APPRECIATION: Aloha ‘Oe, Jon Shirota

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

Jon and Barbara Shirota in 2005 with then-University of the Ryukyus student Tatsunori Gushi. Jon was a grandfather figure to Gushi, who now teaches English to high schoolers in Okinawa. (Photo by Karleen Chinen)

First of two parts

By KARLEEN CHINEN, 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 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 largely 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 L.A. to meet with Jon and get his permission to include it in his book. “It took a little arm-twisting,” he recalled.

Last September, I called Jon in L.A., 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.

Jon Shirota

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 hard-working immigrants from Okinawa who raised pigs and grew pineapple for a living.

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 friendships.

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,” Kamata Shirota had said. 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.

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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