Remembering the Man Who Lived and Breathed Hawaii Hochi
Paul Yempuku was the last samurai. At least that’s what I came to conclude over the years. The word “cannot” had no place in his vocabulary. At times, that made it hard to work with him. He could be so pa‘akikï (hardheaded), and even autocratic, at times. But he mellowed with age, and in the last few years of his life, he would just smile and shrug his shoulders if we disagreed about something.
Yempuku-san passed away peacefully at his home in Kaimukï on May 20 after a short illness. He lived 92 full years and was an eyewitness to so much history. He didn’t make it to his 100th birthday as he always said he would, but 92 was close enough.
He loved this company, Hawaii Hochi, Ltd., as if it were one of his children. He loved its flagship publications — the Japanese-language Hawaii Hochi and The Hawai‘i Herald. He loved its printing operations. But most of all, he loved its employees and cared about their lives and their families’ lives — they were all his extended ‘ohana.
Former Herald managing editor Gwen Battad Ishikawa, who left last year after 26 years with the Herald, said Yempuku-san was, on one hand, “the big boss that no one wanted to cross or question. And yet, he was the concerned father figure who showed interest in everyone’s personal life. He always asked about someone’s parent, spouse or child, even addressing them by name if he knew it.”
Gwen was one of the youngest employees. Yempuku-san was like a surrogate grandfather to her because he was closer in age to her own grandparents.
“He became more mellow in his retirement years, always smiling and joking with everyone, a 180-degree turnaround from when he was the company president. He ate lunch in the lunchroom just so he could socialize with everyone, and always had a story to share,” she recalled. He often repeated his stories and when he couldn’t remember the ending, she jumped in and finished it for him.
“I’m going to miss Yempuku-san,” she said. “His cheery ‘Hallo, Gwen-san’ greetings, hearing the same story about his ‘small little island’ home of Atatashima and his quiet strength.”
In his days as president, he celebrated March 3, Girls Day, by giving every female employee a monetary gift of $20 or $25 in a specially printed Girls Day envelope. The guys received their Boys Day monetary gift on May 5. They weren’t huge gifts, but they told us that we were valued and that our work was appreciated.
When the company faced serious financial problems a few years before Yempuku-san retired, he had a hard decision to make: institute a company-wide pay cut or lay off staff. The late Steve Lum, who was operations manager at the time, told me that Yempuku-san agonized over the matter and put off making a decision for as long as he could. Finally, he decided to cut wages rather than lay off employees.
Even after retiring in April 2012, Yempuku-san continued to come in to the office a few times a week. A stroke in the 1990s had weakened his legs, forcing him to utilize walking aids — first a cane, then a walker and, eventually, a wheelchair.
He was fiercely independent, or maybe just hardheaded. His grandson would drive him to the office, unload a transport chair from the car and wheel him to the top step of the rooftop parking lot. Then, slowly, step-by-step, he would make his way down the 20 steps, holding on tightly to the railing. In the afternoon, he would slowly make his way back up the 20 steps.
In the office, he would wheel himself around in his wheelchair, greeting employees and talking story with them for a few minutes. He loved coming to the office. He would read the newspaper, both the Hochi and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Sometimes he would call me at my desk, or wheel himself over to ask me about an English word or phrase that he didn’t understand. He was truly a lifelong learner.
After he retired, Shizuoka Shimbun appointed a former employee from Japan to succeed Yempuku-san. A company photo was taken with the Shizuoka management at the entrance to the building. Department heads, including Hawaii Hochi editor Noriyoshi Kanaizumi and myself as editor of the Herald, were seated in the front row. It dawned on me later that I was the only woman in that front row, and I was there because of Yempuku-san’s confidence in my abilities.
I think he was willing to give people a chance to prove what they could do, even if they didn’t have the traditional credentials for a specific position. Yempuku-san’s hiring of former Hochi editor Keiri Kanbayashi is a good example.
In the fall of 1992, an employment agency sent Keiri to the Hochi. He was looking for a temp job to tie him over until UH’s spring semester began, when he planned to pursue a teaching degree. Keiri already held a business degree from Meiji University, one of Japan’s top colleges.
Reizo Watanabe, a former Hochi editor, gave Keiri a translation test and then sent him to Yempuku-san’s office. He was offered an editorial position on the spot, even though he had no writing experience.
Keiri quickly proved that he was not only a good translator, but that he could recognize an interesting story and do a good job of telling it in written Japanese. Keiri found that he enjoyed listening to people’s stories and sharing them with Hawaii Hochi’s readers. In 1994, Yempuku-san appointed Keiri editor of the Hochi.
“Paul and I clashed more than a few times, but he began to trust me somewhere along the way,” he said.
Keiri retired from the Hochi in 2004. When I emailed him to inform him of Yempuku-san’s passing, he responded with this unsolicited comment: “I know I owe him for the chance he gave me at the Hochi. My life would have been a whole lot different otherwise,” he said.
