“Go Where There’s No Path and Leave a Trail”
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Nearly a decade ago, Moloka‘i resident Michael Kikukawa said the highlight of his career was meeting with President Barack Obama, whom he greatly admired. Kikukawa was one of two Hawai‘i representatives in the 51st annual United States Senate Youth Program. “Shaking his hand was one of the highlights of my life,” Kikukawa said after his 2013 White House visit.
That assessment has probably changed for the first person from Molokai High School to attend Harvard University who now has a hand in shaping how the Biden-administration policies are being transmitted to the world.
Kikukawa, 25, is back in the West Wing, this time, as one of three press assistants for President Joseph Biden. Interesting to note, Kikukawa’s five-figure White House salary equals to what he would have had to pay for his freshman year at his Ivy League alma mater if not for the scholarship he got from the Hawai‘i Community Foundation.
“I am definitely as excited as I was when I joined,” Kikukawa told The Hawai‘i Herald in a nearly hour-long phone interview during a week filled with news including the fall of Kabul in five days, raging wildfires in the west, and the August surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant virus. “I’m a little more tired, but I have a better understanding of what the job requires … It’s a job that takes a lot of constant attention to details, but at the same time being quick; speed matters. [Additionally, while] trying to make sure that every detail is accurate and all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted.”
The interview was conducted during the summer of ’21 — a time span in which America lost a war a half-world away, devastating drought conditions caused fires, deadly floods damaged the northeastern states, and a surge occurred in a pandemic where one-third of Americans refused to get vaccinated.
Reflecting over the events in August, he added: “It’s been a real privilege to work in [the] White House tackling these critical, sometimes longstanding, issues — including COVID-19, ending a 20-year war, confronting extreme weather and climate change and protecting healthcare access. Of course, it includes long hours, and can be intense, with long nights and busy weekends, but it’s really incredible to be able to work on this team.”
The Friendly Isle native said that it has been an incredible experience, especially after witnessing a bill signing or an important speech being delivered or a White House announcement. “You see history being made,” he added, “and for a second you just sort of step back and realize like how incredible. What an incredible opportunity this is and like how amazing it is to be a part of this team.”
After graduating from Harvard University in 2017, Kikukawa worked on the communications team for the Democratic National Committee before joining the staff of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in January. In August, he was photographed with Psaki and other press staffers in a profile of his boss in Vogue magazine.
Kikukawa said his day begins with an 8 a.m. staff meeting and then he helps Psaki prepare for her daily White House press briefings, including providing information for the briefing book Psaki constantly refers to during her daily White House news conferences, usually held around noon. Then there are preparations for presidential events, working on news releases and taking care of the press especially when the president is traveling. Earlier this year, he accompanied the president on the blue-and-white Air Force One on a flight to Milwaukee for a CNN town hall — one of the President Biden’s first trips.
“It’s fast,” Kikukawa said, “it’s fascinating. It’s a really cool place to work.”
His father, Phillip Kikukawa, a Molokai Middle School student-services coordinator and owner of Molokai Bicycle, said he is “very proud” of his son’s achievements. “I’m happy for him because he‘s doing what he worked very hard to get and he’s got a very good soul.”
Kikukawa said his son, Michael, was always “motivated.” But the elder Kikukawa also gives credit to his ex-wife, Susan Forbes, who was “a 120-percenter” in everything, including being an Olympic caliber cross-country skier. Besides his ex-wife and his emphasis on education and community involvement, Phillip said that a month-long east-coast trip when his children were in intermediate school might have swayed them to continue their college education there. The family’s stopover in the nation’s capital included visits to colleges, museums, historic monuments and sites, and Congress where they heard Arizona Sen. John McClain speak on the Senate floor. The trip concluded with a visit to the campus of their mother’s alma mater — Dartmouth College.
Kikukawa said “that one road trip” and visits to where American history had taken place made an impression on him and his two siblings: Luke and Genevieve. Luke graduated in 2020 from Middlebury College in Vermont and is a research assistant at Columbia University as well as a medical assistant at New York College and plans to attend medical school. The youngest, Genevieve, who is an alumna of University Laboratory School, attends Le Moyne College in Syracuse, and is majoring in environmental science.
