Sakae Takahashi

Building a Community-Based Bank

His role in creating Central Pacific Bank, with its unique socioeconomic approach, was likewise pioneering. Once again, he was the leader although, true to form, he would say he was but one among several who founded the bank. Histories typically say the Bank was the work of war veterans. What matters as social and even political history was how closely CPB was linked to the postwar recovery of the Japanese American community and to the Nisei determination to make the war a transformational experience.

The sequel to the Camp McCoy discussions (“we’re fighting two wars”) occurred in 1949 in Honolulu, when Takahashi had just returned from law school. He was walking down Fort Street with his friend, Elton Sakamoto, when he decided to shop for a suit. He needed $300, which he didn’t have and couldn’t borrow. Sakamoto told the historians of CPB, “Sakae was very, very discouraged … I think that was the first inkling of what financial strength and the well being of Nisei meant.”12

Takahashi’s service as treasurer of the Territory was also significant, introducing him to a big picture of finance and giving him a comfort level with handling large sums of money.

In 1952, after being turned out of the treasurer’s office by Republican patronage, he went to work on the bank idea in earnest. The goal of the Nisei participants was a bank to serve everyone, but the dynamics of history initially narrowed the focus to the Japanese community, reflecting the ethnic distinctions that had dominated banking in the Territory. The two big banks were the Bank of Hawaii and Bishop Bank (later renamed First Hawaiian Bank), both of which were owned and run by white missionary descendants. The other two banks of the day were owned and managed by Chinese Americans: Liberty Bank and American Security Bank. The three Japanese banks of the pre-war period – Sumitomo Bank, Yokohama Specie Bank and Pacific Bank – had been consumed by the war, never to reopen.

In the dynamic post-war climate, the Nisei generation was on the move, but urgently needed, and often lacked, capital for starting businesses, making investments and buying houses, cars, televisions, appliances, etc. Accordingly, the logical path was to fill the unmet needs of the Japanese community and expand outward. It was also the available path to gaining a bank charter from the Territorial government, which was an uphill proposition given the fact that neither Takahashi nor any of his colleagues was a professional banker.

The intimate connection of the CPB story to Hawaii’s social and political history is reflected by the fact that other than Takahashi’s law partner (Elton Sakamoto), his most important initial ally was Mitsuyuki Kido, an early Nisei leader. During the war, Kido had quit his job as a schoolteacher to work full-time for the Emergency Service Committee, which was dedicated to helping the Japanese community through the war and planning for the postwar period. Kido was also one of only five members of Burns’ inner circle who met during the war to lay political plans for the post-war. He then was the first Japanese American elected to the Territorial legislature in 1946. The collaboration between Takahashi and Kido in banking as well as politics was therefore between two far-seeing individuals. Similarly, Burns was to signal his support for CPB by purchasing stock.

With Kido as a reference to the home front experience of the war, the remaining problem to be resolved was aligning the Issei and Nisei generations behind the bank idea. The distance between the two generations is glossed over today, but it was a serious concern in the early years following the war. The Issei often had ties to the old country. Prominent Issei businessmen had been interned. The Nisei, on the other had, were battle-tested Americans who sometimes had reservations about Japanese institutions and were wary of maintaining close ties to Japan. In the crucible of the war, the leadership of the Issei waned, while the Nisei emerged as celebrated heroes. The aftermath created a delicate situation, in which the Issei must have wondered what had become of filial piety while the Nisei sought to assert their hard-won self-direction.

Approaching this situation pragmatically, Takahashi fished about for Issei partners in the formation of the new bank. At one point, the two elements reached a fifty-fifty power-sharing agreement for a board of directors, then the Issei group asked for one additional vote, giving them control in the event of disagreement. Takahashi and the other Nisei refused and walked out.

They tried again, this time with a harmonious conclusion. The leader of the Issei was the import-export merchant, Kazuo Iida. He was given the title of President, while Takahashi took the lesser title of vice president.

The next problem was finding credible, experienced bank management. After looking in several niches, Iida led the would-be bankers to the Japan-based but international Sumitomo Bank. Remarkably, Sumitomo Bank assigned a highly credentialed manager, Kazuo Ishii, to CPB, despite Sumitomo having no financial stake at that point. Under Takahashi’s guidance, Issei, Nisei, war victims, war heroes, and credentialed managers from Japan were woven together, and a full range of banking services was developed for the entire Hawaii community.

The written CPB history paints a picture of Takahashi promoting the sale of the original CPB stock offering to his battlefield comrades at the Club 100. It was a capitalistic offer with a distinctly democratic flavor. Shares sold for $35. A person could become a shareholder by buying only three shares. No one could buy more than three hundred shares, thereby assuring that ownership would be extremely broad-based – a goal that is unheard of in stock offerings today. Takahashi reputedly took out a loan from Crocker Bank in California to buy his own original shares.

When CPB opened its doors for business in February 1954, Takahashi was 34 years old. His thesis at Camp McCoy had proven himself wrong in one respect: The business revolution of CPB actually preceded the November 1954 Democratic political revolution at the polls, if only by eight months. Takahashi served on the bank board (and then its holding company board) as chairman for several decades. Bette summarized: “The bank was Sakae’s baby.”

