Bob Shimabukuro: Remembering his legacy of community activism, art and creative journalism

Bob Shimabukuro: Remembering his legacy of community activism, art and creative journalism

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Bob with his family. Photo courtesy of Mira Shimabukuro.

On Monday, March 29, our hearts were broken. Bob Shimabukuro died peacefully in his southeast Seattle home. We lost a perennial International Examiner writer, columnist, editor and audacious community champion.

Bob was born on Aug. 4, 1945, in Maui, Hawaii. In 1963, he left to attend Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he graduated with a philosophy degree. He worked as a carpenter, furniture designer and restaurant owner before moving to Los Angeles in 1984 to write for Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Before I met Bob, Karen Seriguchi, a trusted mutual friend who worked at the newspaper with him, told me: “He’s a solid writer. You’ll like him. Nice guy.” J.K. Yamamoto, another staffer, often discussed pop culture with Bob. “He had a different take on movies,” J.K. said. “He found the ending of ‘Back to the Future’—where Marty’s family had a nice house and a nice car—overly materialistic. In ‘Ghostbusters,’ he saw no reason to chase down ghosts that ‘weren’t doing a damn thing.’”

In the summer of 1987, Bob shuffled nonchalantly into the tiny second-floor office of the International Examiner in Chinatown, shortly after he resettled in Seattle. He wanted to write a column. I was editor. I was intrigued. I had read some of his stuff in the Pacific Reader. His articles were, as he himself described, “straight talk” ramblings, “diced out with a little humor,” sometimes satirical or angry.

As Bob and I talked, I suggested a few Asian American themes. I told him that a little irreverence would be nice. I don’t remember much of what he actually said that day. A window-mounted air conditioner roared loudly behind me. He mumbled. His voice trailed. I kept repeating, “What did you say?” He tried to speak louder, but the effort made him cough. I felt guilty. I pretended that I heard him so he wouldn’t have to strain. I dumbly kept nodding.

We at least agreed on a name for his column. Leafing through the dog-eared paperback edition of “Soule’s Dictionary of English Synonyms” on my desk, I found the words “bull session.” It wasn’t the best, but in the era of the typewriter, before the web, I had nowhere else to scrounge for ideas. Bob didn’t care. “Fine with me,” he said.

His column became popular. The other Examiner staffers jokingly called him “Bull Session Bob.” He joined me and Serena Louie, Dean Wong, David Takami, Greg Tuai, Michelle Kumata, Ann Fujii, Ken Mochizuki and Elaine Ito on our regular lunch visits to Ying Hei, a homestyle Chinese diner on South King Street. He was initiated into the curious ritual of me ordering each person’s dish for them. Serena giggled. “Ron thinks we take too long trying to figure out what we want, so he just tells us what to order,” she explained. From that day forth, our lunches grew even more wacky and boisterous.

The group later became the “ID lunchee bunch,” consisting mostly of retired Examiner contributors who gather every month or two at non-pretentious International District restaurants for a relaxed meal and lavish gossip. The ordering protocol has advanced. Each person decides on a dish.

In 2016, editor Travis Quezon renamed Bob’s column “Fo’ Real.” They both graduated from Punahou School in Honolulu. Bob explored social issues via personal stories. He wrote poignantly about his brother Sam’s battle with AIDS. He shared stories as he watched the aging of his parents and his feisty uncle, and the maturation of his daughter and son. He reflected on Valentine’s Day romance, Asian American journalists, national politics, the arts, baseball and racial intolerance and violence.

Bob met his second wife, Alice Ito, in 1985, while he was working in Los Angeles and she was helping to establish an Asian women’s shelter in San Francisco. The two eventually decided to relocate to Seattle, Alice’s hometown. They married on Aug. 27, 1988. Bob found a studio space in Pioneer Square and began to craft fine furniture, returning to a pursuit from his earlier life in Portland, where he owned Shimabukuro Distinct Furniture.

For their engagement, Bob asked Alice, “Would you prefer a diamond ring or a chair?” She wanted the chair. Alice is very short—4’8”. He measured her legs, then made a cherry rocking chair to accommodate her size. “The height of the chair legs is perfect,” Alice said. “He made one mistake though. He didn’t measure my arms. The armrests are a little off.”

