APPRECIATION: Aloha ‘Oe, Jon Shirota

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Maui Son’s Writing Brought Hawai‘i’s Okinawan Experience Into the Light

Longtime friends Jon Shirota and Professor Katsunori Yamazato. Yamazato is now president of Meio University in Nago, Okinawa. (Photo by Barbara Shirota)

Second of two parts

By KARLEEN CHINEN, The Hawai‘i Herald

“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.”

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,” Yamazato recalled. 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 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.

“JON-SENSEI” 

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-year-old 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.

During Yuki Nakasone’s visit to Los Angeles in 2009, Jon and Barbara showed the former Ryüdai student and her friend, Saya Nishime, the sights of LA. (Photo by Saya Nishime)

“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 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 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” is set in World War II Hawai‘i and is 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 it to Mänoa Journal, c/o UHM English Dept., 1733 Donaghho Rd., Honolulu, HI 96822. 

Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer.

 

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