Karleen C. Chinen
There are many days when I feel more like a traffic cop (scheduling and juggling feature stories) than a journalist. With an editorial “staff” of two — and that’s including myself — it’s hard not to feel like that. Between planning, scheduling, copy editing and other “stuff,” there’s just no time to get out and interview people the way I once did — I now have to rely on contributing writers for most of that.
While I often long for those good ’ol days, reading about the recent passing of former Hawai‘i County Mayor and retired Big Island Circuit Judge Shunichi Kimura made me realize how I was blessed to have had the opportunity to interview people whom I considered the “giants” in our community. I don’t mean “giants” in the superstar sense of the word, but rather because of the humanity that was part of their being. Judge Kimura was one of those people.
I arranged to interview him for the Herald’s 1988 Big Island issue. As was often the case, I was told that I could have an hour at the end of his work day. Judge Kimura and I talked for almost three hours. He was that deep a person. He was humble to the core. I distinctly remember that we were the last ones to leave the State Building in Hilo — it was already dark outside when I left his chambers.
So, while I was sad to learn of his passing on May 20 in California, where he and his wife Grace had settled after he retired, I counted my blessings for having had that time to talk with him and to listen to his thoughts. He was truly a special person. I remember sending him a thank you letter after his story was published. He wrote back to me in beautiful cursive on lined paper from his goldenrod legal tablet.
I’d like to use this Dialogue to share with you some of the gems he shared with me.
- On school groups visiting his courtroom: “Our one standing rule is that we say, ‘Yes.’ So it’s not a matter of whether I can see them or not; it’s just when do they want to come?”
- On introducing children to their legal rights through the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”: “I think it’s necessary that judges and lawyers spend time explaining the law and have children experience the law. Even concepts like ‘due process’ — people often ask me, ‘Why are you explaining ‘due process’ to second graders?’ I think it’s important that they understand what fairness is, and that the court is a place where you’re supposed to get fair treatment. That’s ‘due process.’”
- On receiving thank you letters from students who visit his courtroom: “I love receiving these letters. I answer them individually in the evening when I go home.”
- On his early sense of justice: “As far back as my memory allows — and this is like the first or second grade — I have memories of being angry at the way workers and women and minorities were treated.
. . . I remember growing up not only disliking those things, but also developing a sensitivity to people who needed help.”
- On his issei mother Tona Kimura’s commitment to education. She who was widowed in her early 40s, when Shunichi, her seventh child, was only 3 months old: “She had that first-generation commitment that the way out for her children was education, so gakumon (education) was something she conveyed. Anything that had to do with school, I don’t think she ever said ‘no’ — it was always ‘yes.’ She always said in Japanese how important it was. And she didn’t say, ‘Get an education so you can be rich.’ She always said get an education so you can understand the community . . . It was just the joy of learning and developing your ability so you could understand things.”
- On growing up poor in Mountain View: “I never knew what it was to be poor, because I didn’t know what it was to be rich. We were rich, culturally, and in family.”
- On his mother’s reaction when he told her that Gov. John A. Burns had asked him to serve as a judge: “’Will you hurt people?’ What she was trying to say was that in making rulings, don’t hurt people.”
- On his mother’s passing in 1977 at age 89: “In essence, I had lost both parents at one time. She had been both mother and father to me. It was 11 years ago, but it was a very traumatic thing, simply because of the role she had played with me, a comfortable role. I think it would have been easier for me if she had said, ‘Wow, my son the mayor,’ and taken that kind of approach. But it wasn’t. She was always my mother, and that was the relationship that predominated.”
- On his strong support for the Public Defender’s Office and the Legal Aid Society: “The adversary system and our rules work well for those who can afford it, but it is a barrier to those who cannot afford it, simply because it takes time, money and perseverance. . . . There is an enormous number of individuals who need that kind of service and cannot afford it, and the legal process should be accessible to everyone, not just to those who can afford it. . . . I assure you that if sufficient numbers of the have-nots don’t get a fair shake, you’re not going to have an establishment. I guess if you wanted a revolution, that’s the best way to do it.”
- On his preference for mediation, especially in family law and child custody cases: “. . . so that people get as close to a win-win situation between the parties, rather than the traditional adversary one of somebody winning and somebody losing.”
- On employers and family issues: “If there’s a court appearance for their children, employers should say without question, ‘You go to those things, Mom and Dad.’”
- On society’s responsibility to help troubled youth: “The load that our probation officers throughout the state carry is just too huge. A youngster 12 years old, for instance, who probably had 10,000 forces upon him or her that created the juvenile delinquent — you can’t put that 12-year-old with a probation officer who has 60 to 100 persons and meets with them once a month or once every two weeks.”
- On his “vices of desire”: Watching opera, which he once disliked immensely, on PBS: “I’m glued to it, clapping and yelling in the living room. Now they can’t tear me away from it.” On organic gardening in his yard: “The regeneration — it produces things and there’s no greater phenomenon than seeing things grow and bear without all the herbicides and pesticides.” On watching pottery being created: “I’m just enamored of people who make pottery and create things with their hands and the mud. To me, it is so much a thing of beauty — a part of life, a part of nature . . .”
Aloha ‘oe, Judge Kimura . . .