Bob’s daughter from his previous marriage, Mira, once thought her dad’s Portland business was Shimabukuro Extinct Furniture. By the time she was six or seven, Bob had joined the movement for Japanese American redress and had taken part in the Fred Hampton Free Health Clinic, started by the Portland Black Panthers. He also ran Tanuki, a small yakitori restaurant.

“Before he became a writer,“ Mira recalled, “I knew him as an artist, whose mediums were wood and food, and as an activist committed to both Black and Asian causes.”

Bob introduced Mira to strong Asian American women leaders like Chisao Hata, Misa Joo, Peggy Nagae, Roberta Wong and Christine Choy. “I wouldn’t understand the significance of having these women as community aunties until much later in life,” she said. “He knew I needed to know via models that Asian American women could both make incredible art and they could change the world.”

I introduced Bob to several other Asian American organizations in the International District. I asked him to become an officer in the Seattle chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, formed in 1985 after Karen Seriguchi was hired as its first national director. The Examiner office became the rent-free chapter headquarters.

After I joined the Wing Luke Museum as director in 1991, I enlisted Bob to help with exhibition and writing projects at the fledgling institution, located in a renovated auto garage on Seventh Avenue South.

In 1992, Bob worked on the Museum’s first homegrown exhibition. It was titled, “Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After.” It focused on the incarceration of Japanese Americans in Seattle. Bob worked with Nisei volunteer Paul Aburano to design and build a replica of a barrack from the Minidoka War Relocation Center. The two used tar paper, installed an old potbelly stove and cots, and Chinatown medic Donnie Chin provided old tins and other period artifacts.

The work was intense, but Bob’s diplomacy and wry humor lifted everyone’s spirits. Volunteers Michelle Kumata and Sally Yamasaki used rubber bands to tie up Bob’s naturally curly hair into little bunches. “His hair looked like little broccoli florets,” Museum Education Coordinator Charlene Mano recalled.

Bob playing the ukelele. Photo courtesy of Mira Shimabukuro.

Before Charlene met Bob, she imagined—from reading “Bull Session”—that he was probably “a loud obnoxious person.” She was surprised to discover that he was “soft-spoken, funny and really, really kind.”

“He was such a great storyteller,” she added. “Later, I saw how hard he worked on the Museum’s AIDS quilt exhibit so that his brother Sam’s story could be told and remembered.” After Sam’s death, Bob helped establish the Asian Pacific AIDS Council.

Bob spent many late nights constructing the barrack, which became the emotional cornerstone of the exhibition. He hauled lumber and supplies to the Museum in his battered white Nissan pickup truck. One evening, I bumped into Bob in the driveway outside the Museum. He had returned from Eagle Hardware on Rainier Avenue South. He tried to unload several 4’x8’ plywood sheets through the bright blue truck bed cover. He couldn’t do it.

Rivulets of sweat ran down both sides of his forehead. He grimaced. I noticed a limp.

“Need a hand?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Thanks.”

“Are you okay, Bob? I can handle this by myself.”

After we finished, he looked like he was in pain. I persisted, “Are you okay?”

After a pause, he explained, “Reverse vasectomy.”

It was my turn to grimace. “Oh. Ouch!”

Well, if this isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

The “EO 9066” exhibition, which attracted over 10,000 visitors over a six-month run, raised over $150,000. It rescued the Museum, which had struggled to climb out of a deep financial hole. The display showcased a new model of community exhibition development, leading to the Wing Luke earning the 1995 National Award for Museum Service.

Meanwhile, Zenwa Toshio Ito Shimabukuro was born on Nov. 23, 1994. His first name comes from Bob’s uncle. Toshio was the name of Alice’s father.

Bob and I both loved watching baseball. With comp tickets we received in the mail at the Examiner, we braved the long walk from Chinatown to the Kingdome to cheer for our hapless Seattle Mariners. It didn’t matter that our team invariably lost or that we both were impossibly nearsighted and sat in the far reaches of the 300 level bleachers, where we couldn’t see or hear a thing. We lost track of time, snacking on hom bow from King Café, comparing players, past and present, and sharing intimate community stories. In 1993, as the Mariners got less hapless, Bob got lucky. He and David Takami witnessed Chris Bosio’s no-hit victory over the Boston Red Sox.