He was born Shödo Yempuku in Kahuku, the youngest of seven children. His parents were immigrants from Hiroshima and Yamaguchi. Two siblings died early in their lives, leaving the family with five boys.
His father was the minister at Kahuku Hongwanji. Yempuku-san was about 6 when his father became ill. His parents decided to return to his father’s family home in Hiroshima with their five American-born sons. By then, Ralph, the eldest, was a University of Hawai‘i student. He wanted to finish school and remain in Hawai‘i. When Japan attacked Hawai‘i on Dec. 7, 1941, Ralph answered America’s call and served in the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard. He was one of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and served in the Military Intelligence Service. In Japan, his brother Donald served as a translator for the Japanese military.
The Yempukus returned to their family home and temple on Atatashima, the “small little island” off of Hiroshima that Yempuku-san always spoke of with deep affection. It was an island with no more than 300 people. Yempuku-san’s fondest memories of his childhood and life in Japan were always of Atatashima.
In keeping with his wishes, the Yempuku children — Wayne, Ann and Lynn — will take half of his ashes to his beloved Atatashima for interment in the family ohaka (grave).
Yempuku-san grew into early manhood in Hiroshima and Tökyö, where he attended Waseda University and experienced so much of the history we write about in the Herald. In 2009, Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho, the Japanese American online encyclopedia, interviewed Yempuku-san. I hope you’ll view the interview or read its transcript. Here are the links: http://ddr.densho.org/narrators/394/ and https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-247-transcript-82c6356865.htm.
In 1951, at Ralph’s suggestion, Yempuku-san decided to return to Hawai‘i. By then, he was 24 years old.
Although he had been mobilized in middle school to aid in Japan’s war effort, he had not been conscripted during the war. Neither had he voted in any Japan election. And, he still possessed his Hawai‘i birth certificate. These factors worked in his favor in returning to the United States. While other Japanese struggled to immigrate to America, Yempuku-san breezed right through.
He arrived in Hawai‘i in 1951 and lived with Ralph and his family for a time, trying to relearn English. Ralph would become his youngest brother’s most trusted advisor.
After working at a string of jobs — liquor salesman, Japanese language school teacher, Japanese radio and television announcer, carpenter’s helper — he applied for an advertising sales position at Hawaii Hochi and got the job. He started work on Oct. 14, 1959.
Yempuku-san spent the next 53 years at the Hochi, retiring in April 2012 after 45 years as president.
He sometimes recalled his appointment as president. In February of 1967, Konosuke Oishi, then-president of Shizuoka Shimbun, the Japanese newspaper company that purchased Hawaii Hochi, Ltd. in 1962, approached Yempuku-san. (Oishi spent the first few months of every year in Hawai‘i.)
“From tomorrow, you take over as the president of Hawaii Hochi,” Oishi said. Yempuku-san was so flabbergasted he didn’t know how to respond. The only thing he could think of saying was: “I have to talk to my wife first.”
Instead of discussing the matter with his wife Florence, however, he went straight to see Ralph.
Yempuku-san was never trained in the newspaper business, but I think he developed a sense for the kinds of stories the Hochi and Herald should cover.
He was greatly inspired by Hawaii Hochi’s founder, Fred Kinzaburo Makino. Although Yempuku-san never met Makino, who died in 1953, he became a student of Makino history and admired him for the battles he waged to protect the civil and human rights of the Japanese community. That unwavering respect and gratitude fueled Yempuku-san’s love for and commitment to the newspaper that Makino founded in 1912.
In 1988, after President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 into law, Yempuku-san sent me and Hawaii Hochi writer Iwao Kosaka to “find” Tule Lake Segregation Center, where Kosaka-san had been imprisoned during the war. From his arrest and incarceration at the Honolulu immigration station and then Sand Island, we retraced his steps from more than four decades earlier. Since we weren’t confident about navigating our way, Yempuku-san sent John Nakama, our advertising manager, to be our driver.
We flew to San Francisco and then began the long journey north, passing one small town after another, searching for the desolate site marked in Kosaka-san’s memory by two landmarks: Castle Rock and Abalone Hill.
Some 30 years later, I can still envision the Tule Lake we stumbled upon — a few buildings that could have collapsed on us. The image of Kosaka-san standing in a former mess hall, trash strewn about on the ground and a few rays of sunlight peeking through the disintegrating roof, is seared in my mind. It was a moving experience that we were able to share with our respective readers.
Yempuku-san had more foresight than he was ever given credit for — The Hawai‘i Herald is testimony to that. Although he was much more comfortable reading and speaking Japanese, he knew the day was fast approaching when AJA readers of English would vastly outnumber Japanese readers. He believed that the AJA community needed to share news, perspectives and feature stories in its own publication. So, with Oishi’s blessings, he started The Hawai‘i Herald, giving it the English name that the Hawaii Hochi had taken during World War II in order to continue publishing.
