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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Minoru Shinoda, historian of Japan

 •  Obituaries

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

University of Hawai'i professor emeritus Minoru Shinoda, who died Oct. 12 at the age of 91, was born on a Ka'u sugar plantation on the Big Island and rose to become a noted Japan historian who was honored in 1997 with the Japanese government's Imperial Decoration, Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Rosette for promoting cultural ties between the United States and Japan.

"Those decorations are generally given to people who made outstanding contributions to Japanese and American friendship and understanding," said friend and fellow professor emeritus John Stephan, who worked with Shinoda through his long career at UH, first as a student and then a colleague.

"He was a meticulous scholar but also a gentleman and a gentle man."

Shinoda, who taught Japanese and Asian history at the University of Hawai'i from 1957 to 1984 and served as a vice-chancellor of the East-West Center from 1966 to 1970, came from a distinguished line of Hawai'i educators. His father, Yoshio Shinoda, ran a Japanese language school first in Ka'u and later in Hilo, where the family moved in 1919. His mother, Ima Shinoda, taught embroidery and flower-arranging.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the elder Shinoda was one of the Japan-born educators and Japanese community leaders rounded up by police and sent to internment camps in Hawai'i or on the Mainland, said Stephan.

It fractured the family, even though within a few months the elder Shinoda was released because his two sons were serving in the U.S. war effort.

"He told his sons, 'You are American, I am Japanese,' " relates Stephan, "and he urged his sons to be loyal Americans."

Minoru Shinoda, who by then had completed undergraduate work at UH plus two years in Japan on the Friend-Peace Scholarship before returning to UH for graduate studies, resigned to serve as an interpreter for the Provost Marshal's Office in Ho-nolulu.

"He actually interrogated the first prisoner of war," said his daughter, Elizabeth Williams.

In 1943 Shinoda joined the U.S. Military Intelligence Service Language School in Minnesota, staying on to teach Japanese language and history to interpreters. It was here, in 1944, where he met and married his wife, Emiko Tsuboi.

After the war, Shinoda completed his academic training at Columbia University, where he earned a doctoral degree, and was mentored by two of the pre-eminent men of their time in his field Englishman George Sansom, the premier 20th-century scholar of Japanese history, and Ryusaku Tsunoda, an extraordinary teacher who founded the Japanese section of Columbia's Chinese and Japanese Department in the 1920s.

But during those New York years from the late 1940s into the mid-1950s, what his children remember are the happy days of living in converted Army barracks at Camp Shanks, N.Y., which served as subsidized housing for veterans and grad students back in school as aspiring artists, writers and scholars.

"There were summer Scrabble games by lantern light," recalled Williams. "My father loved Scrabble and the Yankees, before moving back to Hawai'i where his love of sports continued with UH sports. He holds season tickets to football and basketball even now and I remember when he first taught me how to recognize a first down."

In 1960, the Columbia University Press published Shinoda's manuscript, "The Founding of the Kamakura Shogunate" based on his translation of part of the Azuma Kagami, a major chronicle of samurai society from the late 12th to the late 13th centuries, a period that covers the beginning of the medieval age in Japan.

"He wrote the first monograph of medieval Japanese history," said history professor emeritus Paul Varley, another colleague at UH. "The rest of the world followed in his path."

It was Shinoda who first translated key portions of the document, which means "Mirror of the East," and whose translation has since been used by other scholars. "It's still an important document for students and teachers," said Varley.

Karen Jolly, chairman of the UH History Department, called Shinoda's book "a model monograph of research" that is still used today.

"Making that available was a major step," she said.

After his retirement, Shinoda continued his interests as a historian, helping found the Joseph Heco Society under the umbrella of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i to explore the history of famed Japanese castaways around the 1850s Manjiro and Heco who played crucial roles in helping open Japan to the outside world. An exhibit telling their stories has been part of the Honolulu Festival held each March.

As a historian, Shinoda also had a peculiar way of answering even the simplest question asked by one of his children. "His answer would inevitably begin with, 'In the 15th century ... ' " said Williams, "or 'In 1898 ... ' "

One of the stories he liked to share, especially with his children, was how as a 6-year-old he fell into a sugar-cane flume in Hilo, riding the whole way down to the mill on a pile of sugar cane before being plucked to safety by mill workers alerted to the danger when his sister ran home for help.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Shinoda's memory may be made to the Minoru Shinoda Memorial Fund, with checks made to the UH Foundation and sent to the foundation, P.O. Box 11270, Honolulu, HI 96828. The fund is being established to help support the UH History Department, said Jolly.

Shinoda is survived by his wife, Emiko; daughters, Elizabeth Williams and Jean Turk; son, Robert; sister, Shiho Nunes; brother, Takashi; and three grandchildren. Service will be at 5 p.m. tomorrow at Makiki Christian Church. Hosoi Garden Mortuary is handling arrangements.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.