He nurtured nonprofit institutions as well. He played a significant role in developing the battalion’s postwar Club 100 and served as its fourth president in 1948 and 1949. He also was a significant force behind the development of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, among many other community projects.

Comfortable with Himself

Owning a lot of bank stock, and with an eye for investment, he made a lot of money, but he was unaffected by success. He was cheerful, subtly funny and thoroughly himself. You always knew he was telling you his own thoughts, not relaying someone else’s.

He was friends with people far and wide in all groups, classes and races. When he ran low on denials of importance or others to praise in conversation, he would fall back on saying that most people he knew had felt the way he did. Although a Japanese American hero, he was wary of special claims flowing from ethnicity.

People often mentioned his private kindnesses and generosity. When my wife Lois was eighteen, she was chosen to represent the Honolulu YMCA in a student peace exchange with the YMCA of Hiroshima, Japan. Sakae and Bette gave her a set of phonograph records teaching Japanese, even though they were not then acquainted with her. One of Sakae’s friends, the actor Pat Morita, wrote about a period when he was financially strapped and down on his luck. Sakae asked, “You need how much?”

I knew about Sakae’s generosity first hand. In the 1974 election, Sakae and I had the shared experience of tanking politically in Tom Gill’s last, unsuccessful campaign for governor. Each of us had spent most of a year on the campaign and come up empty-handed. Losing such an election is not the end of the world, but in the confines of island society neither is it the most pleasant thing. In the aftermath, we bumped into one another on the street. He asked me if I would try to return to a newspaper job. I said no, I wanted to remain independent. I had a vague notion about starting a media production business. He pulled eight hundred dollars in cash out of his pocket and handed it to me. Per a schedule he laid out, I repaid him at a rate of fifty dollars a month with nominal interest. After I paid him my last installment, he introduced me to a CPB loan officer, who I was to visit a number of times.

When Sakae looked back at politics, he spoke respectfully of the early accomplishments of Jack Burns, but he had come to believe that Burns the man had been weighted down by people who were exploiting Burns the legend. The Burns of his warmest memories was the early-day Democrat in his frayed suit, to whom Sakae would say, “Jack, if you want to get elected, you’ve got to get out there and smile and shake hands.” In Gill’s campaigns, Sakae made many new friends among the young people, even as he lost friends from past times. Perhaps, after looking into the bared teeth of the Third Reich, he was more able than most to take the ebb and flow of politics in stride.

On Sakae’s death at age eighty-one in 2001, Young Oak Kim said, “Sakae was a man with a vision and a dream … Beneath his tough exterior, Sakae was a tender, kind person.”

Stanley Akita, speaking for the Club 100, said Takahashi was the 100th Battalion’s greatest battlefield commander.

“Sakae Takahashi was a great American,” Senator Inouye said. “He was a leader in the executive branch, at the Legislature, on the battlefield and in the boardroom.”

Sakae Takahashi had elevated the meaning of sacrifice by pursuing the broad interests of building a multiethnic and intergenerational community. It was not only for the Japanese American that “the fellas” had fought and died, but for all to come who cared about real democracy and fair play.

-by Tom Coffman

Tom Coffman is an independent researcher, writer and producer. He explored American imperialism in the Pacific in his 1998 book and PBS documentary “Nation Within.” Other book credits include “Catch a Wave, A Case Study of Hawaii Politics,” and “The Island Edge of America.” He wrote, produced and directed the 2007 film, “The First Battle: The Battle for Equality in War-Time Hawaii.”

1 Interview, Tom Coffman, 1994

2 Emmons’ ruse has been confirmed by several writers. The unpublished memoir of Col. Thomas Green, who worked most clearly with Emmons, makes this point most clearly.

3 The civilian Morale Section of the martial law government told Col. Farrant Turner, the first commander of the 100th, “many of the men and their families had some doubt regarding the real reason for sending the boys away.” Turner stressed it was to be a combat unit, and the Japanese community liaison group, the Emergency Service Committee, was so informed. “We hope that this will allay some of the wild conjectures that are being made regarding the real reason for the recent action,” Turner said.

4 Takahashi in Japanese Eyes, American Heart, 187, Honolulu, Tendai Educational Publishing Association, 1998

5 Masayo Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd, 44-45

6 Kim was one of two persons of Korean ancestry. The second was John Ko from Hawaii who enlisted while on the mainland attending college.

7 Kim was a principal speaker at Takahashi’s funeral in Honolulu, April 23, 2001. The quotes are from his handwritten notes. He amplified on his remarks in an interview with the author in Los Angeles in May, 2002, for the documentary film Arirang: The Korean American Journey.

8 Takahashi in Japanese Eyes, American Heart, 187

9 Duus, Unlikely Liberators, 156

10 Duus, 157

11 Duus, 171

12 Arnold Hiura with Glenn Grant, A History of Service, The Central Pacific Bank Story 1954-1994, Central Pacific Bank, 1994, p. 17

Sakae Takahashi’s story at the Smithsonian