Mike Tokunaga: The ‘Organizer’ Who Helped Build the Democratic Party

An Imin Centennial Series Saluting the Men of the 100th Battalion

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Publisher: Hawaii Herald, January-March 1986
Puka Puka Parades, January-March 1986, v.40 no.1

Newspaper article detailing the life of Mike Tokunanga from childhood through World War II and his life after war

The fight with Japan was still going on when Mike Tokunaga, on his way home to Hawaii from the war in Italy and France, stopped to mark time at Camp Beale, outside Sacramento, awaiting transportation. Weary from the three-year journey with the 100th Infantry Battalion that had taken him half a world away from home, he longed for Hawaii and a return to something comparable to the easy living days of Lahaina where he was born and raised. Memories of home crowded upon him…

His grandfather, Tamezo, had chosen to remain in Hawaii rather than return to Hiroshima at the end of his three-year contract. He became a cook, first for the principal of Lahainaluna High School, then for the bank manager in Lahaina. “I remember this distinctly,” says Tokunaga, “because once in a while he would tell me to come down to the bank manager’s house, by the back steps, because he’d be baking a pie that day and he’d have a piece for me. Oh, it used to be a treat.” Tokunaga was 10 when his grandfather died in 1930.

His mother, Shizuyo, was born in Lahaina and worked in the sugarcane fields on Pioneer Mill plantation. In the fields, she used to carry cane to the flumes that would float the cane down to the railroad cars below. It was dirty, tough work.

His father, Nobumi, was part of the crew that, in 1926, laid the 24-inch irrigation pipeline in Honokowai Gulch a few miles down the road from Kaanapali. The gulch is 500 feet deep at the point where the pipeline is laid. The pipes were rolled in 5-foot sections at the Pioneer Mill’s boilermaker shop, riveted together into lengths of 20 feet, and the ends punched with 36 small rivet holes. Nobumi’s job involved being lowered by block and tackle into the ravine. He then worked himself into the tight confines of the pipe, inching his way to the rivet holes. A hot rivet was passed down to Nobumi and his partner, who worked on the outside of the pipe. The heat from the rivet and the sunlight coming through the rivet holes provided the only light to work with. He needed to insert the hot rivet into the hole and press it into place with a metal shaft as the other man pounded the outside of the rivet. The noise, of course, was deafening. The crew worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.,the job progressing at the rate of one pipe a day. But Nobumi did not mind the long days, because he was getting paid $2.50 a day while the average for field hands was $1 per day.

His own days in Lahaina were, allows Tokunaga, “Where I kinda acquired the easy feeling for getting along with anybody. I used to go skin diving for tako with my Hawaiian friends and spent many a Sunday evening at the home of my Portuguese classmate and friend, where I especially enjoyed the dinners of Portuguese bean soup and bread . . .”

But now, having witnessed and experienced first-hand the devastations wrought by war, the memories of his days at Lahaina made him wonder why people all over the world could not similarly live in harmony with each other.

One day, while on liberty in the Bay City with two other 100th Infantry boys, Tokunaga stopped them before the Opera House where the United Nations conference was being held. He wanted desperately to see what was going on inside, but special passes were needed. He found the Army colonel in charge of security and told him of his desire. The officer looked at the three GIs, their rows of campaign ribbons topped by the Purple Heart. “I see you all have been wounded in combat,” he said. They nodded their heads. He gave them passes to seats right up front from where they watched the proceedings.

Afterwards, a block or so down the street from the Opera House, the three stopped at a small bar for a drink. The bartender took one look at the three, then said for all to hear,” I don’t serve no Japs in here.” At that, the three grabbed for anything loose and started swinging and throwing.

One of Tokunaga’s companions heaved a stool at the mirror running the length of the wall behind the row of bottles, shattering it to pieces.

“Talk about frustrations!” says Tokunaga. “Heroes one moment, Japs the next… However, the war with Japan was still on. And this was the West Coast.”

Tokunaga finally returned home in August, a month before the war ended in the Pacific. Set on getting a higher education, Tokunaga took refresher courses at McKinley’s night school, then entered the university in the spring.

At college, he and the other veterans, unhappy with the work of the campus veterans’ advisor, got themselves elected to the ASUH Council, “filed a lot of complaints, and in general raised hell and made things tough all around. We started a drive for a veterans’ dormitory, picked Dan Inouye to be our spokesman, and went down to the Legislature to lobby for one. It took a couple of years, but Johnson Hall is the result of that.”

