Colbert Matsumoto

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Lessons on Leadership

 

This special edition revisits conversations with Hawaii’s business and community leaders as they share their thoughts on leadership. Featured are: Maenette Ah Nee-Benham, the late Skippa Diaz, Glenn Furuya, Hokulani Holt, the late Daniel Inouye, Thomas Kaulukukui and Colbert Matsumoto.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Jan. 31 at 4:00 pm.

 

Lessons on Leadership Audio

 

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I had my responsibilities as the platoon leader. And we had this code in the regiment; Don’t expect your men to go up if you’re not willing to go up. In the so-called book, the training book, it’s never led by the officer. Patrols go out. Scouts out, or something like that. The leader stays in the back. But in our code, as the boys would say, You go first, buddy.

 

Don’t ask anyone to do something—

 

Yeah.

 

—you’re not willing to do yourself.

 

 

The late Senator Daniel K. Inouye learned the intricacies and demands of leadership on the battlefields of World War II. He took these lessons with him into the world of government and politics, where he became one of the most powerful and influential leaders not only of our state, but of our nation. In this edition of Long Story Short, we will look back at some of our previous Long Story Short guests and their lessons on leadership, including how the nuances of local culture helped to shape their … leadership styles. Lessons on Leadership next, on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Master navigator Nainoa Thompson defines leadership as “stepping up….knowing … the right thing to do,,, and making it happen regardless of the consequences.” Doing the right thing can sometimes require an extraordinary amount of conviction, courage, and the ability to inspire others. In this special edition of Long Story Short, we revisit some of the stories and challenges shared by Hawaii … leaders. We begin with Thomas Kaulukukui, Jr., Chairman of the Board and Managing Trustee of the Queen Liliuokalani Trust, who, like Senator Inouye, picked up many of his first lessons in leadership on the battlefield.

 

I went into the Army in 1968.

 

You went to Vietnam?

 

I went to Vietnam for a year, 1969, ’70.

 

What’d you do in Vietnam?

 

I was a platoon sergeant in the paratroopers. Uh, did well in training, because I had the Kamehameha School ROTC background. And I ended up leading a platoon of men in … uh, basically jungle fighters.  Young men, at the time, uh, um, they’re like a pack of wolves. And they will do whatever the pack wants to do, unless there is an alpha wolf that keeps them on track. And um, if you’re not that person, they will get rid of you and get somebody else. So, you know, you really have to learn to step up.

 

Was there any particular event or moment when this all came clear to you, when you had any epiphanies over there?

 

Well, it was clear to me from the beginning. It’s uh, it’s—you know, when you’re with a group like that, it’s really clear. Uh, I’d never been in a fight in my life. I was in three fights in the first month I was there, because the men decided to test me. You have to realize, this is Vietnam War—

 

And you—

 

–and look at the way I look.

 

Uh-huh.

 

You know, I’m not a six-foot uh, uh, fair-skinned, round-eyed person. Uh, I was brought in to lead them, and I was obviously Asian. So I looked more like the enemy, than I did look like them. So it was an interesting experience, because um, I was in three fights with my own men, um, shortly after I got there, because they wanted to test whether or not I was tough enough to lead them.

 

And part of it was your culture?

 

Part of it was what I looked like. Uh, part of it was there was another leader there who they wanted, who had been there a month longer than I was, and they weren’t sure about me. So …

 

So you saw no—you had no—you had to fight. There was no—

 

Gotta fight.

 

–other way to do it?

 

Yeah. Fortunately, I was a black belt in taekwondo by then.

 

Before I got there, so without having to really hurt anybody, I guess they kinda … got some religion and said, Well, I guess he can beat up everybody else, so he’s all right.

 

We were someplace where uh, another unit got in trouble, and they called us and said, You need to go help them. Uh, there’s a battle going on, you need to go help them. And you need to get from Point A to Point B, right now. The trouble was, to go from Point A to Point B, you had to go between two hills. General rule, bad idea to go between two hills, because if the enemy is up on both hills, they’re gonna ambush you, and you’re gonna—you’re never gonna get there, you’re gonna be dead. So I called my squad leaders together. I ran a platoon of about thirty-five men. And I said, We have to go from Point A to Point B. They looked at the map, they said, We can’t go through there. I said, We don’t have a choice, because if we don’t go through there, by the time we take an alternative ro—route, our … people will be dead. So I gave an order. All the people kinda sat around, and they looked at me when they figured out where we were going. And they said, We’re not going. Now, think about the magnitude of that problem. Battle commander, give an order, people won’t go. Okay. Squad leaders, gave an order, they wouldn’t go. I tried to exhort them to move, they wouldn’t move, because … you know, the consequences were deadly. Uh, so finally, at that point, I got my radio telephone operator, made him saddle up, put on his backpack. I put my mine on. I said to everybody else, If you’re afraid, I’ll go save them myself; will fight this battle by myself. But you better hope I get killed, because if I’m not, I’m gonna come back and fix this. Off I went. Took the longest, slowest, smallest ten steps of my life down the trail waiting for—to hear if anybody else got up. And—and—and fortunately, I started hearing people getting up. They got up, and … they followed me, and off we went, and we—we made—we made it all right. Difficult experience, um … I’m not sure what would have happened if they didn’t follow. But one of the things I learned from that is, you gotta lead in front; can’t just tell people to go, especially if it’s difficult. You gotta be willing to pick up your rifle, put on your pack, and lead in front.

