Jon in LA, seeking his permission to republish “Dawning . . .” He immediately said “yes,” adding that he and Barbara would come to Hawai‘i next year for the book’s release. I was thrilled and honored.
What I loved most about Jon and his writing was his honesty. He bared his heart and soul in straightforward prose, such as in the following two excerpts from his original “Dawning of an Okinawan” essay:
. . . I would learn that our name (Shirota) was not a typical Okinawan name and that my Naichi (non-Okinawan Japanese) friends would assume that I was one of them. Which made my situation awkward, if not precarious. Whenever I heard unsavory remarks about Okinawans, I had the choice of announcing that I, too, was an Okinawan, or remain silent and hope that I would never be found out. I chose the latter. And would suffer for it in years to come with guilt and self-loathing.
. . . The name-calling and taunting that had been the source of pain and agony since childhood was somewhat eased during one of my autographing sessions many years later. One of the most vociferous Naichi boys who used to chase me home crying stepped up and asked me to autograph his book. I did not recognize him until he requested that I inscribe it “For old days.”
“For old days!”
While painful, heart-wrenching memories flashed back, the “friend” of old days introduced an attractive woman beside him.
“This is my wife,” he said. Then, irresistibility, added, “Her name used to be Shimabukuro.” (Note: “Shimabukuro” is a common Okinawan surname.)
I savored that momentous occasion. “So, you’re one of us now,” I blurted out.
We laughed. Meaningfully. And closed a chapter in both our lives.
That was the power of Jon’s writing. It was cathartic; it helped him — and maybe others, too — purge his childhood and adolescent demons about being Okinawan. It helped him make peace with who he was: the child of hardworking immigrants from Okinawa who raised pigs and grew pineapple for a living.
Jon and Barbara
In 1992, he finally let go of one last shred of insecurity about his heritage when he married Barbara, a widowed kindergarten teacher who was Naichi. Jon was in his mid-60s by then. Prior to getting married, they had dinner with her father.
Jon was nervous. As the old man enjoyed his meal, Jon decided it was time to be completely honest, so to his future father-in-law he revealed that his parents had emigrated from Okinawa. The old man continued eating. Thinking that maybe he hadn’t heard him, Jon repeated the fact that his parents had immigrated to Hawai‘i from Okinawa . . . so he was Okinawan, although Jon didn’t come out and say that. Barbara’s father swallowed his food before finally saying, “Many people in Hawai‘i came from Okinawa.” And then he returned to his dinner, not even raising an eyebrow. And that was that.
Years later, we all had a good laugh when he shared that story, including Jon and Barbara. They were a great couple. After his passing, Barbara told me that marrying Jon had opened many doors for her, including the opportunity to visit Hawai‘i and Okinawa for the first time, where she found a new family and made many new and lasting friends.
Jon, who was born in Pe‘ahi in east Maui, was always so happy to be back in the islands, spending precious time with his family on Maui and O‘ahu and getting together with old friends in Honolulu. He and Barbara had become old hands at going holoholo on TheBus.
I once asked him whether he ever thought about moving back to Hawai‘i. He told me that living in Hawai‘i would distract him from what he needed to do, and that was to write with discipline. He had been a warubozu in his youth and, sometimes, it seemed as if he didn’t trust himself to be in a place that was too comfortable and too easy to slack off from writing.
Maybe in the back of his mind he could still hear his father’s stern but loving words the summer he left Maui for college on the U.S. mainland. “Shikkari shite . . .” said Kamata Shirota. In other words, he was telling his third son to get his act together.
Jon’s mother Uto stood by with tears in her eyes, not saying a word. It was the last time he would see his parents alive.
But I know he loved Hawai‘i. He resided in Los Angeles for most of his life, but in his heart, Hawai‘i was always “home.”
