George Ariyoshi

George Ariyoshi: Journey to Washington Place


Original air date: Tues., Sept. 18, 2012


Journey to Washington Place


Leslie Wilcox talks with former Governor George Ariyoshi, the state’s third and longest-serving governor. According to Ariyoshi, his parents’ Japanese cultural values shaped his character. Ariyoshi also recalls his long journey to becoming Hawaii’s governor – from his childhood at Japanese school, all the way through meeting his future wife and his involvement in Hawaii’s Democratic Revolution of 1954.

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But I was very mindful of something that my father used to talk about. The word is a Japanese word; it’s haji, shame. Don’t bring shame on your friends, your family, to anybody. Be honorable in everything that you do. And I was very mindful of the fact that if I didn’t do a good job, it would not only be a reflection on the work that had to be done, but be a great reflection on the minority people that I felt were part of the government.


Coming up on Long Story Short. George Ariyoshi decided early on he wanted to be a lawyer, but he didn’t start out with political ambition, let alone dream he’d become Hawaii’s longest serving Chief Executive. On the way to the Governor’s Office, he’d make history, breaking down racial barriers and paving the way for future generations of Hawaii political business and government leaders. George Ariyoshi’s unlikely Journey to Washington Place is next.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In the early years of my reporting career, I was involved in news coverage of the administration of Hawaii Governor, George Ariyoshi, who held office from 1974 until 1986. In this edition of Long Story Short, I sit down with the still active elder statesman to explore his life. Billed in a campaign film as The Kid From Kalihi, this son of Japanse immigrant parents came of age in Hawaii during World War II, and went on to build a political career that spanned more than three decades during a pivotal time in island history. Along the way, he became a man of records: the first non – Caucasian governor in the United States, first Hawaii-born governor to be elected, and longest serving governor in our State’s history. Despite his political power and stature, and the fierce nature of politics, observers tend to agree that Governor Ariyoshi managed to stay true to himself and the cultural values he learned at home.


Lots of my cultural values came from my parents. And when I say close, we were really close. When I wanted to do anything, I would have to tell my mother, Oh, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to a certain place. And if I went from there to some other place, I had to come back and tell my parents that I was gonna go someplace else. So, we were that kind of family. They didn’t speak English ever. Almost not at all. And so, when they went to PTA meetings, for example, they would say only, My boy good boy, bad boy? [CHUCKLE]


They understood English, but didn’t speak it?


They didn’t speak English, they didn’t understand English.


But they trusted the school to do a good job, and just—


That’s right.


—wanted to know that you were behaving.


Uh-huh. And all they wanted to know was, was I good or bad. [CHUCKLE]


Wow. But they showed up.


Yeah; and that’s right. And that showing up, to me, is very important. Sometimes, people don’t appreciate how important it is for parents to get involved in the things that their children do.


What brought your parents here from Japan?


My father was working on a ship that stopped by in Hawaii for provisions. And they all got off the ship to look around, and said, Oh, Hawaii nice place. So about ten of them didn’t go back on the ship. It was an illegal entry that was made at that time. And I did not know about this. This happened in 1919, and I did not know about this until my last summer back here before I graduated from law school in 1951. And my father told me this story. I was flabbergasted. I said, Papa, won’t you concerned during the war that they were gonna pick you up? And he said, oh, he had made up his mind that he was going to be picked up. But nothing happened. And I guess he tried to keep us from getting involved, or worrying about things that had might happen. So he was very grateful that nothing happened. At the time that he was saying this to me, the Walter McCarren Act was passed in Congress, which provided that any person who was in the United States in 1924, and could show continuous presence since then, could get long term permanent residency. So when I became a lawyer in 1952, my first project was to get that long-term residence for my father. But when you start thinking about today, we have Social Security, we pay taxes, and it’s very easy to get those records. But you go back to 1924, if you paid taxes, somebody wrote the receipt, and you got it, but nobody keeps those things. No Social Security.


How did you prove he was there?


I had to go find people who knew my father during that period and get affidavits. Oh, I had so many affidavits from people who worked to get it. My father was a stevedore, and even though he worked all those years, there were no records.


And what did he say when he finally became a citizen?


Oh, he was very happy, and he said, Oh, now, I can travel. He never went anywhere. Even when I graduated from Michigan State, he never came because he was concerned that if he got on the airplane he may be identified and picked up.


Your mom was born in Hawaii?


No, my mother was born in Japan, but she came to Hawaii the same year that my father got off the ship here. And her parents had come ahead of time. They worked on the plantation, and they called my mother after she became a little older.


And so, how did they meet, your parents?


I don’t know. [CHUCKLE]


They didn’t talk about that romance—




—of that first courtship. No.