 

And be willing to go it alone.

 

And be willing to go it alone, if you have to.

 

So do you have a, you know, 25-word nutshell definition of leadership?

 

I have a … three-word definition, a three, word definition of leadership. My definition is that leadership is influence; nothing more and nothing less. If you have influence, and can influence, people and their thoughts, and emotions, and, actions, then you have leadership ability. That says nothing about your morality, because Hitler had leadership ability. But in—in a very … condensed, sense, I think leadership is influence. And—and learning to, influence in a positive way people’s thoughts, and emotions, and actions, were what—are the core of leadership, I think.

 

A wartime battlefield can shape leaders. So can growing up in a rural environment, where shared values help to create community well-being…. Colbert Matsumoto, born and raised on the Island of Lanai, is the Chairman of Island Insurance Companies. He also is a community leader in Honolulu, serving on … nonprofit boards in addition to corporate boards. Glenn Furuya, President and Chairman of Leadership Works, a leadership-training company he started more than 30 years ago, grew up in Hilo, on Hawaii Island. At the heart of the leadership style of each of these men is their understanding of local culture, and how being an effective leader in Hawaii can be very different from anywhere else.

 

Being local is not about where you were born. You know, it’s really about the kind of values, you embrace and the kind of philosophy that you use to guide your life, and the decisions you make in your life. So, there are many local people that you know, who were born and raised here that, you know, I don’t think espouse local values. You know. But on the other hand, there are many people that have moved here that clearly you know, the things that make, I think, Hawaii special resonated with them, which is why they chose to, come here and live here, and stay here.

 

This whole idea of local culture and what works; it used to be that certain positions in Hawaii guaranteed authority and respect. But that’s less and less true now; isn’t it?

 

Uh, yeah, I think that’s, definitely the case. You know, I think that you know, when I grew up which was when, you know, I think in the 60s, the plantations were still uh, very influential … forces in shaping our—our—our community. And there tended to be, you know, informal, leaders within those communities that people looked up to provide leadership. So in like the time that I grew up in, well, the principal of the school was, considered a very important figure. Some of the union leaders were considered important figures. Some of the, plantation bosses were also—

 

M-hm.

 

— looked up to as being, you know, important, community leaders. And so, um, people gravitated to them, and as they would in turn communicate, different, you know, projects or, concerns, you know, people would rally around them. And so, I think that those days have passed. I think that it’s harder to get people to align behind uh, different initiatives. In my experience, you know, run across, two different kinds of leadership. One—one is, implied leadership; leadership that is the result of the position that you hold. And most people fall into the category of having power because of, you know, the implied authority associated with them.   Whereas, you know, there are other people that, you know, have I think real power; a power that, you know, it generates from, they are able to assert themselves and the kind of vision and their ability to art—articulate concepts and ideas in a way that makes people feel like it resonates with them.

 

Definitely, you know, leadership requires a level of trust and confidence. It all starts from that. And if you don’t have the ability to engender the trust of the people that you’re trying to reach, you cannot lead them, you cannot convince them to move in any particular direction. That’s why, you know, great leaders have a certain special ability to engender that kinda trust.

 

You know, you have to be able to stick your neck out, because that’s how, you know, you progress. And, so asserting leadership involves taking risk, being willing to stand apart from the pack. And that takes a level of courage.

 

And so, you know, those kinds of leaders are fewer and harder to come by. But—but those are the kinds of leaders that I think exercise real, ability to move people, to affect change. And I don’t know why. I mean, it just seems that I don’t find as many of those kinds of people around as I think used to exist in the past.

 

I really do believe that the upbringing in Hilo— one thing it does is, you know, you’re humble. You you grew up humble.

 

Do you think humility … we prize humility—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

–in the Hawaiian culture—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

as well. But humility is seen as a weakness, other places.

 

Yes, it is. It’s viewed in many Western cultures as a weakness. But to me, I think that’s strength, when I can stand in front of my group and say, You know what, guys? I’m really sorry; I messed up, forgive me. You know, and just lay it out there. What’s the—what’s the alternative? What, blame people? Make excuses?

 

I do a lot of work on island style leadership, because I do believe it is a distinct and unique form of leadership. There’s this thing I call the same-same equilibrium; the same-same equilibrium. And it roots back to ahupuaa, where it was—society was an egalitarian society, where everybody in the society had a role, and everybody did their part. But all of the contributors within that society were viewed as equal, so everybody same-same.

 

M-hm.