I often wondered whether being away from the Islands helped Jon and another gifted Hawai‘i-born writer, the late playwright Edward Sakamoto, hold on to their sweet memories of “old Hawai‘i” — the Hawai‘i they remembered from growing up in the Islands. It was that Hawai‘i that came through in their stories and plays. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jon and Barbara had lunch with Ed every week so they could talk story about this and that and, inevitably, about Hawai‘i, until Ed moved farther away due to health issues and stopped driving. Both had held day jobs and wrote only part-time until retiring: Jon was an IRS agent and Ed was a copy editor for the Los Angeles Times. Once they retired, they wrote to their heart’s content.
“Stayed Close to His Roots”
I wasn’t alone in my respect and admiration for Jon’s gift with words that came from deep within his heart.
“He was a truly remarkable man, a writer who worked hard at his art, and stayed close to his roots on Maui and to his ancestry in Okinawa,” emailed Frank Stewart, the longtime editor of the University of Hawai‘i’s “Mänoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing.”
In 2009, Stewart, Jon and then-University of the Ryukyus (“UR,” or “Ryüdai”) American literature professor Katsunori Yamazato had collaborated on a “Mänoa” volume titled, “Voices From Okinawa.” It featured three of Jon’s plays, his “Dawning of an Okinawan” essay, and pieces by other writers and scholars. Stewart devoted a second volume of “Mänoa” to a reprint of Jon’s popular “Lucky Come Hawaii” novel.
“He gave us local pidgin-speaking characters that were smart, funny and resilient through very tough times,” said Stewart. He recalled that in the closing scene of one of the plays, “Leilani’s Hibiscus,” which Kumu Kahua Theatre staged, “all of the characters — with their different backgrounds, ethnicities, experiences, fears and suspicions — are united in joyful dancing and music.”
Katsunori Yamazato’s relationship with Jon began in 1973 when he read “Lucky Come Hawaii” for the first time while a UH graduate student.
“I was shocked to see the book, written by an Okinawan,” recalled Yamazato, who, earlier this year, retired as president of Meio University in Nago. Shirota wasn’t a typical Okinawan surname so Yamazato initially thought that Jon was a Naichi, writing about Okinawans on Maui. He was surprised to learn that Jon was indeed Uchinanchu and that he was born on Maui, the backdrop for “Lucky Come Hawaii.” He was even more impressed that “Lucky . . .” had been published by Bantam Books, a prestigious New York publishing house.
Reading “Lucky Come Hawaii” was a nice diversion for Yamazato, whose long required reading list consisted mainly of Euro-American literature — “mainly white writers and a few African American writers, no Asian or Japanese writers,” he recalled. Yamazato’s fascination with the novel remained with him throughout his graduate school years.
“After I finished my dissertation at UC Davis, I decided to go back to Jon and started looking for him. It took a long time to find him. Finally, a friend of mine — a classmate at UR who had moved to Los Angeles — found his phone number using the Okinawan network in LA.
“So I called him and told him that I wanted to invite him to UR to give a lecture. He was at first skeptical about this international call and said, ‘How did you find me?’ I explained, and he believed me, that I was serious,” recalled Yamazato. It was the start of a friendship that spanned more than four decades and provided numerous opportunities for Jon to not only share his stories and thoughts on writing — but also to honor his parents — in Hawai‘i as well as in their homeland.
Jon “The Pioneer”
Jon was “courageous” in choosing to write about the people he saw around him on Maui and in Honolulu, with his main characters being Okinawans, said Yamazato. “When American literature was still dominated by Euro-Americans, Jon boldly made Okinawans or Okinawan Americans main characters of his stories. These were a pioneer’s attempts in American literature,” Yamazato said, noting that James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” did not feature any Asians or native Hawaiians as main characters, even though the story is set in multiethnic Hawai‘i.
Jon’s characters, on the other hand, were Okinawans, native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, haole and other Hawai‘i locals. In some instances, the Okinawans discriminated against the native Hawaiians or people of other ethnicities until they got to know each other as neighbors.
“He wrote about them realistically, unpretentiously and depicted their lives as important and meaningful, like other lives,” Yamazato explained.
In 2005, Jon and Barbara spent nearly a year in Okinawa doing research and writing on a grant from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission Artist Exchange Program. According to Yamazato, receiving a JUSF grant is equal in prestige and funding to being awarded an American Fulbright Fellowship.
