Bob Shimabukuro: Side Street Renaissance Man (August 4, 1945-March 29, 2021)

by Sharon Maeda

 “Daydreaming isn’t allowed in the fast lane. So Bob Shimabukuro has mostly lived life on side streets, taking a detour now and again to help other people along the way.”

That’s how former Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large captured the essence of Bob in 1994. To that I would add: Renaissance Man. In addition to being a writer and a consummate family man, Bob was also an artist, chef, community activist/leader, feminist, furniture designer/woodworker, Hawai‘i-style philosopher, and so much more. 

You may not have known Bob, but you’ve likely read his byline and Hawai‘i-style talk story, or read multiple tributes in local media since his passing. Although he never returned to live in his beloved Hawai‘i after graduating from Portland’s Reed College in 1967, you could never take him out of the Islands. He was a quiet guy from Hawai‘i with proud Okinawan roots. He came from a large family of modest means, but all seven siblings got scholarships to the prestigious Punahou, a private, K-12 college prep school where another smart student also attended on scholarship: Barack Obama.

Photo of Bob Shimabukuro
Bob’s 70th Birthday (Photo: Sharon Maeda).

On April 18, Bob’s family hosted a virtual remembrance for “family and close friends.” Last I looked, over 200 people registered! As I viewed the Zoom gallery pages, I recognized prominent community activists, writers from journalists to novelists, artists, friends, former colleagues, and business and political leaders. Together, they represented the many facets of Bob’s life. 

The event was very Bob: Hawai‘ian music, tropical virtual backgrounds, and aloha shirts were prominent. Family members, including Bob’s son, Zenwa, sang and played the ukulele; they also read their own poetry and shared stories from friends. 

Bob did much of his talking with the printed word. He was a community journalist — listener, writer, and editor — and he was passionate about equity and inclusion long before they became buzz words. But no matter how serious the topic, Bob found the humor and irony. He wrote, for example, about his Reed days in the International Examiner: “The early months in Portland I felt like an immigrant, because I really was from a different country as far as everyone else (including the Reed students) was concerned and I felt the anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous attitudes of Portland.” He went on to say, “AJAs (Americans of Japanese Ancestry) often said (derisively) about the Okinawans in Hawai‘i, ‘the difference between a Japanese and an Okinawan is that the Okinawans aren’t afraid to make an ass of themselves.’ Given my initial impressions at Reed, I decided I could take that as a compliment and survive very well. As a Reed student. As an Okinawan.”

Bob worked long hours to tell stories, fight for justice, and creatively share his talents. He was editor of the Pacific Citizen (PC), the national paper of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in Los Angeles; he was then editor and a longtime columnist at both the International Examiner and The Advocate, a monthly newsletter by Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA). Bob had a signature “straight talk” style; he jumped from one thought to another, leaving readers unsure of a connection until the end of the article. 

That style, you might say, reflected his life and career, too. In 1976, Bob opened Tanuki, a Japanese restaurant in Portland. He designed the space and long wooden counter and stools — and was the chef. The artist Chisao Hata’s son, Jon Cawthorne, worked in the kitchen at age 16 and somehow learned woodworking. “He taught me how to make a box and I’ve kept [it] ever since,” said Jon, who is now Dean of the Wayne State Library System in Detroit. 

The Shimabukuro family at the beach (photo courtesy of The Shimabukuro family).

My path first crossed Bob’s in the early 1980s. I couldn’t find affordable housing or a “real” neighborhood in Los Angeles, so I jumped at the chance to rent a friend’s Spanish stucco apartment near St. Elmo’s Village, a Black-led artist community. Bob and I became housemates out of economic necessity. He said our balcony was so much nicer than his roof back home. With such a large family in a small house, climbing out on the roof was his only quiet space.  

His culinary skills also grew from his upbringing. While Bob was certainly a great chef, I could not believe how many ways he could slice, dice, and flavor cabbage and carrots. It turns out it had more to do with his modest family budget when he was a child than Okinawan cuisine. 

Bob’s then girlfriend, Alice Ito, flew down from San Francisco to help him move into our place. I later learned that she wanted to make sure I was clear on the fact that she was Bob’s girlfriend. I became a witness to their growing relationship. After spending a weekend with Alice, Bob said incredulously, “I think she loves me.”  Having been around men who couldn’t express their feelings, I quickly said, “But how do YOU feel?” He broke out in the largest smile I had ever seen. 

By 1987, we both had resigned our high-stress media jobs and were headed home to Portland and Seattle. Less than a mile out, cars were honking and pedestrians were waving their arms at us. We forgot to lock the back of the U-Haul. At the corner of La Brea and Venice (think Rainier and MLK), my laundry bag spilled all over the street. As I pulled the truck over, Bob went through the intersection picking up my clothes, from red lingerie to dirty sweats! I was totally mortified, but Bob just laughed. 

Soon after, Bob and Alice got engaged and he permanently left Portland for Seattle. They were an unlikely pair:  she the impeccably dressed, always prepared professional and Stanford grad from Bellevue, he the talented, creative dreamer in baggy jeans, T-shirt, and zoris — a Reed “counterculture” grad from Honolulu. Bob lovingly designed and crafted Alice a chair that was sized for her, allowing her feet to touch the floor. 