The Ariyoshis eventually had six children, and the family moved around Oahu, living in Waialae, Laie, Palama, and of course, Kalihi. George Ariyoshi attended public schools, and as a boy, he also went to Japanese language school in Palama. Unlike many Nisei, George enjoyed Japanese classes, despite being singled out by a school bully.


Class was over, I came out, and all of a sudden, somebody came up and grabbed me by the shirt like this. I didn’t know what was going on. And so, my initial response was to push back, and I got into a fight with that person, who turned out to be, I found out later on, the second grade bully. And that was not a good way to get started at least in Japanese school, especially. So I ended up having many, many confrontations and fights. My principal one day, because of a fight, he called me in and he told me I can’t come back to school unless I get my parents. So, I went home and I told my mother that, and my mother said, Okay, you won’t go back to school, we’ll put in another school. So, I changed from that Palama school to a school on Fort Street. And the principal came back later on and wanted me to come back to school. He felt that I was a good student, and wanted me as a student there. But my mother told him, You never asked him why he got into these fights, and he’s had enough, so he changed school and the all fighting stopped after that.


And what happened to the bully?


I got to know him when we became adults. They were two individuals who became very active and came in with my campaign in 1954.


Is that right? So, what was that conversation like when you saw them in your campaign?


Nothing happened; nobody said anything. I was very happy to have them come in. We never talked about the fights that we had.


I understand that well, a lot of kids didn’t like going to Japanese school after regular school. But even though you had a bully waiting for you, you didn ’t mind.


Yeah, I didn’t mind.


You liked your school.


Because I knew what I had to do. My parents, my father especially, wanted me to go to Japanese school. And I tell people, Oh, I kinda went to Japanese school because my father told me, and I was there to have fun also. But in the process, I learned a little bit Japanese.


And both of your parents speak Japanese, you’re going to school learning English and then also Japanese school later. But your parents couldn ’t help you with, say, your English homework, with your writing assignments, with your spelling work; right?


No, they couldn’t. But I was very lucky. When I went to intermediate school, Central Intermediate, I had a teacher, Mrs. Hamada, who was my core studies teacher two periods every day, for three years, so during my entire period there. We talked about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I worked on the school paper as a reporter, so I told her, I want to be a journalist, or I want to become a lawyer. And she told me, Oh, good. She sent me to see a lawyer, set up an appointment. I went, and I came back, and I told her, I really want to become a lawyer, because I found out that a lawyer can help people. And my father was so happy. He told me, Oh, good. He said, I’ll give you the shirt off my back to help make that possible. He said, Go do it, and stick by it, that’s really good.


Let’s go back to high school; McKinley High School.


The war got started during my sophomore year, and we had curfews, we had blackouts, we had to be off the street by six o’clock every evening.


You were not dating?


No. Well, dating during the day.


Oh, okay. So, what did you do during the day?


Well, we had dancing, we went to friend’s house, we moved around. And we had phonograph records playing, and we had dancing, like that.


At houses?




People’s houses?


People’s houses. So we had a group of maybe, oh fifteen, twenty people that got together like that. But at night, we had to be off the street. My senior prom was at the Mormon Tabernacle. We rented a hallway there, auditorium. We pulled all the drapes, made it really dark, put on very nice lights, soft lights, and made it look like it was at night. But our graduation prom, senior prom was from one-thirty until four o’clock. [CHUCKLE] And so, our close family got even closer, because we spent nights—all during my high school years, I never went out at night. And we were all at home with my brothers and sister.


What did you do in the dark?


In the dark, we played Chinese Checkers [CHUCKLE], Chess, and all kinds of things. So, I became a pretty good Checkers player.


[CHUCKLE] Did you feel like you missed out, because you didn’t have the nightlife and the rowdy teenaged years?


Not really, because I didn’t know what it was all about, not having experienced that kind of, open, more free life. But I was content with doing the things we did. But I think what it did also was, bring my family close together. We were able to learn a lot from each other and from my parents. We learned about our own school experience, we shared those things. Now, when I went to law school, when I went to Michigan State, I enjoyed my years there. I was learning a great deal when I was there. I even worked on a construction job.


How did you afford that?


I used to get seventy-five dollars a month from the GI Bill. They took care of my tuition. And at that time, the tuition, even for out of state, was I think, around two hundred fifty or three hundred dollars.


Wow. But it was a lot then.


Yeah, it was a lot. And, I remember living in the dormitory at Michigan State. We had a quarterly system, three months. So every three months, I paid about a hundred and eighty dollars for room and for board. So now, when I think about what students have to do, how much they have to get, I feel bad for them. And that’s why I feel strongly about the tuition, that we have to make it possible for people in Hawaii to be able to go to school without having to pay a huge tuition. And I’m told that, oh, they have all kind of loan programs. But, I ask myself, how would I have gotten started with my own life if I had to start off with forty, fifty thousand, hundred thousand dollars debt that had to be repaid.