 

Right? Okay. So, here’s the deal. Centuries later, the same-same essence mentality still is—is embedded in all of us. You’ve got to stay in this equilibrium, same-same. Everybody same-same, everybody does equal in their contribution. What’s very interesting is, whenever you break same-same, okay, and you think you’re—you act as if you’re better, right—‘cause if everybody’s same-same, then nobody’s more important or better than anybody else; right? But the minute you break it—and this is where a lot of times people who come from away, good people, they don’t understand this equilibrium. They break it. As soon as you get to this I’m better than you mentality, through your tone of voice, through your being too direct, not listening—

 

M-hm.

 

–showing everybody how smart you, the immediate response always is, Who the heck does he thinks he is? Who the heck does he think is? Immediate response.

 

Right.

 

And once that response comes out, you can’t lead in Hawaii. Who the heck you think you are? And they don’t tell it to you in your face. It’s—Hawaii is—

 

They just turn away.

 

I always say—

 

Right?

 

–to my leaders that I work with, Hawaii is the world capitol of passive aggressive behavior.

 

I do a lot of work with mainlanders coming down, to try to help them understand some of these little nuances of this place. Do not break the same-same equilibrium. Because as soon as those words come out, that question pops, it’s really hard to recover. The other thing with island people; they don’t—they don’t forgive. They—they take forever to let go.

 

The way I teach it is this. There are two types of leaders, Leslie. There’s circular leaders. These are people are who are very collaborative, they’re relationship-oriented, they’re kind, they—they really engage people.

 

M-hm.

 

Circular. Island people are generally more circular.

 

M-hm.

 

Okay. And that’s because in Hawaii, we’re a three-way blend of cultures. We are influenced heavily by Eastern culture, ‘cause in the 1940s, forty percent of the population of Hawaii was Japanese. So, heavy bushido code influence here.

 

The one element of the—the bushido code is this; you always operate from a sense of imperfection. You always come from a state of dissatisfaction. ‘Cause—

 

Oh, I didn’t know that.

 

Yeah. So, if you’re always dissatisfied, and you’re kinda imperfect, you always gotta work harder. You gotta try harder, you gotta study harder, you gotta go to school, you gotta learn. I never got praised by my parents; they never, ever praised, said, Good job, Glenn, won—you did a wonderful job. Nothing. And I think, bushido. They didn’t want me to get all big-headed and arrogant, and thinking I’m better than anybody else; right?

 

Right.

 

So, they kept—they kept it really, really restrained, the praise and things like that.

 

M-hm.

 

And yet, we’re all Americans; that’s the Western influence. We’re all Western educated folk. But at the same time, the host culture here is Hawaiian.

 

M-hm.

 

We have a major Polynesian influence. And there’s no place in the world these three forces come together like it does here in Hawaii. So, the Polynesian and the Eastern, Asian, right, give us the circular. We understand circular; that’s why people are so collaborative and warm, and aloha spirit, and ohana. Western culture is much more linear. You know, there’s the goal, here’s the plan, now do it. Now, move—

 

And if you have to run over somebody—

 

Yeah.

 

–to get there—

 

Right.

 

–it’s okay.

 

Right.

 

‘Cause that’s the goal.

 

Right, and there are a lot of island people who are just very linear, too. The biggest mistake you can make in Hawaii is take your linear approach, and slam it on the circular. Right? And then, that equilibrium gets broken. Who the heck does he think he is?

 

You’ve gotta be both. Circular, collaboration, involvement, build a relationship. But at the point of execution, we all gotta go linear; we’ve gotta get the job done.

 

I’ve always believed, Leslie, that whenever you impose things on people, when you just shove it in, you’ll get compliance. They’re gonna do it, because I’m afraid if I don’t do it, they’re gonna scold me or fire me, whatever. When you inspire people bottom-up—

 

M-hm.

 

–you get commitment. That’s real leadership.

 

Teachers are among our most important leaders. They have the power to influence and shape the minds of young people who will … become the next generation of leaders. Kumu hula Hokulani Holt, who is also the Cultural Programs Director of the Maui Arts and Culture Center, and Dr. Maenette Ah Nee Benham, Dean of Hawaiinuiakea at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Hawaiian Knowledge, are two such leaders. Their career paths are based on kuleana, the responsibilities handed down to them from their families and ancestors….

 

Hula has always been in our ohana. My grandmother was a kumu hula, she had seven daughters. Of her seven daughters, three became kumu hula. And of her granddaughters, first just me, and now my sister. And then of her great-granddaughters, my cousin Melia.

 

When did you decide you’re gonna be a kumu? Or—

 

Oh, I didn’t.

 

–did you decide?

 

I didn’t.

 

I guess that’s nothing you decide on your own, right, in the hula world?

 

Yeah, yeah; I didn’t decide. My mother decided for me.

 

She said, Well, I think it’s time for you to—to begin teaching. And I went, no, that—that belongs to other people, that doesn’t belong to me. And she said, No, I talked to your auntie, and I think it’s time for you to begin teaching. So I went kicking and screaming, but I went.

 

What kind of a kumu were you and are you?

 

I believe that I’m—I’m pretty strict. I hope to instill in my students a love for hula, but also a love for this place that we call home, and for all the many generations of people that came before us that created the—the chants and the songs, and the movements that we use. What a kumu hula is, is we want things our own way. And we demand that.