Michael Kikukawa’s resume that landed him into Harvard had him checking all the right boxes. Besides serving as a Hawai‘i delegate to the 2013 U.S. Senate Youth Program, he was Molokai High’s class of 2013 valedictorian, student body president, head of the school’s National Honor Society, Hawai‘i State Student Council vice chair and won honors at the Maui Schools Science and Engineering Fair. His high school athletic achievements included medaling in the 100-meter breaststroke and lettering in cross-country, track and golf. He even served as a summer intern in U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono’s Washington, D.C. office in 2014 and worked on the congressional campaign of Mufi Hanneman, a fellow Harvard grad; and the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Michael Kikukawa’s grandfather, Arthur Manabu Kikukawa, served in World War II as a private in the 232nd Engineer Company with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was attending the University of Hawai‘i after graduating from Mid-Pacific Institute when the bombs fell on the Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. After enlisting in the 442nd RCT, he was wounded in France, according to his son, Phillip. Art Kikukawa managed Moloka’i’s Midnight Inn until it was destroyed in a 1990 fire. He married Cecily Ann Harder, who also attended an Ivy League college graduating in 1943 with master’s degree in education from Yale. The couple had five children.
Michael Kikukawa said he was only six or seven when his grandfather died, but even at that young age he was aware of his grandfather’s accomplishment since his parents always discussed them, especially at family reunions.
“His children were always very proud of something that he didn’t really want to talk about. It was something that we all just knew and respected and that he had sacrificed so much and so had the other members of the 442nd… for a country (U.S.) that didn’t necessarily trust them (Japanese in the U.S.) or a country that didn’t always treat Japanese [in America] as first-class citizens.”
Kikukawa said he wanted to go on to college “to do something that would make my grandfather proud and something I’ve thought a lot about when thinking about working in government because I feel like he passed down to us (grandchildren) and his kids the importance of, you know, giving back, and serving your country.”
Phillip Kikukawa, 66, said his mother was “working her way around the world” after graduating from college when she met Art Kikukawa on Moloka‘i and the two were married in 1946. A teacher at Kaunakakai Elementary School until she retired in 1979, Cecily Kikukawa died in 2018. Art Kikukawa died 2002.
Phillip Kikukawa said his father was a close friend of 442nd RCT veteran, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm in combat in Italy in a battle that would later result in being recognized with the Medal of Honor.
“A few months after my father died my son, Michael, and I were at my mom’s house,” said Phillip Kikukawa in talking about the friendship between Inouye and his father, “and there was a knock on the door, and I went to open the door and there was Dan Inouye. He came to give his condolences to my mom.”
Phillip Kikukawa said he talks to his son at least once a week and last visited him in June. “He likes to tell me what he is doing and what is going on,“ the elder Kikukawa said. But shies away from being too specific during their weekly father-son conversations. West Wing hours can be grueling. “He works very hard. He leaves his apartment around 7:30 (a.m.) and gets back between 8 and 10 (p.m.) … then still works on his computer and gets ready for the next day.”
“He enjoys what he is doing,” said Phillip, “for the past eight months at the White House and traveling on Air Force One and meeting people. You know the full experience.”
Also on the White House communications staff is O‘ahu-native Remi Yamamoto who was profiled in the May 7 issue of The Hawai‘i Herald. Yamamoto, 28, is the senior communications adviser to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and considered “an incredibly valuable member of the White House team,” Kikukawa said.
He also has become friends with other islanders who work at the White House including Erika Moritsugu, Biden’s senior liaison to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities; and journalists — Washington Post Pulitzer Prize and national security correspondent Ellen Nakashima, whose father in 1941 was a University of Hawai‘i ROTC and Victory Varsity Volunteer member and was initially rejected from the Army because of a medical condition, but who persisted and ended up serving in the Military Intelligence Service in the Philippines and post-war Japan; and CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Weiner Cordes, a former Kaua‘i resident who got her start as TV reporter with KHNL TV after graduating from Punahou School, University of Pennsylvania (BA) and Princeton University (MA).
Eight years ago, Kikukawa — in addressing his classmates on commencement night — said he didn’t get the honor of being Molokai High’s valedictorian because he is naturally more gifted than anyone else, according to a Hawai‘i Department of Education news release. He worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity that came to him. Then he encouraged his fellow graduates to “go where there is no path and leave a trail.” After working in the West Wing, that may involve law school or graduate studies in government. Kikukawa seems to have taken his own advice and vision for success.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, congressional reporter for the Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.