George Ariyoshi was eligible for the GI Bill because he served in the Military Intelligence Service at the end of the war between high school and college. Part of that time, he was stationed in Japan, where he witnessed the post-war destruction. After he finished law school in 1951, Ariyoshi returned to Honolulu and started the law practice he’d dreamed of since the eighth grade, and a short time later, he met the girl of his dreams, the former Jean Hayashi.


I was invited to a party. My friend’s home we had a party, and she was part of the Wakaba Kai Sorority. The sorority was invited also. So, when we got there, I had heard about Jeannie.


What did you hear about her? That she was hot-looking? Is that what I’m gathering?


Yeah, she was a very beautiful girl. And I had seen a picture of her, and somebody told me, Oh, that’s Hash’s cousin; Yoshimi Hayashi.


And were you actually at the party looking for her? Were you kinda hoping to spot her?


No. No, I didn’t, I didn’t know she was there. Because I had a date also at that point; I had gone there with a date. But I just happened to come into the kitchen. I don’t know why I went into the kitchen, but I walked into the kitchen and I saw Jeannie, and I recognized her. And so, my way of starting a conversation was, Oh, are you related to Hash?


Knowing the answer already. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] And Hash was Yoshimi Hayashi, who became Supreme Court Justice, was her cousin. And so, we talked, and then I said, Oh she was getting ready to leave, so I told her, Can I steal a dance? [CHUCKLE] So, we went out on the dance floor, and they started to play some very fast music. And Jeannie tells me later on, oh, she didn’t think that we could do that dance, but she was surprised when I started to Jitterbug. And I had learned that when I was in Minnesota at Fort Snelling. We called it then the Lindy Hop. I learned that, and I started to dance, and she told me, Wow. She was really surprised that she could dance with me. [CHUCKLE]


Oh! Now, what happened to your date?






[CHUCKLE] Well, she was there. But I went to many parties with the person that I was dating at that time. But after I met Jeannie, I stopped dating her, and I invited Jeannie to the Cherry Blossom Prom that they were gonna have, and I never dated anybody else after that.


Now, at that time, you already were known as somebody with political prospects and a possible political career ahead. When you were dating Jeannie, did you evaluate her from that standpoint?


No. I never knew, I never knew that I was gonna be in politics. And it was only in 1954—and her birthday was October 30th, and when I ran for office, she couldn’t vote for me in the primary. And she could only vote for me in the general; she became of age. [CHUCKLE]




I never even thought about running for office or being a politician at the time that I started to date her.


And so, I mean, really, it is a very hard thing to be the wife of a politician. And so, she had that ability, even though that’s really not what you were looking for.


M-hm; m-hm. She was a very flexible person, very good-natured, and she was very friendly. She made friends, meeting new people, they began to feel, Oh, I’ve known her for years and years, even though that the first time. As a matter of fact, we asked one time on a political campaign for an endorsement from one of the governors to speak, make a tape. And he talked about me, but he said that I was a very well known person amongst the governor’s circle, very well liked, but I was only second to somebody else, second to Jean Ariyoshi. So Jean was very … she helped me a lot. I’m a shy person, and I don’t move around. I can’t go around shaking hands with everybody, and I kinda stand still. But Jeannie can make up for that by being the warm person. I used to go to Big Island, for example, and people would come up to me at a rally, and the first question they would ask me is, Where’s Jeannie?




We’ll have been married for fifty-seven years this year. And Jean and I learned to get closer, and we have learned to love our children and our grandchildren even more so, because of our personal relationship. So my family side is very, very good. I get the biggest thrill out of my grandchildren when they were younger. And my great-grandchildren now, when they see me, they come running up to me, Grandpa!, and give me a big hug.


While George Ariyoshi was courting his future wife, a man who was the driving force in Hawaii’s rising Democratic Party began courting him to join what came to be known as the Democratic Revolution in Hawaii. Then party chair and future governor, John Burns, persuaded the twenty-eight-year-old Ariyoshi to run for the Territorial House in the historic 1954 election. Ariyoshi would become the youngest member of the first Democrat-controlled Legislature. Burns inspired Ariyoshi to consider politics as the path to social change.