 

It is your world.

 

It is my world. I always tell my students, This is the world according to Hoku within these four walls.

 

And as a kumu hula, you get very involved in other people’s families.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

They become your family.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

So you’re privy to a lot of the struggles that—

 

Yes.

 

–people go through.

 

Yes. You know, you get parents coming and saying, You know, my daughter’s not paying attention to school, Kumu can you please talk to her? Or, you know, someone’s marriage or passing; you get involved in your students’ lives, and it’s a good thing.

 

Halau provides, focus, it—it really gets you to appreciate every little thing, I believe. And halau is not only learning hula, but it also teaches you about yourself. How to push yourself a little bit more, how to think about the welfare of others within the halau, and then that translates to others outside of halau, how to practice or do Hawaiian values, because that’s what you must have in halau as well, how to get past pain and tired, and late hours for a goal that you would like to reach. So those are all life lessons also.

 

So you were possessed at an early age of a conviction you wanted to lead.

 

M-hm.

 

Why?

 

Because I was always told that I would. I was always told. My grandmothers— both my Grandma Ah Nee and my Grandma Padeken explained to me when I was very young about my name, Kape‘ahiokalani. And it is a name of—of one of my great-great aunts, who was a chanter in King Kalakaua’s court. And basically, what they said to me was that because I held this name, I had the responsibility of—of remembering the moolelo of our family, and I had the responsibility of contributing to … the health and wellbeing of my family. That was it. That’s what they told me. And … you know, I said, Okay. Because that’s what you do. Your kupuna tell you that, and you say, Okay, so what do I need to do?

 

And there are all kinds of ways to accomplish that too.

 

Yeah, there’s all kinds of ways to do that. And I just found this to be my journey, you know, in educational leadership. I just found that to be what really gets me excited, um, what really inspires me is—and it all started because um, in fifth grade at Koko Head Elementary School, Mrs. Kwon made me do flannel board stories for the kindergartners. And I loved it. I loved just telling stories, creating stories and telling them to young kids, and watching the light bulbs go off. So my first job was as a kindergarten teacher. What a great job, you know, where you get unconditional love every single day.

 

And I know you’ve said you always want to be a teacher.

 

I always—

 

No matter what else you do, or how you do it, you want to be a teacher.

 

Yeah. Always; always. And that came from the stories and teachers over the years. You know, and good leaders are great teachers.

 

The genius of leadership is living into grace. And it’s—it’s that—that idea of creating a space where people can feel really safe, even though you say the worst things. I want you to feel safe here, I just want you to feel safe. And no matter what you have to say, no matter how angry you are, go ahead, go and do that. And when you’re pau, let’s get to work. You know, cause otherwise, we’re not gonna get it done, we’re not gonna—we’re just not gonna do it. And that’s how I—that’s how I lead. You know. And I try really hard to listen; listen, listen, listen. And as I listen, you know, I try to move it back to the core issue, as you said. Ask more questions about how that has to do with the issue, keep moving it, moving it, moving it.

 

But sometimes, there is no consensus.

 

And sometimes there’s not.

 

And then you have to figure out—somebody has to call it.

 

Yes.

 

This is not gonna be solved this way.

 

Yeah. And I do that. I do that too. You can ask the people who work for me. You know, it’s very open, we’re safe, we’re gonna talk about it, and this is how—this is the road we’re gonna take. I’m not afraid to do that. No; I’m not afraid to do that. It’s—it’s nice to know— I want people to know that everybody has a voice. You know, everyone has a voice. It’s a labor-intensive process, but everybody has a voice. And in the end, you know, there will be – everybody will know that there will be uh, a direction we’re gonna go. You know, and move on.

 

Because people want closure. I mean—

 

Yeah.

 

You can’t talk everything to death.

 

Yeah. In a microcosm, yeah, you know, we have a lot of diverse perspectives, but across the United States, across the globe, you know, there isn’t one way to do anything. But I do think that we’re reaching a time where there—there are more young people and young leaders who are seeing the promise and the potential of bringing together different groups, and really talking about hard issues, of renewable resources, about food safety, about education and wellbeing that’s very issue-oriented. And doing it in a way that is grounded in our religion, our stories. I think we’re ready at that point to do that, and I—I think that’s—that’s our work at the University to help prepare, you know, my community leaders to be able to do that.

 

I learned that, you know, you do good work. You have good intentions, you know. Doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how much I can tell you about what I wrote, or what I studied, or what whatever, right? What matters is that I have good intentions, and I work really hard, and I try to be fair in everything that I do. And I try to be kind, you know. And I—and I lead in grace, developing a space where people can feel grace and welcome, you know. And then, we’ll move forward. Ohana does not always mean that we are of the same blood, ohana means that we can agree on a set of principles and a mission for the work that we’re doing, and we’re gonna be innovative and entrepreneurial, and we’re gonna work together really hard to get there. That’s ohana.

