Democratic Caucus and the Aloha Spirit
A 16.7% Nikkei Model of Interracial Harmony
As an incurable “news junkie” I’ve been following the campaigns leading up to the election of the next US president in November this year with great interest. One vignette during the recent Democratic Caucus in Hawaii was particularly moving for me as a Japanese of mixed background. A local Nikkei lady, who used to be a classmate of candidate Barack Obama in prestigious Punahou (high) School, was asked by CNN how “Barry,” as the only African-American in class, was seen by his school friends.
“We just don’t think about a person’s skin color (in Hawaii). We just relate to them as people (or something to that effect),” she replied casually. The comment struck me as the essence of the spirit of the “Aloha State.” Those words also triggered a flood of memories and thoughts about Hawaii, possibly the most ethnically mixed state in the US, where non-whites make up more than half the 1.3 million population. Nikkei people make up the largest ethnic group at 16.7%, followed by Polynesian at 16% and Filipino 14.1%. Significantly, 20% of the population are of mixed race.
Actually I’ve never been there, except for a brief transit stop at the Honolulu international airport—just long enough to catch a whiff of the sultry tropical air. I’m sure some readers, including those with family links there, must have many pleasant experiences to recount about the Hawaiian ethos. It must have a lot to do with the spirit of aloha—a word that means affection, love, peace, compassion, mercy, goodbye and hello, all rolled into one.
My strongest link to Hawaii is an old buddy from my college days in the 60s. The first time I spoke to him was at a beach party near Yokohama in the summer of 1962 after high school graduation. Though we went to different schools, we were both part of a loose-knit sub-culture of English-speaking kids in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Europeans by nationality, the kids of US military, diplomats and foreign businessmen frequented some neighborhoods and establishments. He stood out because he was comfortable in a social setting of whites and Orientals, where some Caucasian parents, for instance, forbade their daughters to go out with Asian boys. He was one of the most “popular guys,” who happened to be Nikkei.
I already believed at the time Hawaiians were one of the least race-conscious peoples because of the Polynesian islands’ unique history of white and Asian immigration, having heard as much from my late ukulele-strumming father, himself a “Hawaii-o-phile” since pre-WWII years. He had been there. My new friend’s father, a graduate of famed McKinley High School, had been a famous baseball player (catcher) in Hawaii before coming to play professionally in Japan and, later, to manage a very popular Osaka team. I don’t know how much of the affable and generous personality my friend and his father shared was “Hawaiian.” But I do know he made many friends along the way as he first went on to serve with the US forces in Vietnam, where he handled image interpreting, i.e. analyzing detailed aerial photos to identity targets for US Navy fighters and bombers. He then de-enlisted and moved to Denver, Colorado, where he had relatives. He worked for a Japanese airline for a while, before going into his own business. I saw him frequently in Denver and later San Francisco in the early 70s before I moved to Singapore.
He passed away two years ago, and now rests in a military cemetery that look up to the Rockies’ majestic peaks “take on a purple hue as the sun sets,” as he used to say. Indelible are the precious memories of the many nights we spent talking and drinking in his off-campus pad during our student days or in my small apartment in Washington, DC when he was stationed at a US Army fort near Baltimore and I was a news agency journalist. So are words like kanaka (Hawaiian native) hapa haole (half-white) and Meli Kelikimaka (Merry Christmas) that he taught me.
Returning from distant memories to the present via the person of Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye, A WW II veteran who lost an arm fighting Germans in Europe. He was a Democratic politician known for integrity and loyalty, who once declared “I’d give up my other arm for my country.” Among other achievements, he figured prominently during the Senate Watergate hearings that led to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Then working for a small Japanese language newspaper in San Francisco, I remember writing the front lead headline “Nixon Counselor Calls Inouye “a Little Jap.” It was actually a slick lawyer’s diversionary tactic, but a big enough insult to a war hero to upset Nikkei folks all over North America.
For the recent state Democratic Caucus, Senator Inouye flew back to Honolulu to cast his vote and rally support for his candidate, Hillary Clinton. The vote (75.7% for Obama, 23.6% for Clinton) against Clinton who was backed by Hawaii’s “Democratic political establishment” (20/2/08, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin), including Sen. Inouye, State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and the powerful Hawaii Government Employees Assocation.
Before the decisive vote took place, I had been a bit surprised that Senator Inouye, now aged 83, still yielded such influence, and thought that the contest might not be an easy one, even for the virtual native son Obama. I had this notion that Hawaiian ethos was more Confucianistic than mainland US because of the large Asian population. For example, I remember the local press did not like to carry criticism of Mr George Ariyoshi, who served as the state’s governor from 1974 to 86. The sentiment, I heard, was that one shouldn’t be “disrespectful” to the head of state, who happened to be the first Asian-American state governor in US history.
The result showed that I didn’t know much about Hawaiian political sentiments. The “unprecedented turnout” (Star-Bulletin) reflected the growing influence of young voters, as seen in other states during the campaign, as well as the popularity of a local high school graduate. Mr Inouye himself called the turnout “historic” and said: “The only thing I can compare this to is the vote for statehood.” That was back in 1959.
A couple of years ago, we shared a coach ride from our hotel near Disneyland to LA International airport with a pleasant Oriental lady and her daughter. We found out they were from Hawaii, and were on their way home to Honolulu. There was something extra open and friendly about their demeanor, perhaps more so than other “Orientals” from numerous communities on the Pacific. But are Hawaiians especially kindly disposed? Natural manifestation of the aloha spirit? Just my favourable bias based on romantic notions? I don’t know, but I do know these notions—nurtured by the sound of my late father’s ukulele and an invaluable life-long friendship—make these islands a special place in my imagination.
What’s fascinating about this drawn-out, made-for-the-media contest for the most powerful office on earth are the subtle differences between the many sub-cultures of the different states. With Hawaii, the difference is not so subtle. More than half non-white—Nikkei the biggest ethnic group, with 20% mixed people—they and many other races coexisting in harmony in a beautiful tropical island setting. Hence my excitement at the words of a former Punahou School student. I also think the multi-cultural environment of Metro Vancouver and beyond do and can share many of Hawaii’s qualities (except for the weather of course).