Actor Danny Kamekona: “[T]here was always something that pulled me back to Japan.” (Hawai‘i Herald archives)
Actor Danny Kamekona: “[T]here was always something that pulled me back to Japan.” (Hawai‘i Herald archives)

Arnold T. Hiura
Reprinted from Nov. 1, 1985, Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: Had he not died unexpectedly in 1996 at the still-young age of 60, you can be sure that actor Danny Kamekona would have joined his huge ‘ohana at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i earlier this year to commemorate the arrival 150 years ago of his family’s patriarch — and Kamekona’s paternal grandfather — Tokujiro Sasaki Sato, and his fellow Gannenmono.

In 1985, during production of the film “Karate Kid II” in Windward O‘ahu with actors Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Ralph Macchio, Nobu McCarthy and Tamlyn Tomita, former Hawai‘i Herald editor Arnold Hiura had the opportunity to interview Danny Kamekona and learned of the actor’s connection to the “First-Year People.”

Danny Kamekona and his wife Michiko (far right) and Sen. Duke Kawasaki (far left) at a reception for actor “Pat” Morita (second from left) and his wife Yuki. (Photo by Arnold Hiura)
Danny Kamekona and his wife Michiko (far right) and Sen. Duke Kawasaki (far left) at a reception for actor “Pat” Morita (second from left) and his wife Yuki. (Photo by Arnold Hiura)

The following is a reprint of Arnold’s 1985 story.

Although his is a very familiar face to Hawai‘i audiences, some people may have difficulty explaining exactly where they have seen Danny Kamekona’s handsome, cosmopolitan features. Part of the problem may be that, over the past 16 years, Kamekona has done everything from modeling for Liberty House (today, Macy’s), to acting in a variety of stage, film and television roles. He has played both Polynesian and Asian characters in the original “Hawai‘i Five-0,” “Magnum, P.I.” and a variety of other programs, and may be best known to some as the father in a series of popular Gas Company commercials.

Going on 50, Kamekona is now in the midst of playing the biggest screen part in his life. As “Sato,” he plays the principal “heavy” opposite star Noriyuki “Pat” Morita in the highly publicized “Karate Kid II,” now being filmed on the Windward coast of O‘ahu.

During a rare day off, Kamekona talked to the Herald about his background, his career and working with Morita on “Karate Kid.” His voice was strained and weak, strangely at odds with his husky build.

“Lost my voice the other day,” he explains in a hoarse whisper, “You try kiai (martial arts yell expressing fighting spirit) for five hours!” He cannot suppress a hearty laugh at his own plight, in spite of the obvious discomfort to his throat. His loss of voice, combined with bad weather and the illness of co-star Ralph Macchio, is what earned the entire cast this day off.

Laughing through the pain, Kamekona comically describes how they had to shoot the same scene over and over again for five hours because of camera angles and a variety of other miscues. The scene called for him to let out an all-out, blood-curdling kiai while breaking a board with his hands. The seemingly endless retakes took its natural toll on his voice, not to mention his hands.

One-half Hawaiian, one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Japanese, Kamekona is a perfect representative of Hawai‘i’s cosmopolitan mix of races. He explains that, in an incredible irony, he should rightfully be named Sato, the name he assumes in the film. His paternal grandfather, Tokujiro Sato, was one of the Gannenmono, the first group of Japanese immigrants who arrived in Hawai‘i aboard the Scioto on June 19, 1868. Like other Gannenmono, Tokujiro Sato made a life for himself in Hawai‘i, eventually marrying a Hawaiian woman named Kamekona.

As Kamekona’s grandfather’s name was long and somewhat awkward for an Island society as yet unfamiliar with Japanese names, Tokujiro was shortened to “Toko” for convenience. Kamekona’s nisei father, Daniel, in turn became known to his peers as “Dan Toko.” Thus, in a typically Hawaiian way, the family’s legal name of Sato had faded out of practical usage.

Much later, when World War II broke out, Kamekona’s father was working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His boss warned him of rumors that they were “going to take you guys away to internment camps.” Naturally concerned, his father officially changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, Kamekona, “. . . and right there the Sato name died, because [my father’s] brothers changed their names, too –– they didn’t want to go into the camps,” Kamekona said.

Kamekona’s Chinese heritage is traced to his maternal grandmother from Shanghai, who married a Hawaiian man upon arriving in Hawai‘i. Although he is proud of his mixed heritage, Kamekona admits that, “there was always something that pulled me back to Japan.”

