A Champion for Equal Rights

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: This series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview with Patricia Saiki, the subject of this profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/9681. Additional information was gleaned from “A Woman in the House,” Saiki papers archived at UH Mänoa, Densho, and articles in Hawai‘i Business News, Hawai‘i Herald, and Honolulu Magazine.

Patricia Saiki. (Photos courtesy of Floyd Takeuchi)

During her nearly three decades in public office at both the state and national levels, Patricia Saiki has been a staunch Republican who has stood up for women’s rights, public education and reparations for Japanese interned during WWII. Saiki served in the State House from 1968 to 1974 and in the State Senate from 1974 to 1983 before winning a seat in Congress from 1987 to 1991. Finally in 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to head the Small Business Administration, a position she held for two years. Those who have worked with her, admire her matter-of-fact approach to solving problems and her tenacity in doing what’s right.

State Senator Saiki, 1982.
State Senator Saiki, 1982.

Growing Up in Hilo

Patricia Fukuda Saiki was born in Hilo in 1930. Her parents were Shizue Inoue and Kazuo Fukuda. Their parents were originally from Hiroshima and Kumamoto, respectively. Her mother’s family established the Hilo Macaroni Factory; her dad’s family leased land from the Hilo Sugar Plantation and formed a collective called a kumiai to harvest their own sugar cane. 

Saiki was a tomboy. Her very proper grandmother would scold her for wearing shorts and slippers and not behaving like a little lady. Saiki remembers jumping on bundles of cane and riding them down the flumes that brought the cane to the trucks. In spite of warnings from the luna and the shock of her grandparents, Saiki enjoyed the risk of this dangerous pursuit. 

Her dad, who worked in the American Factors sales department, was an avid tennis player who also coached the sport at Hilo High. He taught his three girls to play tennis and Saiki acquired her athletic skills from him. Importantly, he raised the girls to believe that they could do anything that boys did. He told them, “You can become anything that you want, as long as you follow the law, get an education, work hard and pursue a career that’s honorable.” That willingness to learn and welcome challenges influenced Saiki’s drive to “make things right; make things equal.”

As a child, Saiki recalled being appalled by the forced internment during WWII of some of her Issei neighbors. She remembered discussing this in her social studies classes. “It was an abridgment of their rights. Even if they were aliens, they still had basic rights that should have been heard.” Memories of this would stick with her and motivate her later actions as a political leader in Congress.

College and Marriage

Hard work was expected in the Fukuda family. Saiki realized that she had to earn her way through college along with the expectation that, as the eldest, she would also help her sisters in their college pursuit. Her first experience beyond Hawai‘i island was her move to the University of Hawai‘i campus for school. She lived in a working dormitory where students helped with chores for their keep. 

Luck was with her when the girls in her dorm nominated her for the UH Ka Palapala Beauty Pageant. This was an annual contest to select six campus “ethnic” queens. When she was crowned Miss Japanese in 1949, her mother, a talented dressmaker, made Saiki’s gown. This recognition opened doors for her: she was hired as a part-time flight attendant by Ruddy Tongg, owner of Trans-Pacific Airlines, later known as Aloha Airlines. Ritz Store, a popular dress store in Honolulu, asked her to serve as a model and gave her a free wardrobe. 

She graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree with credits in education that allowed her to teach physical education. Winning the contest also brought her to the attention of Dr. John Fox, president of Punahou. He hired her as the first full-time local teacher at the school in 1956. Saiki taught softball, volleyball and soccer, and she worked with the swim coach to put together the Punahou Aquacades. 

In 1954, she married Stanley Saiki, who was a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. Her busy schedule eventually included raising a family of five with her husband, who was her staunchest supporter.  

Saiki with her parents at the State Senate, 1974.
Saiki with her parents at the State Senate, 1974.

Starting Her Career

Her political career began in 1968 with the Hawai‘i Constitutional Convention. She was teaching at Kaimukï Intermediate at the time and felt strongly about wanting to contribute to this landmark event. She said, “I wanted to participate in the creation of a state where we were going to have a transition from an island territory into an honest to goodness state.” Among the issues that concerned her was ensuring that all students should have equal educational opportunities. She would later join other legislators in creating a statewide system of education with oversight from a Board of Education.

After the convention, she made a successful run for the House of Representatives as a Republican because of her strong belief in the party’s stand on fiscal responsibility and equal representation. Recognizing the dominance of the Democrats in the state, Saiki felt that she represented a critical voice as a Republican. 

Congresswoman Saiki with President Reagan, 1988.
Congresswoman Saiki with President Reagan, 1988.

Focus on Education

Her political career began with her dissatisfaction over the relative lack of autonomy teachers in Hawai‘i faced. Along with other teachers, she collaborated with the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association to form a teacher’s chapter and became its president. Eventually, the teachers’ union initiative moved from HGEA to two other options, the Hawai‘i Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, a move that Saiki approved.

