Zen Uncle. • Courtesy Photo
Zen Uncle. • Courtesy Photo

“America has the worst (human rights) record in the world!”

—Zenshu Shimabukuro, … 1953, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’59—’62, when he died.

“America has the greatest Constitution in the world!”

—Zenshu Shimabukuro, 1958.

* * *

The reason my dad changed his tune in 1958 was that the “Hawai‘i Seven,” who had been serving time for violations of the Smith Act, were set free by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that the abstract teaching of communism did not constitute conspiracy to overthrow the government by force or violence as defined by the Smith Act.

That decision was instrumental in affecting his thoughts about America. Dad followed local, national, and international politics and shared his thoughts about the world in family conversations, especially around the dinner table. He was happy that day. He thought America had a chance to redeem itself.

* * *

A year ago, for an Independence Day column, I wrote about my dad and his thoughts about America. This year, with the death of my Zen Uncle a week ago, along side the current anti-immigrant, exclusionary, frightening thoughts being expressed today, I thought a conversation with Zen Uncle was a most appropriate July 4 article this year.

Zen Tokuda 1914-2016

Zen Tokuda: “What you doing now, Bob?”

Bob: “Some woodworking, making furniture. Some writing, editing. Some community organizing.”

“Oh yeah? What dat, community organizing?”

“Sort of like labor organizing. But instead, get folks to work together for family, relatives, friends, village, you know, community, like kenjinkai.”

“Oh, like organizing workers, only not workers.”


“So, you, like what, leadah?”

“No, more like teachah.”

“Oh dat’s good. Because sometimes labor leadahs, you gotta watch ‘em. Dey just as bad as bosses. Steal from workers too.”

“Yeah, sometimes teachahs no good too. Gotta watch out.”

“Gotta watch out from odda side too?”

“What odda side?”

“Well, I wen’ hang around with some of da Hawai‘i Seven folks. Then stopped hangin’ around. They went  jail, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Then good thing you stop hanging around, yah?”

And we laughed. And then I said: “Yeah, sometimes, we have to watch out from odda side too.”

“Then you bettah watch out good, OK?”

“Yeah, Uncle. No worry.”

Zen Uncle was a pipefitter. Had some good stories. Lively sense of humor. And very creative. When I was 13-14  years old, he showed me his very old car patched together with parts from other things. He had replaced his broken radiator with a refrigerator unit that he attached to the engine.

I also remember going into “the big house” when I was much younger, where none of the kids were supposed to go. But being very curious about why we couldn’t go there I once snuck in and saw a bathroom that was really strange. There were pipes attached to the walls in all kinds of configurations, but they were not attached to any water intake so I could not understand what they were for. Some were towel holders, I reasoned, but why were there vertical bars? The terrible part of this was I couldn’t ask anybody what these were, because I wasn’t supposed to have gone there.

Well, I’ll stop here. This is beginning to sound like a Smarter Balanced Test story question I once read, about a girl who went into her grandmother’s bedroom and “borrowed a baseball” signed by Babe Ruth and played with it. It was followed by questions about what the little girl should have done or learned about other people’s property.

Maybe you all could help me finish this story and we’ll send the questions to Arne Duncan. See if he could pass the test. He’s never answered any of the other questions I’ve asked.

It’s been a tough haul this past year. To hear that Zen Uncle had died Sunday (Father’s Day) hit me hard.

As I’ve said much too often over the last few months, “Even when you know someone’s going to die soon, it still hurts when he/she does.”

Thank you Zen Uncle (and Kiyoko Auntie too), for all your stories, and all the help you’ve given our family. One good thing about this, is that our families will be getting together in Hawai‘i in mid-July for services for both Zen Uncle and my brother Tom. We’ll also probably share our memories of Kiyoko Auntie, who died a few months ago.  

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