Bob Shimabukuro had a simple explanation for his many interests and passions. As a child growing up in Hawaii, asthma ruled his life.
When those breathless bouts were their worst, his parents or sister would rub his back to provide relief. Straining to breathe, he could do little but listen as his family members talked.
“My mother would sing, my dad lectured me on Marx and Hegel, my sister talked about how the world treats women,” Shimabukuro said in a 1994 Seattle Times interview.
When he grew up and caught his breath, Robert Sadamu Shimabukuro had a lot to say, and sometimes his voice boomed as he shined a light on inequality.
The journalist, activist, historian and “audacious community champion,” as his friend Ron Chew described him in a remembrance, died March 29. His wife, Alice Ito, said Shimabukuro died of natural causes after collapsing at home in Seattle. The longtime International Examiner columnist and editor was 75.
“He did a lot of different kinds of things,” Ito said. “And so people sometimes had trouble pigeonholing him because he had a number of different professional roles that to some eyes would be considered quite disparate or different. For example, he was at one time regarded as one of the finest fine woodworkers in the state of Oregon. He used to joke that he made the kind of furniture that we couldn’t afford.”
He’d also been a professional chef in his earlier life. By the time he moved to Seattle from Los Angeles in 1987, he was a journalist who’d spent significant time at the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League. He would go on to have an enormous impact on his adopted hometown and the Japanese American community for more than three decades.
“In all the time that he was in Seattle, he really kind of integrated himself into the community fairly quickly as somebody who was a very thoughtful observer of people and of events,” Chew said. “He started a column for the International Examiner newspaper when I was editor there. He was a very low-key kind of person — a little bit of a philosopher, a little bit of a dreamer, a social activist, a little bit of an artist, all wrapped up in one.”
He wrote in a style he described to Chew as “straight talk.” His column “Bull Session,” later redubbed “Fo’ Real,” became required reading in the Examiner.
His advocacy for Seattle’s marginalized communities stretched far beyond the Examiner. For instance, he helped found the Asian Pacific AIDS Council after the death of his brother, Sam.
Sam, who died of AIDS in 1988, was “one of the first Asian Americans who was out as a gay Asian man living with HIV,” Ito said. “And so that led to Bob’s work to address HIV-AIDS in a culturally competent manner, which in those days was unheard of. “
Shimabukuro also made an enormous contribution to the historical record of the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. He worked with Chew to create the “Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After” exhibit at Wing Luke Museum. The exhibit not only exposed a dark chapter in American history in harrowing detail — Shimabukuro hand-built a recreation of incarceration camp living quarters — it drew more than 10,000 visitors in six months and raised $150,000 for the struggling museum.
And his book, “Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress,” published in 2001 by the University of Washington Press, was an examination of the issues of redress and reparations for those who were incarcerated. The book was the result of hundreds of interviews.
“The reason that’s important is that a lot of people nationally don’t realize that the redress movement, really the impetus and the energy, was born here in Seattle,” Chew said. “And he’s the one person who documented it.”
Shimabukuro turned in his last column the day before his death. He was still swinging to the end.
“And so he lived until he died — he was very, very active that way,” Ito said. “I would say that he was never satisfied, especially with the state of the world, the country and the community now. With all that he and others had worked to achieve, to improve society and improve conditions for everyone, there was clearly so much more that needed to be addressed.”
Shimabukuro is survived by his wife, his daughter Mira, son Zenwa and grandson Mako. A small private ceremony for family and friends is planned in response to COVID-19 concerns. Ito said there may be a public remembrance at a later date.