 

Humility, trust, listening, fairness, influence… all important qualities that Hawaii’s leaders say are critical to good leadership. These are values that we can use in our own lives, whether it is how we act with our families, in our jobs or how we conduct ourselves in the broader community. Our closing words of wisdom will be from the late Skippa Dias, legendary football coach at Farrington High School in Honolulu.

 

Mahalo to our Long Story Guests who have shared their stories and insights with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha a hui hou.

 

I developed um, an acronym. And the acronym was spelled out HEART, H-E-A-R-T. And—and each letter represented a basic tenet and belief that … you want the other person to acquire and mind for the young kinds. And the word HEART, the five five words are H refer to humility, the ability to … you know, to … listen to another person and … bite your tongue if—if he’s saying something that’s different than what you want. But being humble is a quality that is really, really … sought after for a lot of people, but never acquire. But humility is a good one. E, education. That one was very, very significant in my family’s upbringing. A, attitude; a positive attitude, making sure that, you know, whatever the goal, whatever the project, you set yourself out to be positive and g—and get the darn thing done. R, responsibility. You gotta be responsible for all the things that you do, and sometimes for the things that your friends and your loved ones are doing. But being responsible in that manner has—has some beautiful connotations that—that grow from it. And then T, of course, stands for team.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Colbert Matsumoto

 

Colbert Matsumoto grew up on Lanai when it was a pineapple plantation employing both his father and mother. He didn’t set foot on the Continent until he was a college freshman. And he grew up to become an attorney, insurance company executive and business and community leader in Hawaii. Like many successful people, he had some misgivings and missteps along the way. On the next LONG STORY SHORT (Tues., July 7, 7:30 pm), Matsumoto humbly recalls his journey. And he tells of a test of his courage, as court-appointed master overseeing the dealings of then-Bishop Estate.

 

This program is available in high-definition and will be rebroadcast on Wed.,
July 8 at 11:00 pm and Sun., July 12 at 4:00 pm.

 

Colbert Matsumoto Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

You said your dad was a 442 vet, so that means he qualified for the GI Bill. He could have gone to college, but you’re saying he did not?

 

Yeah; my dad unfortunately, as soon as he came back from Europe and returned to Lanai, his father died unexpectedly. And so, my father, because he was the youngest in the household, and his siblings had all left the island already, stayed on Lanai to take care of his mother. So, he was from a generation that had this Japanese value of oyako-ko imbued in him. And so, I think that, you know, basically he said, It’s my responsibility to take care of my mother.

 

Do you think he ever regretted that choice?

 

No. If I he did, I never heard him articulate it. But I think that that was probably why he expected my brother and me to go to college.

 

That sense of doing what’s right was passed on from father to son. Born and raised on Lanai, Colbert Matsumoto would remember his dad’s leadership by example when he took on some of the most powerful people in Hawaii, and helped reshape the multi-billion-dollar Bishop Estate. Colbert Matsumoto, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. Colbert Matsumoto went from plantation life on Lanai to become a business and community leader in Honolulu. He’s chairman of Island Insurance. Matsumoto’s life and career have been driven by a desire to impact lives, a motivation he’d seen his parents put into action as workers on Lanai’s pineapple plantation.

 

I grew up in a time when—I like to call it the Golden Period of the Plantations in Hawaii. Life was really nice growing up on Lanai. You know, our family, I think, you know, we had a comfortable lifestyle. We didn’t have a lot of extravagance, but you know, we had a TV set, you know, I was in the Boy Scouts. You know, my parents were members of the PTA, you know, we went to church on Sundays. And so, it was a nice place to grow up in. And so, as I look back on it, you know, I realize how almost idyllic it was to grow up in a place like that. But when I was growing up there, I couldn’t wait to leave.

 

Because it was too small a town, people all knew each other’s business, maybe?

 

Yeah; it was confining. I grew up in a community of twenty-five hundred people. Oh, there were many occasions when, you know, I would get into mischief as a little kid on one side of the town, and by the time I got home, my mom would know all about it. You know, and so, yeah; it was hard to remain anonymous.

 

When you said you couldn’t wait to get away, were there other things besides getting ratted on for mischief?

 

Oh, yeah. Growing up, we had a TV set, and I would watch shows about other places, and I always longed for the opportunity to experience some of the things that I saw on the TV programs. Because I didn’t get away from Lanai very much. I had never had the opportunity to visit the mainland until I went to college. And so, I felt somewhat isolated and confined as I grew older, and wanted to have the opportunity to experience different things.

 

The main employer on the island at that time was Dole; right?

 

Right.

 

And did your parents work for Dole?

 

Yeah; both my parents worked for Dole, as my grandparents also. Pretty much everybody on the island worked for Dole, unless you worked for the State or the County, or some of the retail establishments in the town.

 

There are drawbacks to company town, obviously, when you’re held in their thrall; they’re the main gig—

 

Right.

 

–for employment.

 

Well, you know, I think that, yeah, the only jobs that were available were on the plantation. Which is why, you know, growing up, we all knew that once we graduated, we were expected to leave the island. Because there were no opportunities for young people after they graduated from high school on Lanai.