I told him I was not a plantation child. I grew up away from that, so that I didn’t have that kind of discriminatory experience. And so, he told me, Well, what about now? Are you starting your own law practice? And I mentioned that, oh, I began to feel this control over the economy by the Big Five. That’s when he told me, Run for office. I thought he was talking to somebody else and turned around. He said, No, you, you run for office. And my response was, No, I’m too young and nobody knows me. And he said, No, it’s not that, it’s where the heart is. And that’s when he encouraged me to run. So I ran … not because I wanted, but because I felt that maybe something could happen. In 1970, when he asked me to run for Lieutenant Governor, he was not talking about 1970; he was looking at 1974. And when I expressed some concerns about being committed, because my law practice was my first love. And he told me, Please listen to me very carefully. He said, There’s never been a Governor of Hawaii who was born here in Hawaii, there’s never been a Governor here in Hawaii except a person who was White, and I want you to break that, I want you to open it up so that it’ll open up, and other people can also become a part of the government structure. That’s why I ran. When I became Governor, I was very conscious of the obligation that I had to the citizens of this community to do the best I can as Governor. But I was very mindful of something that my father used to talk about. The word is a Japanese word; it’s haji, shame. Don’t bring shame on your friends, your family, to anybody. Be honorable in everything that you do. And I was very mindful of the fact that if I didn’t do a good job, it would not only be a reflection on the work that had to be done, but be a great reflection on the minority people that I felt were part of the government. And my father, you know, he encouraged me, but in so many other ways, I learned from my parents. He talked to me about how important it is to get people to help you. No matter how good you are, you can’t do things by yourself.




You gotta get help. He said, Don’t boast about doing things, always remember that many other people helped you. Your teachers helped so that you can become whatever you want to become. When you have something you want to do, other people are gonna help you. And so, acknowledge that so much help that you get. He used a Japanese word at that time, okage sama de. Kage is somebody’s shade. O is honorific. Because of your help, because of your shade, I have become or been able to do what I wanted to do.


And that became your mantra throughout your time in office.


Yes; yes. And then, my father was very frugal. He said, Spend money if you have to, but don’t spend it unnecessarily, and to not pinch and not deny yourself anything, but be sure that you spend it in the right kind of ways, in the right amounts. And that also helped me when I was looking at budget problems. I remembered my father telling me the Japanese word, mudatsukai; wasteful spending, don’t do that. My father was also very firm about doing things in the right way. In fact, during the 1954 election, when I first got elected, my first campaign, I recall some problems I had with the labor unions. They wanted to control me. One way to do that was tell us how we’re gonna go about campaigning. And when I didn’t agree on how the campaign should be run, they were very angry with me. But my father telling me that what you think is right, you gotta stand up and do what you think you ought to do.


So did you lose the union’s support? I don’t think so; right?


They I didn’t, that 1954 election, because we came to an agreement on how to go about campaigning. And that agreement was what we could pass out. They were telling me I had to pass out only one card with all six candidates, the Democratic Party candidates’ names, and nothing else. I was going to go along with that, but when they told me nothing else, that’s what I really got affected by. But we came to a compromise. They said, The last week, let’s pass this card with six names, but until then, you can pass your own things. And so, they supported me. But I lost their support in the next election.


Why did you lose it?


Because at that time, the unions were very tough. And it was not just you’re going along with the programs that they had, but if they told you they want you to jump, they wanted to have you ask them, Oh, how many feet? It was a time when it was almost raw strength that they had, and they wanted to be sure that they didn’t lose and they were in control.


Did you get the same kind of attempts to control you on the other side from big business?


When I got involved in the 1954 election, it was because of the big business, Big Five, and how they tried to control the economy. And that was very wrong for them to dictate not only what happened to the economy, but who gets involved. And at that time, if you were an outsider, you could work for any big company and get up to a certain point, but you could never hope to get above that. And to me, that was very, very wrong, because it was not being advancing to one’s ability. I learned that there were individuals within the Big Five who shared a lot of our hopes and our aspirations, and who were willing to help. Companies that I thought were really bad people turned out not to be all that bad, and they were used to a certain kind of practice before, but they were beginning to change also. And I can name people, like Henry Walker, and Harold Eichelberger, and Lowell Dillingham all came around.


Did you think they were more open than big unions?


I think the unions started to come along also.


Ariyoshi served in the Territorial House, the Territorial Senate, and the first State Senate before he was elected Lieutenant Governor with Governor John Burns in 1970. When Burns became too ill to serve before his third term was up, Ariyoshi became Acting Governor, and then he won the position in his own right, elected to three terms starting in 1974. He served as Governor for more than thirteen years, and because of term limits in place today, no one is ever likely to serve longer. We’ll have more on his legacy in an upcoming episode. At age eighty-six at the time of this conversation, Ariyoshi continues to go to work as a businessman, connecting people. He travels widely in Asia and the Pacific, and he enjoys his grandchildren and engaging other young people in thinking of the future.


Thank you, Governor Ariyoshi, for sharing your Long Story Short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


When I was Governor, my secretary knew that when one of my kids comes in during the day over there, they were to let me know so that as soon as I got through with what I was doing, I would see my children. And I think it was a way for them to test me, to see whether or not they had access to me. And they knew they had access. And every time, no matter what I was doing, when I took a break, I would see them. And my youngest, Donn, who was only twelve years old at the time, was the one who did this all the time. He would come up; How’s my father? [CHUCKLE]


George Ariyoshi: Shaping the Future


Original air date: Tues., Sept. 25, 2012


Shaping the Future


Leslie Wilcox continues her conversation with Governor George Ariyoshi. Under the tutelage of Governor John Burns, Ariyoshi learned about building consensus and remaining true to his ideals. Ariyoshi addresses how this helped him navigate political and philosophical challenges throughout his 12 years as governor, and shares his vision for Hawaii’s future.

