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On familiar ground

Frequent East West partner Jon Shirota looks at U.S. guns overseas in 'Voices From Okinawa.'

January 30, 2008|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

Throughout his life, author and playwright Jon Shirota has been exploring the meaning of identity. The 80-year-old's newest work examines the relationship between U.S. and Okinawan culture in a present-day setting that evokes several parallels with the current war in Iraq.

"Voices From Okinawa" tells the story of Kama, an American of one-quarter Okinawan descent who receives his own cultural education as he teaches English to local Okinawans struggling with their relationship to American military GIs. The dramedy has its world premiere Feb. 13 at East West Players.

The idea for the play came after Shirota received a grant from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts to do research on immigration in Okinawa in 2005, a project he conceived because he wanted to explore his own family history.

"While I was there, I was lecturing to an American literature class at the University of the Ryukyus, and realized there's a play here about the students," Shirota says. "The story is set in 2005, and as the students tell their stories, we learn about the attitude of today's young people toward the military."

Starting to write

Because of its strategic location in the Pacific, Okinawa is home to U.S. military bases housing tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Local residents have protested the U.S. presence over the years, pointing to criminal activity and rapes of women by American soldiers and the loss of Okinawan culture.

Shirota, who grew up in Maui, says his father left Okinawa in 1907, along with three brothers, and became a pineapple grower on Maui. Although the three brothers eventually returned to Okinawa, Shirota's family stayed in Hawaii.

"There were eight kids in my family, and we didn't want to go back to Okinawa because we'd heard so many negative things after the war. People were virtually starving. But when you're young, you think it doesn't have anything to do with your life," he says. "After spending six months in Okinawa, I began to appreciate all my father went through."

Shirota was drafted in January 1946, four months after the war ended, and served a three-year hitch with the U.S. Army, the last year in occupied Kobe, Japan. "The Japanese had accepted defeat, and their immediate goal was to restore a semblance of order to their lives," Shirota recalls. "If there was any resentment toward us, because we were Japanese in American uniforms, they kept it to themselves."

After his discharge, Shirota attended Brigham Young University, graduating with a degree in accounting. Wanting to write, he traveled and took various accounting jobs -- in Greenland, New York and Okinawa -- while working on a novel in his spare time. In 1958, he was hired to be an IRS agent in Los Angeles.

He read the bestseller "From Here to Eternity" by James Jones, relating to the story set in Hawaii, and wrote to Lowney Handy, who had founded the Handy Writers' Colony in Marshall, Ill., along with her husband, Harry Handy, and her student, James Jones.

"I said I have a book in me that's better than 'From Here to Eternity,' and she told me to send it to her," says Shirota, laughing at his own audacity. "I sent her my first chapter, and on the first page, she wrote [an expletive]. On the second page, 'more. . . .' She said, 'I'll teach you how to write, but you have to believe in me.' " The playwright's eyes light up as he talks about his mentor, the memories animating his face and hands.

Shirota worked long distance with Handy for four years, but held on to his day job. One day, Handy told him he was ready to be a writer and asked if he would quit his career at the IRS and come to the Handy Colony.

The next day, Shirota turned in his resignation and drove to Illinois.

"The experience taught me you have one crack at life, so you better take it," says Shirota, who wrote his first novel "Lucky Come Hawaii" under Handy's tutelage at the colony. "Lowney was tough; she swore like a truck driver. But you had to love her because she was honest. She made me copy passages by Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck -- writers she respected -- to make me concentrate on what they did -- and it worked."

Back to East West

After leaving the colony, he went on to write another novel, "Pineapple White," and seven plays. The adaptation of "Lucky Come Hawaii" was recognized by the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays and was produced at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York.

"Fortunately, with my accounting background, I could always fall back on that whenever I was broke as a writer," he notes, wryly.

"Voices From Okinawa" is Shirota's fifth play at East West Players, reuniting the playwright with Tim Dang, East West's artistic director, for a second time. Dang directed Shirota's play "Leilani's Hibiscus" in 1999.

The new play will feature Amy Hill as Obaa-san, an Okinawa shaman, and Joseph Kim as Kama. The remainder of the cast consists of Japanese bilingual actors.

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