By J.K. Yamamoto—The just-released movie “Howl” depicts a milestone in literary history — the arrest and trial of a publisher and a bookstore manager in 1957 on charges of selling an “obscene” book.
The book was Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” which freely used profanity, denounced capitalism, and addressed controversial topics like homosexuality. It begins with the oft-quoted line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …”
The bookstore was City Lights in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The publisher and store owner was Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the manager was Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao, a Nisei from Seattle. The high-profile trial ended in acquittal and a finding that the poem had redeeming social value.
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”), the movie depicts icons of the “Beat Generation,” including Ginsberg, played by James Franco; Ferlinghetti, played by Andrew Rogers; and Jack Kerouac (author of “On the Road”), played by Todd Rotondi. The cast also includes Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, David Strathairn as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, and Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton Horn.
But Shig Murao is nowhere to be found.
Patricia Wakida, formerly of Heyday Books in Berkeley and currently with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, is working on a biography of Murao. When she heard that the movie was being made, she tried to contact the producers but got no reply.
“Is Shig Murao also part of the script?” Wakida wrote to Epstein and Friedman in June. “It would be blasphemy to leave out the most ironic character in the ‘Howl’ story — the Japanese American who is put into American internment camps, then serves in occupied Tokyo in the U.S. Army, who then becomes the long-time manager of City Lights bookstore and who is actually arrested by the S.F. police for selling ‘Howl’ and actually goes to jail. Ginsberg was in Tangier (Morocco), and Ferlinghetti was in Big Sur. Shig was the one who took the fall.”
Wakida has not seen the film but was able to confirm
that Murao is not depicted. She discussed the matter with a staff member at City Lights. “She said that it’s tragic that they decided to do this, but she didn’t know how to push them otherwise. However, she recently told me that the directors came to CL for the DVD release and asked if they could use some of the CL archive photos, including an entire file on Shig, to include in their ‘extras.’ ”
“Shig played such an important role in the life of North Beach, City Lights and the Beat artists, but the creators of ‘Howl’ the movie didn’t seem to care,” said community activist Rich Wada in an e-mail to San Francisco Examiner columnist Ken Garcia, who wrote an article about “Howl” on Sept. 22 and did not mention Murao.
Wakida commented, “What’s ironic is with Chinatown and a burgeoning Filipino population flanking North Beach on one end and the jazz scene going full blast up and down Broadway, the forced removal of the JAs and the exotification of all things Japanese and Chinese by the Beats, it’s impossible not to look at the story from the race perspective and how it was absolute in its influence on the art, music and poetry of this particular scene ...
“Ginsberg was openly gay, which makes the story a tad more interesting. (But) how ironic and sad that the white establishment had to write out such a critical part of the ‘Howl’ story — the very man who, a mere 10 years before, had been forced into an American concentration camp … would be the one to take the fall for defending the right to freedom of speech and in the name of literature, only to be deliberately forgotten a generation later with the creation of this film.”
Epstein and Friedman were scheduled to appear at screenings of “Howl” on Sept. 24 and 25 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco Japantown.
Shig Murao, Bohemian Nisei Behind the ‘Howl’ Trial
By Patricia Wakida
“Imagine being arrested for selling poetry!” So were the words of Shigeyoshi Murao, the legendary Nisei bookstore manager of City Lights Book Shop for over two decades.
But on June 3, 1957, Shigeyoshi (or “Shig” as he was affectionately known by everyone who visited the store), was in fact arrested on charges of obscenity, after selling two San Francisco police officers a copy of “Howl and Other Poems” by poet Allen Ginsberg.
Murao is virtually unknown to the Yonsei generation, but as I delve into the archives of San Francisco history and interview Shig’s old North Beach poetry cronies, I have discovered quite by accident that Shig Murao was no ordinary postwar Nisei; he was a maverick artist and fierce defender of free expression, a man worthy of tribute and a prominent place in American literary history.
Shig Murao was also a consummate book lover, a confidant for nearly every major San Francisco “Beat” literary figure, the man responsible for creating the very ambience, the “soul” of City Lights bookstore.
Hailing from Seattle, Wash., Shig was the third child (his sisters are Mutsuko and Mitsuko, and brother Shigesato; Shigeyoshi also has a twin sister named Shizuko. All of his siblings are still living). His father, Shigekata Murao, owned Annex Meats, located at 14th and Yesler streets, with his mother helping in the store between domestic duties.
Following the implementation of Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, the Murao family was incarcerated, first in Camp Harmony/Puyallup Assembly Center, then in Minidoka, Idaho, where Shig and his sister Shiz graduated from Hunt High School.
Just shy of 18, Shig then trained and served as a Japanese language interpreter for the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service in occupied Tokyo in late 1945, while his older brother Shigesato joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Following service in the MIS, Shig returned to the U.S., traveling through New York, Chicago, and Reno, before settling down in San Francisco, where he would hold court in the North Beach neighborhood for the rest of his life.
Shig first began working at City Lights in 1955 and immediately began setting the standard for the store’s eclectic book stock, its bohemian clientele, and its hip ambience, which permeates City Lights bookstore to date.
In 1956, City Lights owner and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti released poet Allen Ginsburg’s book, “Howl,” as No. 4 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, which led to the arrest in 1957 of Ferlinghetti and Murao on the charges of obscenity.
Against the background of heightened publicity, Judge Clayton W. Horn, a Sunday school Bible teacher, found Ferlinghetti and Murao not guilty in October 1957, a triumph for 20th century literature and the freedom of speech for generations to come. “Howl” is often referred to as the “Beat Manifesto,” and became one of the most influential books of 20th century American poetry.
As the store’s reputation grew internationally, becoming a place of devout pilgrimage for writers and others, Shig remained behind the bookstore’s counter, guardian to the center of American counter-culture throughout the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s.
Shig was officially signed as co-owner and partner of City Lights in this era. He occasionally published a remarkable run of whimsical Xeroxed pamphlets known as “Shig’s Review,” which visually chronicled his political and poetic network of friendships.
Very little has been written about Shig Murao, other than bits and pieces found in the various literary studies of San Francisco or the Beat Generation, but I am hoping to rectify this. I am actively seeking people who remember him and who would be willing to be interviewed for an ambitious biography I am writing.
Having never met Shig (he died in 1999 in Cupertino), I can only speculate about the depths of his extraordinary character and fierce pride, which was countered by his boundless capacity to share in his knowledge of books.
Shig Murao, having lived through the war and the camps and witnessed first-hand the devastation in occupied Japan, was a hero on both counts — by serving the cause of literature and freedom of expression in the United States, making his stand on a corner in North Beach.
If you would like to share stories about Shigeyoshi Murao (not to be confused with older brother Shigesato, celebrated for his athletic achievements both in Seattle and Chicago), while growing up in Seattle, in the camp at Minidoka or with the MIS in occupied Tokyo, please contact me at
Patricia Wakida is the associate curator of history at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Her published books include “Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience” (researcher/co-editor; 2000) and “Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori” (editor; 2001).