His affinity for things Japanese had its unlikely start with his high school graduation from Kamehameha School. It was then that Kamekona became one of the first Hawai‘i boys to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, on a football scholarship –– a path that has since been followed by a host of talented athletes. It was from BYU that he was sent on a Mormon mission to Japan, where he not only became acquainted with the culture, but also learned the language and even met his bride-to-be.

Kamekona returned home from Japan and enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i, but longed to marry the young lady that he had met in Japan. Figuring it was the only way he could afford to go back to Japan, the desperate young man got a job with Pan American Airways.

“My friend set me up … I went crying to him that there was this girl I was writing to in Japan. He was the cargo supervisor at Pan Am at the time and he felt sorry for me. He helped me get a job with the airline so I could go Japan and get my wife, Michiko.”

“Michiko’s parents were hesitant about letting go their youngest child. But that was back in 1960 –– they never get freeways to Yamagata then, so you had to go by train. I explained to her parents that it took eight hours to travel from Yamagata to Tökyö, and it took only seven hours to fly from Tökyö to Honolulu. I promised them Michiko would return to see them every year … and I’ve kept that promise. We’ve been married for 25 years now, and she’s gone back every year.”

The Kamekonas have two children, a son and a daughter. His 23-year-old son makes an “appearance” in the film, serving as a model for a photograph as Sato as a young man. “My boy plays me, “ Kamekona chuckled affectionately.

Kamekona also speaks with great affection of his friendship with Morita. They first met when filming “Midway” some 11 years ago. “There were four of us local guys — ‘pineapples’ — that got flown up there to work on that film, and Pat made us feel real welcome; he really took care of us.” Immediately after “Midway,” Kamekona and Morita both went to work on “Farewell to Manzanar.” After that, the two have tried to renew their friendship whenever Morita was in Hawai‘i.

Kamekona’s career had a most unlikely start 16 years ago. “When I first went out for ‘Five-0,’ I had no experience, zero. I told the director my only acting experience was being married for 10 years,” he laughs. At the time, Kamekona juggled a very successful career selling insurance with his budding opportunities as an actor. Despite his lack of training, Kamekona soon found himself working an average of nine shows a season every year that “Five-0” was on the air. He was even offered a regular part in the popular series, but turned it down in part to keep a hand in the insurance business, but also to enjoy the challenge of taking on many different acting roles.

“I’ve been lucky, “ Kamekona admits. “At first, I had the kind of Hawaiian face that people associated with Hawai‘i … and I could handle a line.” Then, with roles in “Vanishing Shadows,” the historical play based on the Myles Fukunaga case, and other parts in “Magnum,” his ability to play powerful Asian and Asian American characters came to light.

“I’ve gotten called regularly –– ‘Barnaby Jones,’ ‘Rockford Files,’ the ‘The Islander’ pilot –– I worked in all of those productions when they came down . . . so I’ve been lucky. But don’t get me wrong. This is a big shot for me, a very big shot. It was kind of scary at first, but I’m comfortable with it now.” And after all these years, he said, “I still learn a lot of little things on the set. Pat tells me something as we’re working through a scene and I think, ‘Why I never think of that before?’ He’s been a good friend for a long time and I have a lot of respect for him as a person and as a performer. It means a lot to me now that he had the confidence in me to put my name up for this role.”

Postscript: After informing Arnold Hiura that the Herald planned to republish his 1985 story on Danny Kamekona, Arnold, a longtime friend of actor Pat Mo-
rita, shared the following story. It provides insight into how Kamekona secured the role of “Sato” in “Karate Kid II.”

Hawai‘i scholar, author and obake storyteller-extraordinaire Glen Grant (Arnold’s good friend) had won Kumu Kahua Theatre’s playwriting contest (the second time he had won the contest) for his play, “Vanishing Shadows,” based on the Myles Fukunaga case. The play was being staged at Manoa Valley Theatre. Kamekona had been cast as Fukunaga’s father.

“I wanted to surprise Glen and brought Pat to see the show. Of course, Pat’s presence in the tiny theater caused quite a stir in the audience and amongst the cast members. Danny gave the performance of his life. He just blew everyone away with the power of his delivery. Pat knew Danny from past productions, but he had never seen Danny play such a role. Pat said he called ‘Karate Kid’ director John Avildsen the next day and told him, ‘Stop looking. We’ve found Sato.’ After that, every time I saw Danny, he would introduce me as the guy who made his career.”


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