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And it’s not only what you do, but it’s how you do things, and how you inspire and get other people involved. And I think that feeling became very strong in Hawaii during my time. And that became, I think, my political strength.


He campaigned as quiet, but effective; and though he hadn’t envisioned a career in politics, George Ariyoshi never lost an election. Hawaii’s longest-serving Governor reflects on the legacy of his thirteen years in high office, and what he’s been doing in the quarter century since he retired from government service. That’s 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, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. George Ariyoshi was the youngest Democrat elected to Hawaii’s Territorial Legislature in the Democratic Revolution of 1954, and twenty years later, he would become the first Governor in America who was not White. The son of Japanese immigrants, Ariyoshi attended McKinley High School during World War II, served in the Military Intelligence Service after the war, and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. He was building his law practice when he met Democratic Party leader and future Governor John Burns, who encouraged him to run for office in ’54. Five years later, as a member of the State Senate in the first year of statehood, Ariyoshi was navigating the tricky path of pursuing his legislative goals while playing the high stakes game of politics. When Republican Governor William Quinn nominated Republican Samuel P. King to become a judge, Ariyoshi faced a conflict between his personal convictions and party loyalty.


The Republicans controlled the Senate during the time I was there. Sam King’s name came down for confirmation, and we had, at that time, fourteen Republicans and eleven Democrats. But Sam King didn’t have two Republicans, so he only had twelve Republican votes. And our Democrats got together and said, If you can hold firm on this, we can defeat the nomination. And I listened to all of that, and I finally said, Wait now; why? What kind of judge would he make? They said, Oh, he would be a very fine judge, but that’s not the question. I said, But it is. We’re talking about confirmation of a judge. And they told me that, oh, they have a chance to embarrass the administration. Now, this is political, they say. And I listened to that and I said, Wait, I want to say something now. You remember in 1954 when you got started, that’s only four or five years ago. I got involved because I wanted fairness in this community. I wanted everybody to be treated fairly, advance on the basis of their ability. You’re telling me he’s gonna make a fine judge; why are we gonna hold back? And I told them that it was important that in order to be fair, you gotta be fair not just to your friends. You gotta be fair to those who may not be your friends, and that’s the measure of your fairness. And they told me that they couldn’t see it that way, and we had to go out and be together as a group. And I told them, Sorry, I’m going out there, and I’m gonna publicly say that I’m gonna support Sam King. I called him, and he was so overjoyed. He told me, Oh, now that’s the vote I need to get confirmed, and I can sleep well tonight.


And that’s what happened.




And yet, when you were Governor, I don’t know how many times you heard this expression, The Machine. The Democratic Machine under Governor Ariyoshi, controlling people. I mean, it didn’t sound like George would stand up alone. How did you feel about that, and was there any truth to it?


No. There was no truth to it, because I was very open. You take, for example, the State plans. I didn’t want it to be my plan, and I wanted to involved people, and I worked together with so many people on every functional plan and let it become their plan. I think it’s an indication of my willingness to look at things that are happening in the community and involve people. The Super Ferry is one of those things that I became very concerned about, because they were trying to shortcut the process. And I think that the people who were in power at that time were willing to take those shortcuts. But I think if we had gone through the process, and everybody talk about oh, how important it is and why we need to get this, there would have been greater support and understanding of the need for a ferry, and as a result, make it happen. I think it’s true in our planning effort. Every functional plan, I had between two hundred to four hundred people involved. And they were happy to be involved, because now, they could talk about and participate in how they wanted to see things happen in our community. So they all went to the Legislature. I never had to lobby. They went to the Legislature and said, This is not Ariyoshi’s plan, this is our plan, it’s our ideas, it’s what we think is important and necessary to get where we want to be. And I tried to select people based upon their differences. Different communities they come from, different occupational backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds. And I used to take part in the swearing-in ceremonies and tell them that, You are serving on a board and you’ll find a great deal of diversity, and this is by design. Because we don’t believe that it should be controlled by one or two individuals and move different directions. Everybody should participate, and everybody should have a voice in what happens. And my feeling was, you put them all on the table, and then you have a chance to select the best of ideas, rather than one person indicating the direction that it has to go. That was my whole process. Everything that I did when I was Governor fell along that line. When I had my budget problems at the very beginning, finance, I called the unions, I called the public employees.


And this turned out to be the first economic recession since statehood.