In 1988, Bob and Alice and his brother Sam and his partner, Bruce McDonald, were married a week apart. Sam was suffering from the late stages of AIDS and the family was comforted that he and Bruce formalized their commitment. It was bittersweet for Bob. In childhood, Sam was the healthy one and brought school assignments home for Bob when asthma kept him home. 

Shortly after Sam passed away, Bob started the Asian Pacific AIDS Council, having learned that there were no support systems or HIV/AIDS advocacy groups for the API community. It was first housed at People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN) and later transitioned to the International Community Health Services (ICHS). At Bob’s tribute, Norma Timbang told the group about “Bob Magic.” He was able to secure donations to keep their fledgling efforts afloat. When she was turned down as a member of a larger AIDS awareness committee because “Asians don’t have an AIDS problem,” Bob managed to get her appointed.

Bob was always a staunch activist for civil rights and justice. He didn’t stand in front with a bullhorn. He stood quietly near the back of rallies, took notes, and used his pen to bring home the point. From redress for Japanese Americans to Social Security, Black Lives Matter to immigration reform, he was always writing. 

He wrote numerous times about redress for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, for example. He was asked: why redress and reparations for Japanese Americans and not for Blacks? His answer: Because it clearly wasn’t enough, but it was available. Bob learned that the ACLU won a lawsuit and received compensation for 1,250 mostly white anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at the rate of about $2,500 each for the three days they spent in jail. He calculated the equivalent to be over $1.35 million for each Japanese American incarcerated for about three years. The actual compensation, offered as part of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, ended up as a token $20,000. By the same calculations, Bob reasoned that reparations for descendants of slaves would be in the billions of dollars each. 

Bob didn’t like public speaking, but the publication of his book required many readings. One of his proudest moments was when he and his daughter, Mira, jointly read from their work at Elliott Bay Books in February 2017. To a standing room-only crowd, Mira presented her new book, Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration, while Bob reintroduced Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress, chronicling the first movement for Japanese American redress for incarceration during WWII. 

A few days before he passed, Bob and Norma Timbang were on the phone talking about anti-Asian violence. Finding dark humor, Bob said, “Hey, I got white people telling me they are sorry.”

Chisao’s Box (Photo courtesy of Chisao Hata).

I once visited Bob’s Pioneer Square woodworking studio under the Viaduct. Bob was working on a commissioned dining table, slowly hand-sanding the top surface in a meditative fashion. It reminded me of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on … wax off” scene in Karate Kid

Bob transitioned to making wood boxes with interlocking joints —  no nails. At the tribute, Chisao Hata shared a photo of the box he made for her out of padauk African hardwood to honor her Black children. When I was about to become a HUD spokesperson, Bob made me a podium foot stool. Of all the short people in the Clinton Administration, I’m sure I had the classiest footstool.

Bob was also the lead builder of the replica of a family unit in the WWII concentration camps at the Wing Luke Museum. I happened to see similar exhibits at both the Japanese American National Museum in LA and at the Smithsonian in D.C., and to this day, I still think the Wing’s was the most authentic exhibit. Bob made sure of that.

It was ironic that sawdust, toxic printer ink, and the stressful pace of publication deadlines and restaurant ownership were all triggers for asthma attacks. It was like Bob was thumbing his nose at his lifelong medical condition.

But whether woodworking or writing, Bob always did what Portland civil rights attorney Peggy Nagae called “guarding the truth.”

Sili Savusa, a White Center community activist, also told a story at his tribute. She said she would often speak  to local officials about her concerns, but felt she was not heard and was often frustrated. Bob was the diarist for the community and encouraged her. Now the executive director of the White Center Community Development Association, Savusa said, “Bob inspired me to be a better dreamer.” 

Shimabukuro Family (Photo courtesy of The Shimabukuro family).

 Bob would be embarrassed with all these well-deserved accolades. His daughter Mira, ended the virtual tribute with a comment about how Bob always struggled for oxygen, but always found the air to act on his motto: “We have a lot to do.”

We can’t all be renaissance people with a myriad of talents. But a fitting tribute to Bob would be to continue to lift up our voices — to continue to fight for justice, always with a sense of humility and humor, whether up front or on the side streets, like Bob.  

In addition to Alice and Zenwa, Mira and her partner, Wayne Au, and son, Mako, Bob left behind his sisters Toki and Ann, brothers Ned and Roy, sister-cousin Irene and their families. He was preceded in death by his parents and brothers Tom and Sam. 

Donations in Bob’s memory can be made to API Chaya or the International Examiner. 

Authors Note: This article originally spoke of Bob as “Hawaiian.” Only Native Hawai‘ians should be called Hawai‘ian. That was the author’s error that goes back to the 1960’s when her classmates from the 50th state referred to themselves as “Hawai‘ian” — probably in defense against the fact that students of Asian ancestry were frequently treated as international students. 

Editors’ Note: We also updated each instance of “Hawai‘i” and “Hawai‘ian” to include the ‘okina — or in some cases, to replace the apostrophe (which is incorrect; the ‘okina faces the opposite direction).

Sharon Maeda is the Emerald’s retired planning director and had a 40+ year friendship with Bob Shimabukuro in LA and Seattle. This was a very difficult tribute for her to write; there are so many more stories to tell. His partner, Alice Ito, was her Spectra Communications business partner.

📸 Featured Image: The Shimabukuro Family, 1950 Bob is front left. Photo courtesy of The Shimabukuro Family.

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