 

Which your parents had that expectation of; right?

 

Oh, yeah; the parents. But you know, it was also the economic reality of the island.

 

I mean, were you concerned? What am I gonna do? How am I gonna make it?

 

No. You know, I think my parents always raised me with the expectation that I was supposed to go to college. They themselves had not gone to college, so they didn’t care which college, or what I studied. You know, they just wanted me to go to college and graduate from college.

 

Did they explicitly give you lessons of life?

 

They did, you know, in different ways. So, you know, they would basically try to teach me certain values. But then, they also, I think, taught me a lot just by their example.

 

Your father, for example; what did he teach you? What did you come away with?

 

One of the things that he was heavily involved in was with the ILWU. Because the union figured very significantly in our community. So, my father would share with me some of the stories of the struggles that the union and the employees had to go through in the beginning. ‘Cause he was a 442 veteran, and so when he came back, one of the things that he and, you know, people of his generation were struggling for were not just economic justice, but also social reforms in the community. So, the union, the ILWU was very significant in, I think, bringing about some changes back on the plantation. ‘Cause many of them didn’t have the opportunity to own their homes. So, one of the things that they struggled for was to have the opportunity to buy their own homes, which many of the workers did.

 

Under your dad’s tenure?

 

Yeah; during the time that he was involved with the ILWU.

 

What was your mother like? What is she like? Because, you know, she’s still with us.

 

Right. My mother was a strong woman. You know, she made sure that my brother and I kept out of trouble, which she didn’t always succeed at.

 

But she always found out.

 

Yeah; she found out. But she was a stickler for the rules, and you know, she really had a strong sense of fairness, of right and wrong. And I think that that enabled her to go from being a pineapple picker to one of the first female, wahine lunas on the plantation.

 

What was that like? So, did she boss men around?

 

No; she usually headed, you know, gangs of women who were ipicking pineapple for the plantation.

 

Oh, that’s wonderful; a wahine luna.

 

Right. But that wasn’t until, you know, the late 70s, when equal rights became more of an issue for women.

 

So, it sounds like both of your parents challenged; challenged for more fairness, for equity.

 

Right. I think that, you know, that generation, they were second generation Japanese Americans. That generation really was focused on bringing about social change for the benefit of the community. And so, both of them made contributions in various ways through the activities that they were involved in and volunteered in. And they were among many in the community that were also, you know, engaged in those kinds of efforts on behalf of the group, as opposed to just for their own personal benefit.

 

Colbert Matsumoto was valedictorian of his high school class on Lanai. He went on to college in the Bay Area, and graduated from law school at the University of California at Berkeley. He wanted to be a lawyer to have an impact on society.

 

When I went up to college, it was the first time I was up on the mainland. So, it was a total culture shock for me. I had never been on the mainland before, I had never seen an urban environment like that. So, was definitely an eye-opening experience.

 

How was your college experience? What’d you decide you were gonna do with your life? Did you decide then?

 

Yeah; I had gone to college with the intent of becoming a high school social studies teacher.   So, that was my objective going in. About halfway through, I came home for a summer and worked at a warehouse on a nightshift crew, and there were three other guys that were working on the crew that had already graduated from UH in education. One had a master’s degree, the other two had fifth-year certificates, and none of them could find jobs with the DOE.

 

That’s right. I remember that was the time of a teacher surplus.

 

So, I figured I needed to find something else. And that’s when I decided, Well, I guess I’ll try applying to law school, which is what I ended up doing.

 

Any particular reason?

 

Well, you know, I had never met a lawyer before. I had never been in a courtroom, or knew anything about what the practice of law was. At the time, you know, I just knew that lawyers went to court. Perry Mason, The Defenders; those were my images of lawyers. And I thought, you know, lawyers made a lot of money, and didn’t have to work hard.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And so, I thought that, Okay, maybe that would be a good profession to get into. But I also knew that lawyers had the ability to bring about change, that they had a certain knowledge base that allowed for an advocacy of different ideas. And so, I thought that by becoming a lawyer, I would be able to have an impact in terms of society. Because, you know, I grew up in the 60s, so it was a time of a lot of social change; the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. It was also a time when, you know, the environmental movement first started to get started. And so, there was a lot of idealism, I think, with my generation. And so, I looked at, you know, practicing law as being an opportunity to become more of a contributor to the kinds of social changes that were taking place in society.

 

You were used to being a really smart guy in all your classes up ‘til now. Now, in law school, everyone was probably the smartest in the class they came from before.

 

Right.

 

What was that like?

 

It was very intimidating. Like I said, I had no clue what being a lawyer was all about. And so, I almost flunked my first semester of law school. Because I thought a contract was a piece of paper that, you know, you put an agreement on. I didn’t realize that it was a legal concept that had, you know, certain components to it. And so, the concepts associated with law were so foreign to me, so I had a hard time grasping a lot of that when I first went to law school.

 

Do you think maybe part of it was because you were used to more of a handshake, and your word was good, and it was sort of uncomplicated on Lanai?