That’s right. And I called them together, and I told them that I didn’t want to fire anybody, I didn’t want to make pay cuts, and I’ve thought about a way to do that, but I need help. And I explained to them that I was not gonna fill positions that became vacant, and that I wanted, however, those who remain to pick up what had been done before. So I told them with five people working now, and one position becomes vacant, I want the four to do not what four were doing, I want the four to do what five were doing. And I felt that I had a very heavy burden, beyond that which would be faced by an average Governor, just wanting to do the best for the community. You see, when I became Governor in 1974, it was fifteen years after Hawaii had become a state. And I wanted to know what happened during that fifteen-year period, so I looked at it very carefully. And one of the things that really struck me was the population growth, where we had grown about twenty percent a year, national rate about eight-tenths of one percent, so we were growing three times as fast as the population growth elsewhere. And I became very concerned about the need for us to think about Hawaii, what kind of place we’re going to be, how do we get there, what kind of things must we be concerned about in order for us to get off in the wrong kind of direction. I had about seven young people who were in my office when I was Governor who handled the key functions of my office. And some of them were still at the University. And I learned also about their commitment, about wanting to live in the community, and I felt very strongly about what they wanted to do. Not just in the political arena, but they can become anything they want, but they don’t forget that there is a commitment to the community. And that has been a very important part of my life now. I put together a booklet, Hawaii’s 50th Anniversary. And I talked about fifty years of Hawaii’s statehood, but I especially spent time talking about the next fifty years. And I did that to challenge the young people in our community, and I had one of those pamphlets was given to every high school senior. And I was invited many, many times to go to high schools to speak to them, and every time I went, I came away feeling so good about our young people. I found them very concerned about the future. They started talking about jobs, they talked about the economy, about housing. I learned a lot from young people, and they’ve played a very important role in shaping my life. And it’s not only what you do, but it’s how you do things and how you inspire and get other people involved. And I think that feeling became very strong in Hawaii during my time, and that became, I think, my political strength. My campaign manager was Bob Oshiro. And after my first election, I had to sit with him, I had to tell him why I’m going to run for office again, why I’m going up for reelection, what have I done and what are my plans, what’s my vision for the future.


He made you apply for the job all over again with him.


That’s right. Uh-huh. And he was a very good campaign manager, but he was also a real visionary.


Family, friends, and colleagues influenced George Ariyoshi’s political approach over the years, but none more than his mentor, John Burns. In 1970, Burns convinced Ariyoshi to be his running mate when he ran for his third term as Governor. They won that election, and when Burns became too ill to serve in late 1973, Lieutenant Governor Ariyoshi stepped into the Governor’s job. The following year, he won his first of three elections for Hawaii’s Chief Executive. By then, Burns had helped instill in Ariyoshi the confidence to stand firm for his beliefs, while bridging differences and building consensus to overcome opposition.


Well, I think Jack Burns played a very significant role in the development of my idea and my style. But Burns’ feeling that the situation was changing, that he represented the older people in the community, but he felt the young people in the community might have a different point of view. So when I got elected, he told me that, You and I are different people. I’m Caucasian, you’re Japanese. I was born in Montana, you were born in Hawaii. You went to school here, I went to school elsewhere. And I was an Army brat, and I traveled wherever my parents went, but you have roots here in Hawaii, and as a result, your thinking has got to be different from mine. And please feel free to do what you feel you have to do, say what you have to say, and if you disagree with me, and you have to disagree, that’s okay with me too. I really appreciated that part about Jack Burns, when he told me that. For example, in 1976, the State Health Department was having a great deal of problems with the plantations. The sugar plantations were taking bagasse—that’s the sugarcane waste, and they just bulldozed it into the ocean. And the EPA and the State Health Department wanted them to stop that. And the plantation people said—C. Brewer, We’re willing to stop, and we’re gonna take that and instead of bulldozing, we’re gonna burn that, and we’re gonna generate electricity. But it’s gonna take us seventeen months to create that. The Health Department said, No, we’ll give you six months, only. So they came to me, and I talked to Governor Burns about it. He told me, What do you think? I said, They’re gonna stop bulldozing in seventeen months, but they can’t stop now. They’re gonna create a system that’s gonna be taking care, and they’re gonna create one-third of the electricity used on the Island of Hawaii when they finish this, and I think it’s a good thing for them to do that. You’re willing to suffer the consequences? Yup. So, I did that. And then, one of the Attorney Generals assigned to the Health Department went to the EPA when they were having a meeting, and they complained about George Ariyoshi caved in to the sugar plantation groups and went along with keeping this pollution going. And I went to the meeting, and I told them what was happening, why we’re doing this. And they kinda went along with me. And when I saw Governor Burns after that, he told me, I just wanted you to witness and feel what was gonna happen. He said, I knew this was going to happen, and you were going to be criticized, but I just wanted you to go through the experience of doing this. And he told me, I knew you were gonna stand up for it and be able to work it out.