Jon and Yamazato also team-taught Yamazato’s “Contemporary American Literature” class at Ryüdai, using “Lucky Come Hawaii,” in English, as their textbook.
Jon was already in his mid-70s when he began interacting with Yamazato’s twentysomething students. Many looked to him as a wise grandfather figure. But they also saw in Jon an Okinawan who had grown up on an island in Hawai‘i and had lived his life as an American of Okinawan ancestry. Meeting someone like Jon was a rarity for his students, said Yamazato, adding that Jon’s life experiences showed them that Okinawans are now a global people who share similarities as well as differences.
He said Jon and the students genuinely enjoyed learning from each other. Jon would ask them about Okinawa and their lives as young Uchinanchu. He always encouraged them, complimenting their English-speaking abilities, their level of education and their self-confidence. Jon’s presence on the UR campus and in Okinawa added to the students’ self-esteem, said Yamazato.
Among the many students they developed a close friendship with was Yuki Nakasone, who later worked on her master’s degree at UH-Mänoa. “I felt excited to know that Shirota, a descendant of Okinawan immigrants, accomplished such a literary achievement,” Nakasone emailed from Yokohama, where she now lives. She said she was disappointed that researchers had generally neglected Jon’s perspective on Okinawans and Okinawan Americans in Hawai‘i during World War II. That’s why she decided to write her master’s thesis on “Lucky Come Hawaii.”
Jon and Barbara happened to be in Hawai‘i while Nakasone was at UH, so Jon invited her to Maui. They drove to his childhood home in Waihe‘e, where she saw the remnants of the pigpen that Jon’s father had built near their house. It helped her visualize the Shirota family’s life on Maui.
Nakasone also realized that although pigs were a source of sustenance for Okinawan families in those early days, the animal, by its very nature, caused younger and more sensitive Nisei Okinawans, like Jon, deep shame and “intolerable discrimination” in the larger Japanese community.
“His book gave me an opportunity to learn the history of Uchinanchu in both Okinawa and Hawai‘i,” Nakasone said. “Before I started researching this novel, I had not looked back at the history of Okinawa, even though I was born and living there,” she said. “I found Okinawa had a rich history and culture, and we should be proud of being Uchinanchu.”
Write Your Passion
“Lucky Come Hawaii” was Jon’s first published novel, but not the first novel he had written. In the course of writing it, he had learned an important lesson about creative writing and shared it with Nakasone: “Write something that you know, what you feel and what you are passionate about, something you are close to,” he told her.
Jon had learned that lesson the hard way from his writing mentor, Lowney Handy, who had worked with James Jones on “From Here to Eternity.” He recalled that experience in a colorful third-person essay he sent me titled, “A New World.”
In college he had read “From Here to Eternity” and was so captivated by it that he decided to write his own novel about Hawai‘i. “If a haole from the Mainland can do it, why can’t he, a local boy?” Jon wrote.
After graduating from Brigham Young University in Utah, he got to work writing his novel. When he was finally done, he had over 900 typewritten pages.
Thinking it was ready for publishing, he sent a few pages to Lowney Handy, who had established a writer’s colony in southern Illinois. Jon asked her to recommend his novel to a publisher, preferably New York-based Scribner’s, which had published Jones’ book.
A few days later, Handy wrote to Jon, asking him to send her his first chapter. Thrilled that she had responded so quickly, Jon mailed his first chapter to her in a secure envelope.
Three days later, an envelope from Handy appeared in his mailbox. He was elated that she had read his chapter so quickly and was sure she wanted him to send her his entire manuscript so she could forward it to Scribner’s.
Instead, he found a four-letter word scribbled across the title page in bold letters: “S – – T!” There were more of those four-letter words in the ensuing pages.
Handy sent Jon a “less cruel” follow-up letter a few days later. She did not ease up, however.
