Photo of son, Jim Burns, and father, John A. Burns
“I always admired Jim Burns for having grown up in the fishbowl of Hawai‘i politics with a larger than life father, John A. Burns,” said state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, son of Democratic Party strategist Robert Oshiro. (Photos courtesy Emme Tomimbang)

The Retired Judge is Remembered Fondly for His Intellect and Low-key Local Demeanor

Richard Borreca
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Jim Burns had the untucked Aloha shirt casualness Hawai‘i appreciates, but his intellectual rigour and character were just as
          strong as his father’s straightaway posture.

Former Hawai‘i Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge James S. Burns died March 9, a little more than a month before turning 80.

Burns was famous because he was the son of Hawai‘i’s beloved first elected Democratic governor, John A. Burn, and then made his own mark as one of the state’s most respected judges.

Wahiawä Democratic Rep. Marcus Oshiro knows how bright the spotlight can be when your parent is a famous Hawai‘i politician — his father was Robert Oshiro, the famed Democratic strategist who shaped the elections of several Hawai‘i governors.

“I always admired Jim Burns for having grown up in the fishbowl of Hawai‘i politics with a larger than life father, John A. Burns,” said Oshiro.

Gov. Burns, Hawai‘i’s second elected governor, who served from 1962 to 1974, was the central figure in the Democratic “revolution” of 1954 when Japanese American veterans who had returned from World War II and others took over majority control of the then-territorial Legislature.

“AJAs worshipped that man and the ground he walked on,” said Oshiro. “In many ways, he was our great father; he inspired my father and his contemporaries.

“Because of that great influence and huge shadow, I often wonder how a person develops and grows and lives and thrives to become their own person,” said Oshiro.

Jim Burns’ skill, says Oshiro, was that “You always felt good when you talk to him.”

“He could talk like a local boy. I know what motivated him and the sense we shared being local guys.

“You never forgot that this was one good local haole with us, despite the prestige and trappings of being the son of Gov. Burns,” Oshiro said.

“I always felt Jim was more Japanese than haole. He was a local boy,” said his wife, Emme Tomimbang. The couple was looking forward to celebrating their 30th anniversary later this year.

The story of how Burns got his middle name, Seishiro, is telling.

John Burns’ wife, Beatrice (“Bea”), was afflicted with polio and paralyzed from the waist down when she became pregnant with Jim. The couple, both devout Catholics, refused to have an abortion and were determined to proceed with the pregnancy. Burns had a friend, a massage practitioner named Seishiro Okazaki. He was an immigrant from Japan and a martial arts expert. Okazaki said his study of jüjitsu and jüdö enabled him to survive and beat tuberculosis as a teenager. Well-known in Hawai‘i as a healer, he offered to give Bea Burns daily massages to help with the birth of her son.

“It was a miracle birth. All the doctors predicted she is going to die, and so would the baby,” said Tomimbang.

“Bea had a healthy 8-pound baby,” she said.

When Burns asked Okazaki what he could do to repay him, he simply asked that the boy be named Seishiro.

Photo of Professor Henry Seishiro Okazaki cradles the “miracle” baby who was given his Japanese name, Seishiro.
Professor Henry Seishiro Okazaki cradles the “miracle” baby who was given his Japanese name, Seishiro.

Jim Burns became an attorney in 1965 and then worked his way up the judicial ladder, starting as a per diem District Court judge in 1976, moving through the Circuit Court in 1977 and then on to the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 1980, which had been established only a year earlier to hear almost all trial court appeals and some appeals by state agencies. In 1982, Burns was appointed chief judge of the Intermediate Court.

Former Gov. George R. Ariyoshi, who was Gov. Burns’ lieutenant governor, appointed Jim Burns to both the Circuit and Intermediate courts. He said he wanted to also appoint him to the state Supreme Court, but Burns was actually needed more on the Intermediate Court. […]

Realizing that as a state judge he could not be involved in politics or political endorsements, Ariyoshi said Burns turned to sports and was one of the state’s biggest athletic boosters.

When Burns became governor shortly after statehood, the University of Hawai‘i was central to the Montana-born governor’s hopes for Hawai‘i. He believed a robust and vibrant university system would make Hawai‘i an attractive place for both citizens and investors.

Burns set out to champion both a medical school and a law school so that Hawai‘i students would have a less expensive chance at higher education and so that the community in Hawai‘i would be enriched with legal and medical scholars.

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