Hawaii News Now’s Anchor Ashley Nagaoka Embodies Perseverance, Grace and Humility

Jodie Chiemi Ching

Sophisticated and cheerful, Yonsei Ashley Toshiko Nagaoka — Emmy award-winning anchor of Hawaii News Now’s “First at 4” newscast at 4 p.m. and “This is Now” at noon on KHNL — is, at her core, a local girl with a huge heart proud to be from Kaua‘i.

 Just a few days after returning from a family visit on Kaua‘i, Nagaoka and I met for a Sunday morning Zoom chat. She began by talking about growing up in Kapa‘a — a place where she always felt safe. 

“When I was little, I always felt like someone was watching over me, whether it was family or my parents’ friends. The community looks after each other. It was just a really cool place to grow up. The best friends I have now are the best friends that I had from childhood on Kaua‘i which is why I like to go back and visit so often,” said Nagaoka.

When asked about what kind of child she was, she said, “Overall, I think I was a pretty good kid. I was polite, respectful and outgoing. I rarely got into trouble, but when I did, I feel like I always owned up to it. I didn’t make excuses.” 

Nagaoka also described herself as a curious keiki who asked a lot of questions. “I wasn’t afraid to question authority,” she said explaining her natural attraction toward journalism. 

As an avid runner, who has completed the daunting Kauai Marathon and many half-marathons, Nagaoka is also a woman of perseverance. She credits family members for the kachikan, or values, that guide her in life. 

Mark Nagaoka with his daughter and running companion at the 2009 Kauai Marathon.

Family Ties

Nagaoka’s paternal great-grandparent emigrated to Kaua‘i from Hiroshima. There are still some pukas she’s trying to fill in her family history, but here’s what she knows so far: 

“My dad’s grandparents died before they met Dad. But I know my great-grandpa came to Kaua‘i and worked on the plantation. I didn’t meet my grandfather, but my grandmother Bessie Toshiko (Nagaoka’s namesake) was a caretaker for families at the Kaumakani Plantation Camp when she was single, and when she was older, she trained to become a nurse.” Nagaoka also heard that her grandfather ran various businesses including selling furniture and frozen meats. 

“My mom’s side is from Naha, Okinawa,” said Nagaoka. “It’s a long line of vegetable farmers. My grandma, Janet Yamashiro, is still on the Big Island. My grandpa Gilbert was a vegetable farmer so we spent a lot of school breaks at the farm in Volcano helping the workers harvest daikon and cabbage. And they grew calla lilies. My grandma was an assistant dietician, and she just turned 90 this year. She’s very active with her church and stays in shape by going to Zumba and hip-hop [classes]. Grandma is incredible!” boasted Nagaoka.  

Nagaoka visiting with her grandmother Janet Yamashiro on Hawai‘i island.

And then there are Nagaoka’s parents and her brother who are more than just family. They inspire her to work hard and persevere. 

Ashley’s father, the late Mark Nagaoka, was her constant running companion for races. 

“My dad was an animal. He would cross the finish line before me, but then would turn right around and come look for me on the course so we would finish the race together.” Even when Mark was battling Stage 4 cancer in 2014, he still wanted to run the Kauai Half Marathon with his daughter. Ashley said he walked the entire route, his feet and hands numb from chemotherapy, but he still finished the race with a smile.

With COVID restrictions easing, it appears this year’s Honolulu Marathon is on. This race will be Ashley’s first full marathon without Mark physically by her side, but she says she knows he’ll be with her in spirit the entire 26.2 miles.

Mark was a retired store manager for Whalers General Store and Foodland and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam. He passed away in 2015.

Ashley and her family at her brother Ryan Nagaoka’s promotion ceremony for the Kaua‘i Fire Department. Mother Lynne Nagaoka (left) with Ryan and wife Diandra, Ashley and Markus (son of Ryan and Diandra).

Ashley says she gets her independence and strong professional work ethic from her mom Lynne Nagaoka. “Mom is my biggest mentor,” she said. Lynne, who recently retired, had a long career in Hawai‘i’s hotel industry. She worked at properties all over the state, including the Westin Kauai and the Kauai Marriott, the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort on Maui, and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott on the Big Island.