 

No, I think I was pretty much just naïve and clueless about what I had elected to pursue in law. So, fortunately, I had a professor who was very sympathetic, and I had some fellow classmates that were very supportive and encouraging. And so, I stuck it out, and managed to do okay.

 

Colbert Matsumoto did something quite unusual after he passed the Bar Exam and was qualified to practice law. He embarked on a six-month journey that continues to inform his life.

 

I entered a Zen monastery. So, I shaved my head, and then went into this Zen monastery and trained.

 

Where was it?

 

It was in Kalihi Valley. So, it was Chozen-ji. It’s a Rinzai Zen temple. And I had heard about the teacher there, Tanouye Tenshin Rotaishi, who was an accomplished martial artist, but also a Zen teacher. And so, I had trained in the martial arts when I was a kid growing up, and so, you know, I had an interest in it. But I had also realized that Zen was the philosophical underpinnings of Japanese martial arts and so, I wanted to learn more about that. And so, that’s why I asked him if I could, you know, train with him at his temple.

 

And what did you learn?

 

You know, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was a very rigorous and arduous kind of training, physically demanding training that I went through while I was there. But it was also psychologically very stressful and difficult.

 

When you said arduous, I don’t really know what that means in terms of meditation or Zen studies.

 

We would get up at like, you know, four-thirty in the morning. We would sit in meditation for hour and a half from five-thirty. And then, we would have breakfast and then, we would do martial arts training from eight to ten in the morning, and then we would have to work out in the gardens or do some construction activity. And then, in the afternoon, you know, we would bathe, and then we would go through another period of intense meditation, and then we would do martial arts training from seven-thirty to like, ten o’clock at night. And you know, it was just physically very demanding. And I mean, I lost a lot of weight while I was going through that, and it was very tough, both physically and psychologically.

 

And was it meant to reduce you to who you really are, to take away the external stuff?

 

Right. Basically, the training had a lot to do with, you know, freeing you from your dependence on the kinds of things that you grow up with, thinking that these are real things that you can hang onto in terms of defining who you are, and defining your life and how you lead your life. There definitely are gonna be times when you’re not gonna be able to overcome certain things. But you have to try. So, it’s more about the effort and how it transforms you as a person, by taking on that challenge.

 

That’s interesting, ‘cause as a lawyer, I think you’re pretty goal-oriented. But you’re saying you learned how to accept that the effort is the main point.

 

Right. I think, you know, as human beings, you know, we have the capacity to continue to evolve and change, and grow. But you have to make the effort at it, and you have to be willing to take the risk associated with experiencing those kinds of changes in your life.

 

Following his Zen training, Colbert Matsumoto went into business as a solo law practitioner. He shared office space with a man who would become governor, Ben Cayetano. Later, he joined the law firm of the late Wallace Fujiyama, one of Hawaii’s finest trial lawyers. Yet, Matsumoto says his early years in law were hardly a success.

 

 

The first thing I did was, I hung my shingle and tried to practice law on my own for two years, which was a disaster.

 

Why?

 

Because I wasn’t prepared. You know, law school doesn’t really prepare you to practice law.

 

To run a business; is that the part of it that got you?

 

No; there is so much more to being a good lawyer than what you learn in law school. And so, I really needed to be mentored and with some people that were more experienced, who could in turn teach me the ropes and help me understand, you know, what you did as a good lawyer. So, I ended up giving it up and getting a job with Wally Fujiyama’s law firm. He established himself, even on the national scene, as a very accomplished trial attorney. But you know, Wally, for all his success as a lawyer, never forgot his ties to the community. And I think that for him, that was an important—he saw it as a social responsibility that he bore to not just focus on his own law practice and pursuing opportunities for himself, but also to contribute to the benefit of the community in terms of, you know, the lives of other people. The other thing about him that I thought was really admirable was that he was a risk taker. And so, he wasn’t hesitant to put himself out front and to become the subject of criticism.

 

Do you remember that time when you were struggling to run your own place, do you remember feeling embarrassed that another lawyer saw you do something?

 

Oh, yeah. No; there were many times when, you know, I realized that I was over my head in terms of the assignment that I had. And it was frustrating. It was frequently humiliating.

 

Did you second guess yourself, saying, I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have gotten, this is not my—

 

Oh, definitely. No; I thought to myself that, you know, I mean, this was not the right career path. Which is why I abandoned it.

 

But you stayed in law; you didn’t abandon law.

 

No; no. But quite honestly, I hated practicing law. I thought it was a mistake to have become a lawyer, because I just didn’t enjoy it. It took me over ten years before, you know, I finally started to feel more comfortable about what I was doing, and began to enjoy it.

 

In 1996, Colbert Matsumoto was appointed the Court Master for Bishop Estate. It was a role that required him to examine the finances and structure of the multi-billion-dollar trust for Native Hawaiians. Within a year, the Estate came under fire amid allegations of gross mismanagement, and many called for the powerful and highly paid trustees to resign. Matsumoto unexpectedly found himself taking on the trustees in a scathing 120-page report he issued to the court.

