story by Alison Steingold
photo by Dana Edmunds
O‘ahu, 1946. The war is over but the draft continues, which is how Jon Hiroshi Shirota—a Maui-born son of Okinawan immigrant parents—has found himself a soldier, a typist stationed in the clerks’ office at Schofield Barracks. If you’d asked the 18-year-old what he wanted to be when he grew up, he might have shrugged and asked whether you wanted to catch a drink at a nearby watering whole. He wouldn’t have said he wanted to be a writer. After all, he’d been a junior in high school … three years in a row.
But Shirota, now 81, is today a novelist and playwright and one of the most prominent and celebrated Asian-American voices of his generation. I’m sitting across from him in Los Angeles, in one of Little Tokyo’s hidden cafes, a short drive from his residence in Hacienda Heights. He’s a quiet but beaming man. In his aviator-style eyeglasses, windbreaker and gabardine slacks, he could be en route to a golf game or maybe an afternoon walk or reunion with his old Army pals. He never had children and didn’t marry until he was 65, but there’s a grandfatherly ease about Shirota, from the relaxed pace at which he eats to the silver streaks in his groomed black hair.
Don’t think for a second, though, that Shirota is slowing. After half a century as a writer, he’s still telling stories. This summer, the latest volume of Manoa, the University of Hawai‘i’s acclaimed literary journal, features three of Shirota’s plays as well as an essay. And this fall, Kumu Kahua will stage Shirota’s play Voices from Okinawa—fresh from its successful run in Los Angeles.