Tokunaga put a lot of pressure upon himself because he was in a hurry. “I had no time for participation in athletics or in the amenities of campus life. I studied through the summers, graduating in three and a half years with a degree in business administration in June of 1949.” He married his girlfriend, Betty Hironaka in September 1948.

Tokunaga’s first job after graduation was with the employment service of the Territorial Labor Department. The job entailed the soliciting of job vacancies from business houses in order for the department to make referrals from the government’s unemployed lists.

“If you recall,” says Tokunaga, “it was accepted practice in those days for the want ads to specify ‘Japanese typist wanted’ or ‘Haole secretary wanted’ and so on. Well, one day, a group of us was having lunch at Ala Moana Park and one of the guys said that his friend’s uncle who had a little store on Kukui Street had gone to a downtown bank to borrow $2,000 to buy rice with which to stock his store, but was told that he had to wait until they checked his financial condition. ‘But I need the rice tomorrow! I’m running out!’ Sorry, said the bank official and he refused to lend the money. We all agreed that the two main banks could readily lend money to some Mainland outfit wanting to come to Hawaii but didn’t give a damn about our friends in small businesses here. So the talk came about- ‘Why don’t we start a new bank?’ We looked at each other-‘With what?’ So from the park we went to see Jack Burns in his Civil Defense Office in the basement of City Hall. ‘Terrific idea!’ he said.”

Continued Tokunaga, “And the funny thing is, I could never get referral orders from the downtown banks, but when they got words that we were organizing a new bank, all of a sudden, the two banks wanted to see 25 Japanese girls for tellers. That was the day the ice was broken for the entry of Japanese girls as tellers in the banks, an action which took place about a year before the opening of Central Pacific Bank.”

One day, Dan Aoki took Tokunaga to the basement of City Hall and introduced him to Jack Burns. Tokunaga listened as Burns talked for several hours about what politics could do for the nisei and how the quickest way to get the guys on Merchant Street to recognize them was to get elected to public offices. Tokunaga thought of his own father and how he had worked as a hapaiko man in the cane fields, then shifted to working in pineapple fields, and even tried his hand at running a bakery, all in an effort to be independent. Unable to change his lifestyle, he had to return to the plantation.

If Tokunaga had been unsure of his leanings in the direction of individual freedom, as in some of his doings at the university-now, after listening to Burns, he became conscious of the thought. And his mind went back to the day he had sat in the San Francisco Opera House listening to the deliberation of statesmen shaping the bits and pieces of promises for a better world in the making- and he felt good about it. Within a day, he signed a party card and was off and running with Dan Aoki for the better part of a quarter century, in a partnership that has been characterized by many as the longest-running and most productive political partnership in the state in recent times.

From the beginning, Tokunaga’s forte had been in organization. Where others spouted the marching orders, ran for offices, gave the speeches and basked in the limelight, Tokunaga stood behind the scenes, always ready and available to answer the party’s call for help whenever and wherever things went awry. ” I prefer to stay back of the front lines,” says Tokunaga, “It gives me more room for maneuvering. Every man has his place in life. I think mine is here.”

Space does not permit a recitation of all the things Tokunaga has done during his long, and continuing, tenure with the Democratic Party. Suffice to say that for the past 17 years he has been deputy comptroller for the State of Hawaii and by the time he retires at the end of next year, he will have served 31 years in government.

Does he still have the idealism of human dignity as delineated in the purposes of the United Nations? “Yes, I think Hawaii, for instance, is a much better place today, since the ’54 Democrats came in. And to make the University of Hawaii a first-rate institution, I’d place that at the top of our concerns. In other words, education should be our top priority. And along with that, all things being equal, we should break away from the ‘local boy’ psychology in the selection of people to fill positions. Likewise, our children should be able to compete throughout the world.”

Tokunaga’s long service in the process of government, as a practical thinker rather than a professional politician, is in the mold of Thomas Jefferson who favored a broad-minded view and a public-spirited approach.

And those are Tokunaga’s feelings also- learn to take life as it comes. But as is his wont, he’s not letting any philosophy, Jeffersonian or other, overwhelm him. As an example-“I’m not too concerned about the behavior of kids these days,” he says. Meaning, that, at heart, he’s still the boy with the easy living spirit of Lahaina.

Ben Tamashiro wrote an earlier article in the Puka Puka Parade July 1981 issue about Mike Tokunaga’s public service career and the postwar rise of the Democratic party in Hawaii.