What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever been through professionally, and also the biggest personal challenge you’ve had in your life?


I think that when I was faced with the Maryland land law, and that’s the law that would have given options to purchase leaseholders, future leaseholders, but would not have existing leaseholders. And I was for land reform, I wanted the options, the right to purchase, but I didn’t want it to hurt people in the process. I had the unions come sit before me and tell me that if I didn’t go along, they were gonna be taking it up with me. I was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee at the time, and I was told that if I didn’t go along, I would lose my chairmanship. And I took that as an opportunity to tell people, you have a point of view, I respect you for that. I’m not telling you I’m right and you’re wrong, but you’ve got to respect my right or the right of any person who feels very strongly that something is there and they have to vote in a certain kind of way. And I think that was a very difficult period for me, but it was a very enlightening period because people began to understand that that’s what we had to do. We had to stand up for what we believed to be right, and be unafraid to take that position. I had more people tell me, We were against you because we didn’t understand the bill, but in fact, the leaseholderstelling me, You protected us. And then, there were those who came to me and told me that, We disagree with you, but we admire your willingness to come to us and talk about it. And the other very important principle, which is very applicable today, the party platform; and there were some who were saying to me, Well, this is a party platform, land reform, and you gotta go along with it. And my feeling was, the party platform is very vague. We have all kinds of feelings of people, different point of views in the party, and that we cannot expect every person to do everything that the party platform says. We gotta make leeway, allowances for people to have differences.


So, may I ask you; what was your most daunting personal challenge?


See, I made a decision before I left the office that I was not gonna do anything that affected the work that I did as Governor. In other words, any State policy, I was not going to get involved in for compensation. And I have stuck to that policy. When they first asked me, talked to me when I was Governor, one of the really big things that was available was to become trustee of Bishop Estate. And very early, I took the position, I appointed those people who are gonna make the judgment, and I will not go to them and ask them to have them do something for me. So I stayed away from that. And I was asked the day before I left the office what my policy were, whether it’s changed or not, because I was leaving the office. I said, No, same thing, same reasons apply. I went one step further. I told them, if the position were offered to me, I would decline to accept it. And I think drawing those very clear demarcations between the kind of things that I wanted to get involved in and the kinds that I did not want to get involved in, to me, became very important.


What is that like? I mean, everyone’s been criticized by somebody, but very few people get criticized at the level a Governor gets criticized by with a statewide audience watching, and thinking, and expressing opinions. What’s it like living with that?


I felt every person has their own point of view. No matter what you try to do, it’s not gonna be the same way it’s gonna apply to every person. A person in Waialae Kahala may be impacted in a different kinda way than a person in Waianae. I understood that, so I felt people had a right to say what they wanted to do about the policies. I embraced the differences, and I brought them in, and I told them, Eh, tell us more about why what we’re doing is not the right thing.


But you hear a lot of personal stuff too. How’s that?


Yeah. It’s just part of the game. I accepted that, and I was not too concerned.


He left office more than a quarter century ago, and George Ariyoshi does not live in the past. In fact, he’s consumed with thinking about Hawaii’s future, preserving our natural resources and cultural heritage, and developing our economy for coming generations.


I think we need to look at diversifying our economy, and people are trying to do that now. But I think maybe there has to be someone who can kind of point out what kind of things are necessary to be considered in order to get there. And to me, in the health field, Hawaii can become a real leader in so many things in the health field and the technology that comes along with making that possible. And then, I think we need to have the University become very much involved in developing some of the technology. For example, the person who wants to start something here, they don’t know what to start. But shouldn’t the University be able to point out what areas are very vital areas in which they can become very successful? And all that brain power at the University, I think we need to let them know that we appreciate those kind of things that they can do to help make the economy’s future, Hawaii’s future, but they also have the right to participate in the successes that come from that. And in the past, I think we’ve had kind of a feeling that, Oh, people at the University get paid by us, all R & D belongs to us and that they should not benefit from that. I think the benefit becomes a two-way street. I was very strongly for aerospace because in Hawaii, we’re looking for technology, and this aerospace is going to be something that’s gonna be very big and important. But Hawaii must not lose the opportunity to get involved and be at Barking Sands on Kauai, we have a telescope that nobody else has, we have astronauts that trained on Hawaii where no other state can say that. The private sector coming to me and talking to me about, oh, how they can be involved in this process. So, I have gone to the Legislature, I’ve gone to the government, and to try to get them informed about what the process is. When we first started that, very few people understood, but today, the greatest supporters of aerospace are those in the Legislature. But I didn’t do that because of compensation. I did it because of my very strong feelings about Hawaii. I’m very much against, for example, they’re selling the property out in Haleiwa that are part of park lands, three acres or so.




That they can’t develop. And this should remain a part of it, they should not sell that kind of property. That property does not belong to us now, once they sell and use the monies. It’s there for the people and the future of Hawaii.


