How Significant is “The Japanese Vote?”

Richard Borreca
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Asking about ethnic voting in Hawai‘i is like posing the question: “Is it raining in Hawai‘i?”

Yes, somewhere in Hawai‘i almost every day, rain is falling and, yes, Hawai‘i voters take ethnicity into consideration when they go to the polls. But it is way more complicated than that.

Historian and journalist Tom Coffman, who has written several books on Hawai‘i’s history and politics, says it is more difficult to pinpoint the influence of “the Japanese American vote” now that so many Hawai‘i families are made up of many different ancestries.

“It’s obviously of diminished importance because of the decline from percentage in the high 30s of total population to one-fifth,” said Coffman in an interview.

“However, I would bet AJAs still vote in disproportionate numbers, effectively resulting in being the most important element of Democratic primaries,” Coffman added.

Professor Jonathan Okamura, who teaches the Japanese in Hawai‘i course in the University of Hawai‘i’s ethnic studies department and the author of several books about race and ethnic identity in Hawai‘i, explains that while the proportionate number of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i has gone down, the importance of AJA voters remains a building block of the Democratic Party.

“Clearly, at least for statewide elections, the Japanese American vote is not as organized or as strong as in the past, but it need not be. Japanese American families have the financial resources to provide for their children’s current and future well being without having to depend on electoral politics to create opportunities for their socioeconomic mobility, as was the case until about the 1990s,” Okamura said in an interview.

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Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.

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