She said just because one can type doesn’t mean one is a writer. She told him to destroy the novel he had spent seven years writing. Jon couldn’t bring himself to do it and went on a weeklong drinking binge. Handy sensed that Jon had not destroyed his manuscript and gave him an ultimatum: destroy that manuscript, or she would have nothing to do with him.
After agonizing over his only two options, Jon finally threw his “great American novel” into the trash bin.
“Miraculously, a catharsis took place,” he wrote in “A New World.” “He (Jon) felt cleansed of the past. He could now embark on a new journey.”
Handy suggested that Jon write something he felt “a strong passion for,” perhaps something about his Okinawan heritage. Jon eventually studied creative writing with Handy at her writers’ colony and completed “Lucky Come Hawaii” a year after she died. The book, which he dedicated to Lowney Handy, was published by Bantam Books in 1965, and reprinted a second time by Honolulu publisher Bess Press in 1988, and again in 2009 by “Mänoa.”
Jon also advised Yuki Nakasone to know everything about her characters before starting to write. He had done a case study of each of his characters for “Lucky Come Hawaii” and knew that character’s voice well before starting on the novel.
“The voices are closely intertwined and create one story, like textiles,” explained Nakasone. She is currently translating Yoki (Shirota) Tan’s 1978 autobiography, “The Blending,” into Japanese. Tan, Jon’s eldest sister, had written about growing up in rural and multicultural Maui as the daughter of Okinawan immigrant parents.
Yamazato introduced the book to Nakasone, believing it to be a significant literary work in understanding the experiences of Okinawan families building lives in Hawai‘i, particularly from a woman’s perspective. Nakasone hopes her translation will help people in Okinawa learn not only about Tan’s personal life story, but also about the Hawai‘i Uchinanchu experience that can be examined through literature, history and sociology.
“A Great Pacific Rim Saga”
In terms of scholarly review, Yamazato believes Jon’s writing was largely neglected, as most non-Okinawan critics knew very little, if anything, about Okinawan/Ryükyüan culture, history, heritage and language. He said Jon’s stories about Okinawans in Hawai‘i demonstrated the depth and breadth of American literature and its connections to Asia and the Pacific.
“He showed that by writing about people that the writer knows best, he could depict universal humanity,” Yamazato said. In his writing, Jon also showed how “humans gain universality by overcoming walls of race and by living in different cultures.”
Yamazato describes the Shirota family story as “a great Pacific Rim saga” whose origins began with a man who migrated from China to the Ryükyü Kingdom in 1372. Jon’s father, a descendant of that adventurer, then migrated from Ginoza Village in Okinawa across the Pacific Ocean to Hawai‘i and settled on the island of Maui. The Shirota ‘ohana — now at least five generations old and a blending of races and ethnicities — is today scattered throughout Asia and the Pacific: in Hawai‘i, Okinawa and mainland Japan, the continental U.S. and South America.
Although a generation apart in age, Jon Shirota and Katsunori Yamazato shared a close bond. “He was a friend and like a father,” Yamazato said. He wishes they’d had more time to talk story about Jon’s younger days — about growing up on Maui, serving in the military, about his college years and, especially, about his struggles to become a professional writer in America at a time “when Asian or minority writers were not yet highly evaluated.”
One thought, however, gives Yamazato peace when he thinks of Jon. “I think he was happy living his parents’ culture in Okinawa . . .”
Aloha ‘oe, Jon. We will all meet again someday. But for now, we will meet through your precious stories.
The two Mänoa volumes — “Voices from Okinawa: Featuring Three Plays by Jon Shirota” and “Lucky Come Hawaii” — can be purchased for $20 each (or $30 for both, a discount of $10). “Voices from Okinawa” is the first literary anthology showcasing Okinawan and Okinawan American voices as heard in plays, essays and interviews. “Lucky Come Hawaii,” set in World War II Hawai‘i, tells the moving story of an immigrant couple trying to build a better future for their Hawai‘i-born children.
Make checks payable to University of Hawai‘i Foundation and mail them to Mänoa Journal, c/o UHM English Dept., 1733 Donaghho Rd., Hon., HI 96822.
Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer.