Sharing Mana‘o

“He’s working quietly

And effectively

To do what is best

for Hawaii.”

If you’re a longtime local, I’ll bet you are not only singing those lyrics in your mind right now, you probably voted for the man for whom that campaign jingle was written.

George Ariyoshi holds the distinction of being Hawaii’s longest-serving governor (13 years) as well as the nation’s first Asian-American to be elected governor of any state. Though he hadn’t envisioned a career in politics, he never lost an election.

Turning 92 next month, our former governor continues to serve the community as a respected elder statesman and adviser. He has written two books, “With Obligation to All,” recounting the post-World War II transformation of Hawaii, and “Hawaii: The Past Fifty Years, the Next Fifty Years,” published in 2009, the 50th anniversary of the 50th state.

My mother and I were fortunate to be in the audience Saturday when the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center presented Gov. Ariyoshi as the inaugural speaker in its new “Leadership Series” of lectures.

The stated mission of the NVMC is “to ignite the potential in people by inspiring them to find the hero in themselves through the legacy of the Nisei Veterans” and Ariyoshi’s talk aligned perfectly with that mission. He invoked several of the values embraced by the celebrated Japanese-American soldiers of WWII: Ganbari (perseverance), Chigi (loyalty), Haji (don’t bring shame) and Okage sama de (thanks to you), a phrase often used by local Japanese to mean “because of you, I am who I am.” It’s an expression of gratitude and recognition of the importance of working together and depending on each other.

A nisei veteran himself, Ariyoshi served as a Military Intelligence Service interpreter in occupied Japan. After the war, he attained his law degree and became the youngest member of the 1954 Democratic revolution in Hawaii.

“I never wanted to be a politician,” he said Saturday, “I wanted to be a lawyer, ever since the 8th grade.” But a year after opening his practice, he was approached by Democratic Party leader John Burns, who urged him to sacrifice his career dreams for the betterment of the community.

“Jack Burns talked to me about prejudice, how we had never had a governor who was not white, never had a governor who was born in Hawaii.” Well aware of the political power imbalance of the time, Ariyoshi admired the efforts of nisei vets like Dan Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, who “were fighting to make the community fairer. The courage shown on the battlefield did not stop there.” He agreed to run for the Territorial Legislature and spent the next 32 years in public office.

In 1970, Burns and Ariyoshi were elected to the state’s highest offices, and when Burns was stricken with cancer in 1973, Ariyoshi became acting governor. The following year, he won the gubernatorial election and served three full terms, finally able to resume his law practice in 1986.

Throughout his military, political and community service, the former governor adhered to those values addressed in Saturday’s presentation. As he spoke, I was struck by the contrast between his soft-spoken, yet earnest, manner and the bombastic bluster that passes for political speech these days. Mom was most impressed by the fact that he delivered his entire talk without notes, speaking eloquently and sincerely from his heart. Afterwards, he graciously shared one-to-one time with attendees, quietly and effectively inspiring each of us to continue the legacy of the nisei vets and work together to better our community.

The next NVMC Leadership Series speaker, on April 28, will be another former Hawaii governor, John Waihee, who served as Ariyoshi’s third-term lieutenant governor and then succeeded him in office. He, too, made political history, as he is the first person of Native Hawaiian descent to be elected a U.S. governor. But he didn’t have a catchy jingle like Ariyoshi did.

Old-timers, please don’t call me to complain when you can’t get the “Quiet and Effective” song out of your head.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.

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