Shigeyoshi "Shig" Murao

Name Shigeyoshi "Shig" Murao
Born December 8 1926
Died October 18 1999
Birth Location Seattle, WA
Generational Identifier


Nisei Shigeyoshi Murao was the co-owner and manager of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. In 1957, he was arrested on charges of obscenity after selling to undercover San Francisco police officers a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and other Poems and stood trial at a landmark case, defending literature and the freedom of the press.

Early Life

Murao's parents, Shigekata (born November 13, 1888) and Ume (Sata) Murao (born January 13, 1899), were both from the town of Chinran, Kagoshima-ken, Japan. When he was nineteen, Shigekata sailed on the SS Kagamaru in Yokohama for Seattle, Washington, arriving on January 22, 1908. Over the next twelve years, he held odd jobs, including working as a cook and dishwasher. Eventually he earned enough to open his own butcher shop in Seattle's Japantown , and with this success, in 1920 he returned to Japan. Immigration records show that he returned on February 10, 1921, with his new bride, Ume, and settled in Seattle. Their first child, Mitsuko, was born in 1922, followed by fraternal twins Shigesato and Masako (who died as an infant.) Two years later, Shigeyoshi and his twin sister, Shizuko, were born on December 8, 1926, and their youngest sister, Mutsuko, was born in 1929.

By 1933, Murao Annex Meats was a well established business that was attached to the Murao family home. All five children attended public schools and the Japanese language school , and while older brother Shigesato blossomed into a star athlete who excelled in judo, baseball and basketball, Shigeyoshi was sickly and spent long stretches at a time at home in bed, reading. By December 1941, Shigeyoshi and his twin Shizuko, were freshmen at Broadway High School and on the brink of celebrating their fifteenth birthday on December 8, 1941.

War Years and MIS

On December 7, 1941 Imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II, followed by the passage of Executive Order 9066 , authorizing the mass incarceration of all persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast. Murao's father sold the butcher shop to a Chinese man and in June 1942, reported with the family to the Field House downtown, where they boarded buses to the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup, Washington, which had been turned into a temporary detention center euphemistically known as "Camp Harmony." On August 31, 1942, the Murao family moved by train to the Minidoka concentration camp located in Hunt, Idaho. In 1944, Shigeyoshi's older brother Shigesato enlisted in the army with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , 3rd BN, I Company, and trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Shigeyoshi elected to join the Military Intelligence Service and was released from Minidoka on April 27, 1944, reporting to Ft. Douglas, Utah, before he was sent to Ft. Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota, for army language training. He was still in training on August 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered, ending the war. However, the U.S. War Department declared its intent to use the Nisei and the MIS in occupied Japan, and in September, Murao and his unit arrived at Camp Zama Army Base in Tokyo to work as translators for the U.S. Army. The MIS interpreters were quickly integrated into the Tokyo Kanagawa military government, stationed in Yokohama, to help in the monumental task of rebuilding Japan. On his first opportunity for a leave, he took a train to see his mother and father's hometown of Chinran, and was back in the U.S. in less than a year.

His parents and youngest sister Mutsuko remained in Minidoka until August 1945. At the urging of their older daughters Mitsuko and Shizuko, who were in college in the Midwest, they decided to move to Chicago , where Shigekata found work at a restaurant as a butcher, where he remained for ten years. Shigeyoshi enrolled at Roosevelt College with support from the GI Bill, but unexpectedly left Chicago and eventually landed in San Francisco, California, in the early 50s.

City Lights

In 1952, sociologist Peter Martin started publishing a literary magazine he called "City Lights" in homage to the Hollywood film of the same name, which featuring Berkeley and San Francisco writers such as Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Philip Lamantia, and Pauline Kael. Soon after, he decided to open a "pocket book shop" also known as City Lights, in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, with the idea of having the store help underwrite the costs of the literary magazine. Before long, poet Lawrence Ferling (later known as Ferlinghetti) would enter a partnership with Martin and the bookstore. City Lights Book Shop officially opened in June 1953, stocked with anarchist newspapers and modern paperback books.

Sometime in the early '50s, Murao was hired at Vesuvio's, the bar across the street from City Lights, where Peter Martin frequently came in for a drink. Eventually, Martin offered Murao a job at the book store, and in 1955 when Martin decided to sell his half of the bookstore to Ferlinghetti and left for New York, Murao was promoted to full-time bookstore manager. He also paid $500 of his own to Ferlinghetti towards the business, which officially made him co-owner of City Lights.

For twenty years, Murao lived around the corner from the bookstore at the Colombo Hotel, a single-residency hotel for mostly bachelors, before he settled into an apartment on Grant Street, where he stayed for several decades. Murao's appearance was decidedly bohemian: he grew a long, wispy beard and rode a motorcycle around San Francisco, before he suffered a serious bike crash in 1957. He quickly became a venerated icon at the store, handling all book orders and staff, organizing and overseeing events, and setting the tone to the place. Within a few years, City Lights was the epicenter of cool, home and publisher of the "Beat" poetry movement, and the center of a national debate on literary censorship.