Saiki has always focused on education-related issues. She was first appointed to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education by Governor John Burns in 1973, then reappointed by Governor George Ariyoshi in 1977. She served a total of eight years and was chair of WICHE from 1978 to 1980. Saiki was also a national board member of Funding and Improvement of Post-Secondary Education from 1982 to 1984.

Getting Business Done

Saiki excelled in the art of collaboration to get things done. One of her strategies was just leaning at the Capitol rails and starting conversations with other legislators. She said, “You’d be surprised who stops by and leans over the rail with you to chitchat.” One day, she looked over to find Governor Burns at the rail with her. Burns told her, “You’re a Republican. We need you to be re-elected. We gotta have an opposition party strong enough. People like you have got to be there, strong enough to keep my guys [meaning the Democrats] honest.” Burns agreed to help with a project that Saiki was concerned about: building protective wiring for a walkway over Wai‘alae Avenue by Wai‘alae Elementary to keep the kids from swinging dangerously. She remembered, “Next day [after talking with Burns], the guys were there putting up the wiring.”

Saiki with President Bush, 1990.
Saiki with President Bush, 1990.

On a larger issue, she supported Burns in the pursuit of a four-year medical school. A skillful negotiator, she realized the opposition from folks like Neil Abercrombie who was chairing the House Committee on Higher Education, and legislators she affectionately called “the rascals,” Ben Cayetano and Dickie Wong. She presented them with a carrot: how about a law school, which they coveted, if they went along with a four-year medical school? The result was that both programs were approved.

Congresswoman Saiki at the U.S. Capitol, 1988.
Congresswoman Saiki at the U.S. Capitol, 1988.

Advocate for Women’s Rights

As a minority Republican among majority Democrats, she learned the issues, sized up what was needed and got like-minded folks together. This meant proposals she wrote often got passed under the names of her Democratic colleagues. An example of this was her efforts for women’s rights. She was instrumental in identifying state laws that discriminated against women not being allowed to secure loans or own homes in their own names. She bundled 28 such laws to overturn; 26 of them were passed but not under her name. She said wryly, “They were copied by the Democrats and passed.” Although she was upset by this slight, she felt that the larger goal had been achieved for women. 

Saiki was instrumental in the successful passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Hawai‘i. In March 1972, Hawai‘i was the first state to ratify the ERA on the very day that the U.S. Senate voted to send it to the states. This was to guarantee protection against sexual harassment for women under the law.

Standing Up for Civil Rights

Not well known is her role in the Redress and Reparations measure associated with the Civil Liberties Act for Japanese Americans interned during WWII. When she discovered that the Republican contingent was holding up the Democrat-supported legislation, she asked to meet with the entire Republican caucus in the House. With her typical gutsy approach, Saiki told her colleagues, “Fasten your seat belts because I’m going to take you on the roughest guilt trip you ever had.” She told them, in detail, how her uncle was taken from his home, without any due process, without any consultation with a lawyer, and taken to a camp on the leeward side of O‘ahu, then shipped out to Topaz, Utah. The Republicans literally all sat there, stunned to hear this from a freshman female House member from Hawai‘i. A total of 63 Republicans ended up approving the measure. 

Saiki with President Reagan as he signs the Civil Rights Act of 1988.
Saiki with President Reagan as he signs the Civil Rights Act of 1988.

While Senator Spark Matsunaga is credited with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, Saiki’s actions in garnering Republican support contributed to the passage of this measure in 1988. The federal act (Public Law 100-383) granted redress of $20,000 and a formal presidential apology to over 82,000 surviving Japanese Americans incarcerated during the war. A photo of Saiki next to President Ronald Reagan signing the legislation is a testament to her contribution in this landmark measure.

Stopping the Kaho‘olawe Bombing and Other Achievements

In 1990, upon the urging of President George W. Bush, she ran for late Senator Matsunaga’s seat in Congress. Although she lost the bid to Daniel Akaka, she was able to gain the president’s ear on a matter close to Native Hawaiians: Kaho‘olawe. She got the president to rescind the original order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt and stop the bombing.

During her two terms in the Congressional House, Saiki also served on the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, the Select Committee on Aging, and the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. She was instrumental in helping to secure authorization for additional land for the Kïlauea National Wildlife Refuge and saved the state’s tuna industry by including it on a federally managed fishing list.

Continuing to Stand Up

Saiki has always been a feisty underdog in a Democrat-dominated state with a competitive streak and a savvy sense of how to make the right things happen. She remains active in local and national Republican Party politics and continues to be involved with numerous community service organizations. Now in her nineties, Saiki is a popular public speaker and mentor to all who seek her help. Her advice to younger citizens: 

“If you see a problem, you may not be able to solve it right then and there but chalk it up as something you’re going to correct in the future, when you can. And, when you see the opportunity, you do something about it. You need to know that it’s important to be willing to step into the ring and lead, that change can result if you have courage, keep your focus, and are willing to fight the good fight. I hope to inspire a new generation of civic-minded youth, particularly young women, to step forward and be counted.”


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