by Allecia Vermillion, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, Summer 2009
Shigeyoshi Murao was arrested on June 3, 1957 for selling a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems to two undercover San Francisco police officers for 75 cents at the famed City Lights bookstore. Some years later, his incredulous exclamation captured the disbelief at the heart of San Francisco’s famous obscenity trial: “Imagine being arrested for selling poetry!”
Much of the publicity surrounding the Howl trial focused on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the bookstore’s owner and a close associate of many influential writers of the Beat movement. However Murao, who managed City Lights for more than two decades, committed the actual act of selling a book of poetry deemed obscene for its raw, explicit language and graphic sexual and homosexual imagery.
Ferlinghetti would later say that Murao sacrificed more than he did to stand up for First Amendment rights and freedom of speech and artistic expression. A Nisei whose family had been interned in a camp in Idaho during World War II, Murao’s arrest brought great shame to his family within the Japanese community. “To me, he was the real hero of this tale of sound and fury, signifying everything,” Ferlinghetti wrote in later years.
Murao’s name was cleared when the prosecution could not prove that the bookstore manager had knowledge of the book’s contents when he sold it. The American Civil Liberties Union defended both Murao and Ferlinghetti. In October 1957, Judge Clayton Horn, who happened to teach Bible classes on Sundays, ultimately found the poem “of redeeming social importance.” The Howl trial was a major victory for freedom of artistic expression.
Commonly known as Shig, Murao was a fixture in his North Beach neighborhood and behind the cash register at City Lights, where he could usually be spotted drinking a Coca-Cola. His personality set the tone for the famous bookstore and many patrons considered him the heart of the literary gathering spot. Shig managed the bookstore until 1976.
In his novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe described Murao as "the Nipponese panjandrum of the place, sat glowering with his beard hanging down like those strands of furze and fern in an architect's drawing, drooping over the volumes by the cash register."
A Seattle native, he served with the U.S. military intelligence service during the occupation of Japan after being released from internment camp.
He walked with a limp after a motorcycle accident, and once said that before the Howl affair, he planned “a quiet life of reading, listening to music and playing chess.”
Instead, Murao’s act of ringing up a book purchase put him at the center of one of the nation’s landmark battles over literary censorship and freedom of expression.
Later in life, Murao suffered from diabetes, several strokes and a severe accident in his electric wheelchair. He died in a convalescent hospital in Cupertino, California, in 1999.
More sources on Shigeyoshi Murao:
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, November 28, 1999.