How Significant is “The Japanese Vote?”

Richard Borreca
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Asking about ethnic voting in Hawai‘i is like posing the question: “Is it raining in Hawai‘i?”

Yes, somewhere in Hawai‘i almost every day, rain is falling and, yes, Hawai‘i voters take ethnicity into consideration when they go to the polls. But it is way more complicated than that.

Historian and journalist Tom Coffman, who has written several books on Hawai‘i’s history and politics, says it is more difficult to pinpoint the influence of “the Japanese American vote” now that so many Hawai‘i families are made up of many different ancestries.

“It’s obviously of diminished importance because of the decline from percentage in the high 30s of total population to one-fifth,” said Coffman in an interview.

“However, I would bet AJAs still vote in disproportionate numbers, effectively resulting in being the most important element of Democratic primaries,” Coffman added.

Professor Jonathan Okamura, who teaches the Japanese in Hawai‘i course in the University of Hawai‘i’s ethnic studies department and the author of several books about race and ethnic identity in Hawai‘i, explains that while the proportionate number of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i has gone down, the importance of AJA voters remains a building block of the Democratic Party.

“Clearly, at least for statewide elections, the Japanese American vote is not as organized or as strong as in the past, but it need not be. Japanese American families have the financial resources to provide for their children’s current and future well being without having to depend on electoral politics to create opportunities for their socioeconomic mobility, as was the case until about the 1990s,” Okamura said in an interview.

“Local Japanese are considered to be the largest group of voters in the state, despite their far from being the largest group of residents. Consequently, the perennial low turnout of registered voters in Hawai‘i, often the lowest in the nation, results in Japanese Americans being substantially over-represented in our state Legislature and congressional delegation,” said Okamura.

Political observers, however, are quick to note that being of Japanese ancestry does not guarantee a sure win. Okamura points out that then-Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and then state-Sen. Ann Kobayashi both lost their race for governor and mayor of Honolulu, respectively, to candidates who were not Japanese American. And, Pat Saiki also lost a race for the U.S. Senate to Daniel Akaka.

“A recurring issue in statewide elections that has resulted in Japanese Americans not voting for one of their own is if the candidate is a Republican,” Okamura says. “These electoral defeats demonstrate the greater importance of party loyalty over ethnic loyalty for Japanese American voters.”

In the 2018 Democratic primary race for governor, voters will have to choose between two strong AJA Democrats — Gov. David Ige and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Political consultant John Radcliffe says the AJA political equation is not a neat or simple formula.

“Between an AJA candidate and one that is not, it counts. Two AJA candidates? Depends. But right now, a lot of the AJA-identified people that I run into are anti-Ige,” Radcliffe said in an interview.

The former labor leader and lobbyist says he thinks there is a definite age split with Ige supporters who are Japanese American.

“More than I have seen before, older AJA people are not protective of him. I have found that interesting, and was surprised by it. When I asked friends, followed up with ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘But you are not saying that he embarrasses you, are you?’

“Answer: ‘Yes.’

“That I found shocking,” Radcliffe said.

But, not all AJA observers see the race that way. Patricia Saiki, former member of the state House and Senate and former U.S. representative and Republican chairwoman, thinks Ige is likely to be judged well by older AJA Democrats.

“Ige is of the ‘old school’ — more careful and less daring. History shows he is reliable and not showy — therefore, not as decisive or articulate. Hanabusa, to the older AJAs, is loud and ambitious and less patient,” Saiki said in an interview.

Instead of the usual blend of local ethnicities making up the deciding vote and the political strategy on how to reach the different groups, such as shaping a message for Filipino or Hawaiian voters, Saiki said voting patterns have changed.

“Today, the male vs. female factor plays a greater consideration,” Saiki said. “The younger AJA voter would be attracted to the female, goal setter. Age group participation could have a larger impact on AJA voter results rather than stances on issues.”

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who lost to Ige four years ago, agrees with Republican Saiki that the AJA vote is important, “but it is not monolithic.”

“Yes, there is an AJA vote, but it breaks down by age, your class, your economic class,” Abercrombie said in an interview at his Chinatown office.

Abercrombie recalled that he got his start in politics by winning in the largely Japanese American Mänoa state House district and that even as an outspoken, white candidate originally from the Mainland, he was able to build his own political following.

“I was a beneficiary of the Frank Fasi profile — the haole fighter who was acceptable as a fighter for the AJAs,” Abercrombie says, explaining that he “was the one who relentlessly fought to get economic justice for Manoa Finance investors,” when the uninsured investment firm collapsed.

Still, Abercrombie notes that local politics today is both changing and remaining the same.

“Families are blended: How many haole boys and AJA girls are married? Plenty.

“It is all changing. All other things being equal, identification as an AJA voter is still a very powerful political element, particularly in a primary.”

Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.

Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.


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