I once asked him what instructions he gave to the Herald’s first editor, Ken Toguchi. “I said it’s a community newspaper, so write about the community,” he replied.
Yempuku-san didn’t have any grand marketing plan to roll out this new publication. Instead, he turned to the good ’ol Hawaiian Telephone directory and had the office staff comb through its pages and develop a database of Japanese surnames and addresses. He had mailing labels printed and sent several complimentary copies of the Herald to those people. After sending those recipients three or four issues, he mailed out a letter, asking them to please subscribe to the Herald. Some did, some did not. In a composition tablet, he hand-wrote the names of each new subscriber.
In the meantime, the office staff had sent out a new batch of issues, again with names from the phone book. He told us many times that the Herald was the kind of publication that you had to get into people’s hands and give them a chance to read. Sometimes people stop me at community events or call or write me to say, proudly, that they have been subscribers from Volume 1, Issue 1, which was dated May 16, 1980.
Over the years, Hawaii Hochi, Ltd. published several what I call “legacy publications.” Yempuku-san was responsible for those books.
In 2012, we published the “AJA Pioneers” book, which includes profiles of 100 Hawai‘i Japanese Americans who helped advance the Japanese community in Hawai‘i — from the Gannenmono to Yempuku-san’s hero, Fred Kinzaburo Makino; to Congresswoman Patsy Mink; to astronaut Ellison Onizuka.
For five years beginning in 2008, both the Herald and Hochi editorial staffs researched and compiled profiles on 20 “pioneers” for every year’s New Year’s edition. By 2012, we had amassed 100 profiles, which were compiled into two books, one in English and the other in Japanese. There are definitely more than 100 “pioneers” in our community — maybe they can be included in a second volume.
There were times when our faces showed that we were less than enthusiastic about having to do these profiles — after all, there were other stories we wanted to include in our New Year’s editions. But Yempuku-san was adamant. And now, because he insisted, the contributions of those 100 men and women have not been forgotten and are together in one place.
In the early 1980s, Yempuku-san commissioned the late Roland Kotani to research and write a history on the Japanese in Hawai‘i to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Hawai‘i of the first kanyaku imin, or contract immigrants. For many years, that book, “The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle,” was used as the textbook for the UH ethnic studies class on the Japanese in Hawai‘i.
Yempuku-san also commissioned former Hochi editor Reizo Watanabe to write Japanese-language books on the history of the Japanese in Hawai‘i and to document the history of Hawaii Hochi.
Over the years, many journalists and scholars, most of them from Japan, came to interview Yempuku-san about Hawaii Hochi’s history and about his own life growing up with a foot in two countries that were once bitter enemies.
This past February, a group of graduate architecture students and advisors from Yale University, led by Hawai‘i architect and Yale alum Dean Sakamoto, came to see the Hawaii Hochi building and interview Yempuku-san.
This building that we work out of on Kökea Street was designed by renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, who designed, among others structures, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the award-winning Yoyogi National Gymnasium used in the 1964 Tökyö Olympics, the Tökyö Metropolitan Government Office building in Shinjuku and even Pakistan’s Supreme Court Building. Yempuku-san said the Hochi building is the only Tange-designed structure in Hawai‘i.
He explained that Konosuke Oishi admired Tange’s work so much that he commissioned him to design the Hawaii Hochi building and Shizuoka’s buildings in Japan. According to Yempuku-san, Tange designed the building after coming to Hawai‘i and looking at the property. However, because Tange wasn’t licensed in Hawai‘i, his name is not recorded as the building’s architect. He was the only person alive who knew what it took to construct this building while continuing to publish the daily Hawaii Hochi.
Many times as we ate lunch, Yempuku-san would wheel himself over and share stories from the old days with Gwen, advertising manager Grant Murata, office manager Mark Nishioka and myself. We always told him that he needed to write his memoir, because no one knew the history of this company like he did. We all knew that when he passed, so, too, would that history.
Yempuku-san was a man of simple pleasures. Even before his stroke, he rarely went out for business lunches. His wife packed him a bentö that he ate at his desk every day while reading the daily newspapers. He was happy doing that.
How long the Hawaii Hochi and The Hawai‘i Herald will continue to publish is anyone’s guess. It’s always been a struggle to publish these two ethnic community papers. But for most of their existence, Paul Yempuku was their guardian, steadfastly committed to ensuring that Hawai‘i had a repository for stories and information about the Japanese community, but most of all, that it had a voice to hold us together as an ethnic community in a fast-changing world.
I hope that people and organizations that benefitted from having its news and information shared in the pages of the Hawaii Hochi and/or the Herald will take a minute to thank Yempuku-san for giving Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community a voice.
Yempuku-san . . . Okagesamade . . . we came this far because of you. Otsukaresamadeshita . . . thank you for your love for and unwavering devotion to the Hawaii Hochi and The Hawai‘i Herald, this company and its employees. Aloha ‘oe . . . we will meet again.