Political Pioneer: The First Asian American Governor

Former Gov. George Ariyoshi photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

NJAHS annual awards dinner keynote speaker Governor George Ariyoshi became the third governor of Hawai‘i in 1974, promoted from lieutenant governor after the sitting Governor John Burns had to step down due to illness. He became the first Asian American and Japanese American governor in America, and also the first Hawai‘i-born governor of the state.

The former Military Intelligence Service member went on to be elected to serve three terms until 1986, becoming the longest-serving governor in the state’s history and opening the doors to other minorities to hold the Hawai‘i governor’s office.

“Much of Hawai‘i’s success is due to Ariyoshi,” said Steve Hirabayashi, one of the event organizers. “He’s also a great promoter of U.S.-Japan relations.”

Keith Kamisugi, director of communications at the Equal Justice Society, who grew up in Hawai‘i, reflected upon Ariyoshi in a video at the dinner. “When I was growing up and saw Governor Ariyoshi on TV, I didn’t think it was special for the governor to be Japanese American,” Kamisugi said. “That had a deep impact on me, and showed me that I could do things in the community and being Japanese American wouldn’t be a barrier.”

Before the awards dinner, the Nichi Bei Weekly spoke briefly with Ariyoshi.

NBW: The 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Kanrin Maru gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of U.S.-Japan relations. What are your thoughts on the current relations between the two countries?

GA: There is some difficulty with the U.S. base in Okinawa but they’ll work it out. The relationship is strong, important and necessary. We are two democracies, one Asian, one Western, working together. The Japanese also realize that if not for the generosity of Americans, their country would not be as it is today. The relationship must continue. It will be different, but it will be strong.

NBW: You are credited with helping Hawai‘i achieve economic success during your time as governor. How were you able to do that?

GA: I’m very future-oriented. I don’t want to benefit us today without thinking of the future. I always think about what we want Hawai‘i to be. You have to be concerned about finances also. I was very strong on fiscal management. When I started, there was a deficit, which I fixed in two years; for the next 10 years, there were no problems.

NBW: You were the first Asian American governor in the United States. How do you feel reflecting on that achievement?

GA: More than being content with that, I was concerned about doing a good job for those that would follow me. I never had any intention of being governor. But, I was asked to be lieutenant governor, and I knew that no person other than a white person had been governor, and there had never been a governor born in Hawai‘i. I wanted to break that chain. That’s why I decided to run for governor. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a ‘politician’ — I wanted to make a mark for the people of Hawai‘i and for the future of Hawai‘i.

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