“I’m so proud of her,” said Lynne. “Ashley’s a diligent worker always doing her best. She knows how to have fun, loves all kind of foods and always keeps herself in good health. We all know when dining with her that no one can touch their food until she takes a picture so she can post it on Instagram.”

On a recent Kaua‘i trip — which occurs about once a month — Nagaoka visited her firefighter brother Ryan, and her 1-year-old nephew Markus, who is named after their late father. She and Markus recently celebrated birthdays together since they are both September-born babies. 

The First at 4 team from left: Mark Carpenter, anchor/reporter; Jennifer Robbins, meteorologist; and Ashley Nagaoka, anchor/reporter. (Photos courtesy of Ashley Nagaoka)

Career

After graduating from Kaua‘i High School, Nagaoka attended the University of Arizona in Tucson where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minored in Japanese. 

Why journalism? “Watching the evening news was a family routine growing up, and I realized back then it was such an important service. I would read the newspaper with my Dad. It’s a fulfilling and rewarding profession,” said Nagaoka. “It gives me a sense of purpose and the job is different every day. COVID-[19] highlighted the need for accurate information.”

Wasting no time, she started working in broadcast journalism after graduation. “Right out of college, I got a job at KGMB. I produced the weekend show, and reported three days a week,” said Nagaoka. “So I was a brand new reporter to the market at a very young age.” 

“In late 2009, I moved to Washington, D.C. where I served as press secretary for [congresswoman] Colleen Hanabusa. At the time, [President] Obama was in the White House and Sen. Inouye and Sen. Akaka were at the height of their power. Just to be a Hawai‘i kid there, seeing these people with ties to your home state running the place … it was really cool! Hawai‘i was really taken care of at that time because of that. We also had Colleen and Mazie (Hirono) in the [U.S.] House at that height of government. It was very inspiring for a girl from Kaua‘i,” marveled Nagaoka.

Nagaoka moved back to Hawai‘i in 2014 to be closer to her then ailing father. “Colleen allowed me to work in her Honolulu office for almost a year,” she said. But when Hanabusa ran for the Senate and lost, Nagaoka transitioned to public relations before returning to broadcast journalism at Hawaii News Now in 2017. 

A year into working at Hawaii News Now, Nagaoka would report on her most memorable story to date — the historic April 2018 flood on Kaua‘i. “Oh man,” she recalled, “It tested me emotionally and professionally. I think I was there for 12 days working on stories. My photographer and I had to run to the Ross store to buy clothes because we just kept extending our trip. It was such a heartbreaking and eye-opening event to see Mother Nature’s wrath. But you know, the Kaua‘i community, how it just picked itself up after that, people helping complete strangers. It was one of the hardest things I had to cover, but it made me feel proud to be from there.” 

All her hard work is paying off. Hawaii News Now’s “First at 4” won an Emmy award in June for “Best Daytime Newscast,” only eight months after the show launched. “I still can’t believe it,” said Nagaoka. “First at 4” was born during the pandemic because of a need for more news and information throughout the day. 

Guy Hagi hosts Cheap Eats — a food segment of Hawaii News Now — with Nagaoka featuring Empty Elle Bagels which is located inside of Grace in Growlers in Kailua.

What’s Next?

“Professionally, the Emmy came out of left field!” laughed Nagaoka still getting over the shock. So for now it looks like she will revel in the success.  

“If this marathon happens, that would be a personal goal. We’ll see,” said Nagaoka, open to whatever the future holds. 

“[Gambari] is an important value in my life. Coming from such a hardworking family; [having] a mother who knows no boundaries or glass ceilings, [I’ve learned to] just go for it!” said Nagaoka. She advises never be afraid to ask for something you want because the worst thing that someone could say is No. 

Whether it’s the Honolulu Marathon or the metaphoric “marathon of life,” Nagaoka will run it with gambari, and her dad, Mark Nagaoka, will be with her along the way. 

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