One of George Ariyoshi’s priorities since his years as Governor has been the East West Center, and in 2012, the Center honored him with its prestigious Asia Pacific Community Building Award. The Center was proposed in 1959 by John Burns, who was then Hawaii’s Territorial Delegate to Congress, and by then U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson. In 1975, Governor Ariyoshi advanced and ultimately signed a law that gave the East West Center autonomy from the University of Hawaii. First, though, he had to persuade the U.S. State Department.


And at first, it was very difficult for them to understand that, and they thought I was accusing them of being very biased in how the Center was operating. I told them, No, I’m not expressing that bias; what I’m saying is that I want the perception of control becoming eliminated also. And when we talked about it, they finally agreed. I told them, I want it incorporated with the Hawaii laws. And that’s what they agreed to. And then, I wanted the board of directors to be appointed, five by the State Department, five by the Governor, but I wanted five independent people appointed by the ten. And they all agreed to that. And that’s what it’s become. So when I hear today people talking about, oh, the Center is controlled, that’s not the situation. The Center has a mission; the mission is to get people, East and West, together so that they can get to understand each other. And the Center has never dictated how policies get—we don’t tell people [INDISTINCT] and this is a policy of the United States, this is how the policy ought to be. We leave it up to them to talk about it amongst themselves, and they can say, Oh, this is how we see things, somebody else sees some other things. And they come together, they begin to understand each other. We have a journalist program also. When you think about a person who writes, that person reaches a lot of people. So what we tried to do was to bring the journalists together, and then have them go off to Asia and begin to talk and listen to people who have different points of views, and they begin to understand what is happening in different parts of Asia. And now, they don’t write like they used to where they’re biased. They write with an understanding of how things are out there in Asia. And to me, that’s a very important role of the Center also.


When you were Governor, you had to learn a lot of protocol, because you made state trips. What’s the most interesting protocol you learned in dealing with somebody from a foreign country? I don’t know what country, but any.


Respect for them. And after I left the Governor’s Office—when I was there, I had started PBDC, Pacific Basin Development Council, a council made up four governors, one American governor and three territorial governors. We got together and tried to talk about the things that were important. And very often, it was very critical of the United States and the Interior Department, and we were able to talk about, oh, how do we get around this problem. And by doing that, I was able to communicate with the State Department people, Interior Department people, I was able to talk to our Senators and our Representatives about what had to be done to help them. And that became very important. Leaders of Samoa, Tonga, and Federated States of Micronesia; I used to get them together, and we formed at the East West Center a Pacific Island Development Group. And when I became chairman of the board, in the organization chart, I wanted to be sure that that block was not below the president, but it was aligned at the level with the president so that they could feel that they were important, being acknowledged. Pacific Island leaders, they’re small countries, and they feel that they are ignored and are not given the special attention that they require. And I think that’s what we need to remember, that no matter how powerful a country we are, when we talk to somebody else, some other country, we need to acknowledge that they are the heads of the country, and that we have to be very courteous in treating them, dealing with them. And for example, when I went to Thailand, my first trip to Thailand we had Prem Tinsulanonda, who was the longest serving prime minister. He walked off the seat as I entered the room, came up to me, and he embraced me. Which was kind of a rare thing to happen, a man embracing another man. And then, he told me words that I still remember so clearly: Friendship is not about how long you know a person, friendship is about how you feel towards a person. And he said, I consider you my friend, and I feel very strongly about mutual feelings about each other.


And so, the Boy from Kalihi’s political career lasted more than three decades, from the Democratic Revolution of the mid-1950s, through an unprecedented thirteen-plus years as Governor. At the time of this conversation in 2012, Ariyoshi is eighty-six years old, and continues to work in Downtown Honolulu as a business consultant. He travels internationally to build diplomatic and cultural connections between Hawaii and our Asia-Pacific neighbors, but Ariyoshi’s favorite times are spent with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Despite his years of experience, Governor Ariyoshi says he learned from people who are far too young to recall his years in power. He values the time he spends talking with high school students, and says they give him great hope for Hawaii’s future.


Thank you, George Ariyoshi, for sharing your long story short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long StoryShort with Leslie Wilcox, visit


If you feel that a person is against something that you want to do, and you push him off on the side, that person is gonna continue to be strongly against what you want to do. But if you bring him in, and you ask the question, Tell me why you’re against this, what’s your feeling, you begin to understand why people are opposed to certain things you want to do. You find out that maybe what you’re trying to do is not good enough, that you gotta make some modifications to accommodate some differences that may exist out there. That’s one thing that could happen. The other thing that could happen is that maybe you feel that, oh, after going through all this, that what I feel now, what I want to do is so important, and we’re right, and we going to stick by our guns and we going to do this. And then, ask people to come and join in that effort.