 

When the judge appointed me to be the Court Master, the controversy hadn’t erupted.   I knew that being Court Master for Bishop Estate was a high-profile of engagement, but I had no clue that it was gonna be as controversial as it ended up being. So, it wasn’t until almost a year after I had been appointed that things kinda erupted. The Broken Trust essay was published, the march on Kawaiahao Plaza occurred, and by then, I started to realize that, you know, this assignment that I had undertaken was gonna require that I take on the trustees. And that was kind of an intimidating notion to think about at that time. Because I had just started my own law firm a couple of years before that. And so, I actually thought to myself, you know, Okay, here I’m in this situation where if I do my job right, I’m gonna end up getting five of the most powerful people in Hawaii upset at me. So, I did think about tendering my resignation to the judge. But as I was kinda weighing that decision, I reflected on, you know, why did I go to law school, why did I want to become a lawyer. And I thought about the idealism that I had when I was in my twenties, and wanting to, you know, make a positive contribution to society. And so, I thought to myself that, you know, here I’m a positon where I could make a difference if I did my job right, and if I did it in a professional way, and am I gonna walk away from it. And so, when I looked at it in that way, I decided that, no, I should stick this out. And that’s what I ended up doing.

 

And what did you find? You saw the raw data, or at least what raw data was presented to you.

 

Well, I found a lot of issues with respect to accountability and transparency. You know, a lot of the investments that they had engaged in were not going well, were not performing as they should have. The other thing that they had done was, they had divided up areas of responsibility among the five of them, so that each of them basically had control over a different aspect of the estate. Which I found to be a violation of the trust that had been given to them, because Princess Pauahi had basically designated that there were five trustees that were all supposed to act in concert, rather than, you know, five individual trustees—

 

Five CEOs.

 

–that had their own kuleanas, and could make decisions that would be unchallenged within their kuleanas. And so, you know, that was part of the governance of Kamehameha Schools that I felt were not in conformity with what the Princess’ original wishes were, and certainly not in conformity with trust law.

 

What was the turning point, do you think, in the legal case that really turned the trust upside down, and resulted in the removal of a trustee?

 

Well, things started to deteriorate over the three years that this was going on, for the trustees. And I think that they, as I said, hunkered down. They were very resistant to making a number of the changes that the court expected of them. And then, the real blow that I think did them in was when the IRS came in and raised a number of concerns about their behavior and their management of the estate.

 

A lot of that was based on what you had put out; right?

 

Yes and no. You know, the IRS had done a lot of their own homework, and they had other issues that they wanted to raise with the trustees. But you know, IRS has a very heavy hand, and when they enter the picture, you know, it’s pretty tough [CHUCKLE] to fight them.

 

Colbert Matsumoto ended his twenty-year legal career in 1999, and became chairman of Island Insurance. Matsumoto is known as a strategic problem-solver. He used his skills and his influence to help save the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii from foreclosure in 2002. Matsumoto led a team that successfully raised nine million dollars in just a few months.

 

How did you actually get the money?

 

Well, you know, it took a lot of hard work and effort. And so, you know, our group—and we called it the Committee to Save the Center. We knew that this was a desperate cause, and that nobody likes to contribute money to what they think is gonna be ultimately a failed effort, because you know, you’ve heard the term, you know, throwing good money after bad. And so, nobody wanted to throw good money after bad. So, what we pledged to the audience was that we would only cash their checks if we had raised enough money to save the center. But until then, all we were gonna do was collect checks. And so, that’s what we did. And I think that that gave people the confidence to contribute to us. Whenever we would receive a donation, we would do a personalized letter to that person, thanking them for their contribution. And I would sign every letter. And so, my wife would stay up with me at night to help me stuff envelopes, and get the letters ready to be mailed out to the people that donated. And so, yeah; it took a lot of work, but it was very satisfying.

When you look back at that, did you learn new things about yourself?

 

Not so much about myself, as much as my confidence in my community was not misplaced. It reaffirmed my sense that, you know, we are a special place, we are a special community, that you know, Hawaii is a place that retains a lot of the qualities that growing up on Lanai, I think, I felt were unique once I was able to contrast it to my experiences on the mainland. And so, it reaffirmed my desire to try to maintain those qualities about our community.

 

Colbert Matsumoto chose the business boardroom instead of following his parents into a labor union. However, his strong sense of community goes back to his parents’ values and the sense of extended family in his upbringing on rural Lanai. To that, he added higher education and Zen training. Thank you, Colbert Matsumoto, for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

My own daughters, my two daughters, when they were in elementary school, we went to Lanai for a visit, and I remember giving them like ten dollars and telling them, you know, Why don’t you go buy some ice cream, you know, from the ice cream store? And so, they looked at me like, you know, Well, aren’t you gonna take us? And I said, No, you know where it is, so why don’t you walk from Grandma’s house to the ice cream store. And so, they did. And it was the first time they had ever done that.

 

And you felt okay, ‘cause it was Lanai.

 

Oh, yeah. No, I felt perfectly fine about it. And it was definitely a new experience for them.

 

[END]