In 1992, several months after we opened the “Executive Order 9066” exhibition, Charlene handed me a promotional flier that she thought I might find amusing. It advertised, “Pacific Northwest Wilderness Gathering: Recovering the Deep Masculine.” On two consecutive weekends in May, three credentialed white male social workers would help men “discover their own deeply buried sense of power, energy and masculine pride” through drumming, poetry, sweat lodges and other rituals. The flier urged, “Come join us at Lost Mountain Ranch on the rugged Olympic Peninsula.” Seriously?

I showed the flier to Bob. He cackled loudly. “Hey, Bob, can I use your photo image? I want to promote a special event for our community.” He agreed, curious to see what mischief I was going to drag him into. Using scissors, Scotch tape, a black pen and a copy machine, I transposed our faces over the faces of the men on the original flier. I created a new flier for a competing event, “Pacific Northwest Wilderness Gathering: Recovering the Shallow Masculine.” Our flier said, “Come join us at Ying Hei Ranch near the pungent alley behind Wing Luke.”

The two fliers—reproduced in tandem—provided fodder for riotously sidesplitting lunches at Ying Hei. In the months that followed, it instigated community conversations about white male privilege.

The original “Pacific Northwest Wilderness Gathering” flyer. Courtesy of Ron Chew.
The edited “Pacific Northwest Wilderness Gathering” flyer, with a makeover. “At this Gathering, we will contrast our fine experiences with Chinese food with our hurtful relationships with cheese. We will explore how the smell and thought of cheese is still hampering our ability to be intimate partners and to walk manfully through the cheese section in local grocery stores.” Photo courtesy of Ron Chew.

Theresa Fujiwara hired Bob as a diarist for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He wrote about 18 White Center activists who had come together to create community change. Bob conducted interviews, attended meetings, shared meals and came to know their history. “The document remains a source of pride for those who participated because Bob was such a genuine, respectful interpreter of their stories,” Theresa recounted. “Bob saw the world through a humanitarian lens steeped in values and respect and empathy for lived experience.”

Bob’s most prominent written legacy was Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress, chronicling the dogged efforts of local Nisei organizers in the 1970s and ‘80s who laid the foundation for passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The book was published by University of Washington Press in 2001.

Mira said she helped her dad “connect the dots in writerly ways so the details of the history he wanted to tell could shine, and the overall story would still flow.” Alice helped in the same way, also serving as proofreader.

“His mind would seem to drift or float, but it was purposeful,” Alice said. “Underlying everything, Bob’s father wanted Bob to be a great social reformer. He never felt he quite lived up to that. I told him, ‘Yes, you did.’ Bob tried to engage readers to think about the world in a different way and influence a shift in social priorities so that people would support and take action to make things better.”

Karen Seriguchi recalled that Bob loved to talk about his family, especially his kids. “He told me that his health wasn’t good, but that he wanted to live long enough to see Zenwa graduate from high school. After that, he said he could leave without much regret.”

In 2013, Zenwa graduated from Garfield High School. In 2017, he earned a degree in visual arts from the University of Washington.

After I heard about Bob’s sudden death last week, I emailed the ID lunchee bunch. Mayumi Tsutakawa quickly responded, “He was a great man.” She was so right.

Bob is survived by his wife, Alice Ito, daughter Mira Shimabukuro and son-in-law Wayne Au, son Zenwa Shimabukuro, grandson Mako, sisters Toki Shimabukuro and Ann Colunga (John Droegmiller), brothers Roy Shimabukuro and Ned Shimabukuro (Dee), Irene Whitaker (George), nieces and nephews Carlos Colunga, Marisela Maldonado (Angel), and Tibb Shimabukuro (Veronica), very dear cousins, and their children.

He was preceded in death by his father, Zenshu Shimabukuro, mother Yasuko Nakanishi Shimabukuro, and brothers Tom Shimabukuro and Sam Shimabukuro.

Bob’s family suggests that donations in his memory go to support API Chaya and the International Examiner.

Send checks to:

API Chaya
PO Box 14047
Seattle, WA 98114

Or make online donation: https://www.apichaya.org/

Send checks to:

International Examiner
409 Maynard Ave. S. #203
Seattle, WA 98104

Or make online donation: https://iexaminer.org/support/

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