The Passing Of A Revolutionary

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 20, 2005
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They held a memorial service for Mike Tokunaga last week. He had died on June 28 at the age of 85. The victim of a debilitating stroke 10 years ago, Mike had spent the past 10 years in a nursing home.

Few remember his name. Mike lived too long. The political history he helped make reached its apogee 40 years ago; even the younger members of Mike’s beloved Democratic Party of Hawaii know only the fuzziest outline of that history. Few have ever heard of Mike.

They should have, for Tokunaga was — in the finest American tradition — a revolutionary. With his fellow World War II veterans and an Irish cop named John Anthony Burns, he fashioned a social, economic and political revolution that changed Hawaii forever.

Tokunaga was born in Lahaina, Maui, the first of five children of Nobumi and Shizuyo Tokunaga. Nobumi Tokunaga worked as a foreman for the Lahaina sugar plantation. Mike attended public schools in Lahaina and, at his parents’insistence, Japanese language school.

“I spent one hour a day every day for 12 years in Japanese language school,” Tokunaga told me in a 1980 interview. “My dad wasn’t too interested in whether we studied our English lessons, but he insisted that we study Japanese.”

While his father dreamed of returning to Japan, the younger Tokunaga went to war in the American Army — with the 100th Battalion of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 100th saw its first combat in Italy in the fall of 1943. Tokunaga was on and off the front lines for 18 months. He fought with the 100th’s Charlie Company; 222 of whom landed in Italy, six of whom left whole.


Tokunaga returned to Hawaii to attend the university on the GI Bill of Rights. He married Betty Hironaka, his Paia, Maui, sweetheart who had waited for him throughout the war years and college. In 1950, just launched on his first job with the Territorial Department of Labor, Tokunaga was introduced to Jack Burns.

Burns was an ex-cop and Democratic Party activist, enjoying a piece of patronage as Mayor Johnny Wilson’s Civil Defense director in the basement of Honolulu Hale. He recruited Tokunaga to join some likeminded people in his office: a state representative named Mits Kido; a student and 442nd veteran named Dan Inouye; Inouye’s first sergeant in the 442nd, Dan Aoki; Bill Richardson, a Hawaiian- Chinese lawyer and U.S. Army veteran of the Pacific Theater; and a dozen or so others.

The goal appeared, at best, elusive. Republicans had dominated Hawaii politics for a half century; they owned majorities in both houses of the Legislature and the office of Delegate-to-Congress. Organized labor, the Democrats’ natural ally, had been smeared by accusations of communists in its leadership. Burns himself, in the two elections he had run in since war’s end, had come in dead last in a county supervisor’s race and lost a Delegate-to-Congress contest by a 3 to 1 margin.

Tokunaga became, with his 442 mate Aoki, Burns’s chief lieutenants. “They just adored Jack Burns,” said Inouye, a man who held Burns in high regard himself.

Aoki and Tokunaga did nutsand- bolts contact work with the 442 veterans, organizing them for political purposes: recruiting them to run for office, urging them to become active in Democratic Party politics, mobilizing them for campaigns.The work demanded attending political meetings night after night; Betty Tokunaga would attest to that. But in 1954 it all paid off: The Democrats won control of the Territorial Legislature — a control they have not yet relinquished. But not all Democrats celebrated. Burns lost the delegateship by 1,000 votes to Elizabeth Farrington. “That was the last time I cried when I lost,” said Tokunaga.

But he would certainly know other occasions when he might have. In 1959, fresh from his delivering statehood to Hawaii as Delegate-to-Congress in 1959, Burns lost a bid to become the state’s first governor. Some blamed Tokunaga and Aoki for failing to organize; Burns himself would criticize them for keeping him away from the voters.

But Burns would turn to them again in 1962 when he won the first of three terms as governor. “My job was to organize, get the guys,” said Tokunaga. “If Aoki hurt their feelings, I’m supposed to go over there and kind of smooth them out, bring them back in. I had a little softer approach than Dan did. And I think we complemented each other over the years.”

Others would argue that Tokunaga was in fact the tougher of the two. The late Don Horio, Burns’ longtime press secretary, once observed: “In private political discussions Aoki often wavers and wants to give a person another chance,while Tokunaga is advising that the guy be cut down quickly and completely.”

Between campaigns, Tokunaga worked as a deputy comptroller in the Department of Accounting and General Services. But he was first, last, always one of the political guys. With Burns’ death in 1975, Tokunaga lent his organizational skills to George Ariyoshi’s gubernatorial campaigns. In 1980 he helped Eileen Anderson dislodge Frank Fasi from City Hall for a term. In 1986 he took his 442nd contacts into the campaign of a young Hawaiian named John Waihee, and as late as 1994 — a year before his stroke — Tokunaga showed up at Ben Cayetano’s headquarters.

In life, Mike Tokunaga looked like a choir boy. He smiled easily and his laughter verged on a giggle. He was a charming man.

But he should be remembered as well as a warrior, a fierce and wily one. He fought — on the battlefields of Europe and in Hawaii’s political backrooms — for firstclass citizenship for Japanese- Americans and social equality for all of Hawaii’s people. If he hadn’t, he once said, “we’d still be struggling all our lives, like my dad on the plantation.”

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