Howl Trial

With Murao in control of the book store, Ferlinghetti turned his attention towards launching an in-house publication, the City Lights Publishers Pocket Poet series. In 1956, Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems , by a then unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg as the fourth book in the Pocket Poet series, and despite the controversy regarding Ginsberg's use of profanity, streetwise culture and homosexual themes throughout the book, it sold well. Upon its second printing by a British printer overseas, the San Francisco collector of customs ordered all copies of Howl seized when it arrived in the San Francisco port. Meanwhile, Ferlinghetti arranged to have a separate edition printed in San Francisco, thereby restocking copies at City Lights. On May 21, 1957 undercover police officers visited the store and purchased Howl from Murao without incident. [1]

Several days later, the police returned with a warrant charging Ferlinghetti with willfully printing and selling lewd and indecent material, and Murao for selling it. Ferlinghetti was out of town, but the police arrested Murao and took him to the San Francisco Hall of Justice. Both Murao and Ferlinghetti faced up to six months in county jail and a fine of $500. After the American Civil Liberties Union posted bail, Murao was released and would stand trial with Ferlinghetti in a highly publicized trial that began in August 1957. [2] The pair were represented by ACLU lawyers Jake Ehrlich and Albert Bendich, who bore the task of proving that Howl and Other Poems wasn't an obscene book without literary value and merit. Murao was dismissed from the case early on, as the Penal Code required that he had "knowingly" sold the book, and prosecutors could not prove that the bookstore manager had in fact read the book. The trial ended with a landmark ruling by a judge who agreed that Howl was protected under the First Amendment and the freedom of the press. The trial made an international star of Allen Ginsberg, who became an exceptionally close, lifelong friend with Murao, and his apartment was Ginsberg's de facto home whenever he came to San Francisco. By the late 1950s, City Lights was the heart of the Beat movement, where writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder would come in to gossip with Murao. [3]

Shig's Review and Later Years

In 1960, Murao released the first issue of a self-published journal he named "Shig's Review." It included volumes of poetry that he edited, featuring Vincent McHugh, C. H. Kwock, and brothers Vincent and Sean McBride. If there was a second issue of "Shig's Review" it has been lost to time. "Shig's Review" #3 was published by City Lights in 1969, and its cover claimed that it included poetry by Shigeyoshi Murao, Yoshi Murao, Yoshi Murao Shigi, but instead, featured three versions of a portrait of Murao in his apartment holding a wooden toy bird on a stick, spliced and collaged in various ways. The publication would lie dormant for decades until the late 70s, when he resurrected the journal and produced a total of nearly eighty issues of the whimsical, xeroxed "Shig's Review," which chronicled his political and poetic network of friendships.

In 1970, Paul Yamazaki, a student at San Francisco State University who was active in the Third World Liberation Front strike, was hired at the store with help from Sansei poet, Francis Oka, who was hired sometime in the late 60s by Murao. Although Oka was hired first by Murao and was co-editor of the Asian American literary magazine Aion (1970-71) with poet Janice Mirikitani , many details about his relationship with Murao or his work at City Lights remain unknown because he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident on June 21, 1970. [4] As San Francisco Asian American poets, actors, artists and activists began to coalesce and organize, Murao offered the basement at City Lights occasionally for meetings. [5] Yamazaki has since been promoted to the position of City Lights book buyer. [6]

Unfortunately, Murao's health had been failing for years, largely due to a poor diet, his inert position behind the counter at City Lights, and most importantly, his daily habit of drinking at least a pack of Coca-Cola. In 1975, he suffered a stroke that forced Ferlinghetti to hire staff to take over the store while he recuperated. In that period, it was discovered that book thieves were a chronic problem and that financially, the bookstore was suffering. Ferlinghetti offered to keep Murao on as manager but to hire someone to handle the business and finances, but Murao refused, leading to a devastating fall out in their friendship and a split in the bookstore partnership. Murao never again stepped foot in City Lights.

In his post-City Lights life, he began practicing shakuhachi with Bay Area musician Masayuki Koga to help him recover from his stroke, but in August 1983 Murao suffered a second stroke, which made it impossible to continue playing. Despite having a third stroke a year later, in 1986 Murao and his nephew John decided to go to Japan to return the ashes of Murao's mother to her hometown of Chiran. After a serious fall on a bus in 1995 that fractured several of his ribs, Murao had no choice but to vacate his North Beach apartment and move to a senior residence in Palo Alto, near his nephew John. He used his wheelchair to visit local bookstores and cafes and continued producing issues of "Shig's Review." When his health continued to decline and an accident in his wheelchair ended with a fractured hip, he was moved to the Pleasant View Convalescent Home in Cupertino, California. He died on October 18, 1999 at age seventy-three.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Reynolds, Richard. " Shig Murao: The Enigmatic Soul of City Lights and the San Francisco Beat Scene. " Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley website.

Morgan, Bill & Nancy J. Peters. Howl on Trial . San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006.

Ball, Gordon. " 'Howl' and other victories: A friend remembers City Lights' Shig Murao. " San Francisco Chronicle , Nov. 28, 1999.


  1. Bill Morgan, Bill and Nancy J. Peters, Howl on Trial (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006), 35.
  2. Morgan and Peters, Howl on Trial , 41.
  3. Janet Richards, Common Soldiers: A Self-Portrait and Other Portraits (San Francisco: Archer Press, 1984), 67.
  4. Russell Leong and Paul Yamazaki, "Remembering Janice Mirikitani: Poet Laureate of San Francisco," International Examiner , Oct. 7, 2021, accessed May 23, 2022 at .
  5. Interview with George Leong, November 13, 2012.
  6. Mitchell Kaplan, "Paul Yamazaki on Fifty Years of Bookselling at City Lights," Lithub podcast, January 29, 2021, accessed May 23, 2022 at .

Last updated April 4, 2024, 9:49 p.m..