A tribute to John Tanaka, a Renaissance Man

A MAN OF MANY TALENTS — John Tanaka and his wife, Amy Tanaka. photo courtesy of Gail Tanaka

A MAN OF MANY TALENTS — John Tanaka and his wife, Amy Tanaka. photo courtesy of Gail Tanaka

Sometimes in life you meet a person who is a one-of-a-kind renaissance man. That best describes my father-in-law, John Shigeyuki Tanaka, who passed away on June 28, 2011. He was 88 years old. John was a Nisei, an inventor, a military man, a businessman, an author and a food connoisseur. In his 80s, he became a local celebrity in Hawai‘i.

John was born on O‘ahu, attended the University of Hawai‘i and served as a counterintelligence agent in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he received his master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He was a successful businessman, raised a family in Menlo Park, Calif., and retired on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. John and his wife Amy were married for 57 years, had four children and four grandchildren.

John was a second generation Japanese American, a generation that is almost completely gone now. Many of his friends have passed away before him, including some who lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, such as Gene Kono, as well as recently, King Tanaka and Yoshio Katayama. My husband Dean and I have been fortunate to spend many evenings having dinner with these wonderful Nisei and their wives, learning so much and admiring their candor, sense of humor, drive and generosity.

John was a man who was ahead of his time. As president of Shofu Dental, he knew dental students would be the perfect target audience for an innovative polishing product called Brownies and Greenies. Since dental students one day turn into professional dentists who need products, an ongoing revenue stream was born. To this day, many dentists recall the Brownies and Greenies that were part of incoming freshman kits in dental school.

John also invented a product called Wiki Wiki (in Hawaiian it means “quick quick”), which can cook a 14-pound turkey in less than one hour. He recently demonstrated his patented product to the culinary department of Kapi‘olani Community College in Honolulu, which was pleased with the juicy, delicious turkey cooked so quickly.

John never slowed down. In his 80s, he decided he wanted to write a novel. John ended up writing two books about Hawaiian culture, “Yesterday’s Rainbow” and “Aloha ‘Oe, The Song at Pier 10.” He did book signings — his first book was even sold at Costco — and was invited as a celebrity guest at Hawaiian events.

Oh, how he loved Hawai‘i. Through his book research, he discovered that the Hawaiian Coat of Arms, which was developed in the late 1800s, is factually incorrect. He reported on the inaccuracy, hired an artist to paint the coat of arms correctly, and even had it trademarked.

Last September, my parents Kaz and Helen Ideno, my sister Katherine Ideno and her husband Andrew Yee visited the Big Island. Since it was my sister’s first trip to Hawai‘i, we wanted her to experience an exceptional dinner, and John offered to cook sukiyaki at his home. This was no ordinary meal. On the balcony of his home, John’s “stove” was a custom-made table that John designed with a granite top, including a gas-powered hibachi in the middle of the table for grilling. John cooked each piece of meat individually in a nabe (cooking pot), and served it to each person. Then he cooked all the vegetables, and created different sauces to complement the meal. As we watched the sunset while enjoying our beautiful dinner and had a wonderful time, we knew it was a special night. The meal and atmosphere was exceptional, just as anything John did. The meal was better than any five-star restaurant.

The Hawaiian Coat of Arms Tanaka discovered. photo courtesy of Gail Tanaka

To celebrate the turn of the century, in December 1999 John and his wife Amy hosted a huge Millennium party on the Big Island. Family and friends, including U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, attended the event. John also hosted a second event in December of 2007, which was a “Celebration of Life” party at the Mauna Kea Hotel. The hotel was actually closed for renovations. However, John is the only person I know who would be able to host a party at the Mauna Kea during that time, in a picturesque outdoor setting overlooking the ocean. He wanted to celebrate life in general and share it with his family and friends. It’s one of the things I’ll remember him for — to celebrate life rather than mourn his passing.

During the Celebration of Life party, everyone sang a song John wrote called “Eternité” (it’s sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”):


The years go by, and friends depart
To a land of heavenly grace
But joys they brought in yester years
Will dwell in memory


Oh Friend, Oh Lover, be assured
Mine Mem’ry never fades!
For all you were, are in me still
Until the end of time.


John, you will always be in our hearts. Aloha ‘Oe.


Gail Tanaka is a senior vice president at ECI, an Omnicom advertising agency, and president of Cherry Blossom Alumnae (CBA). The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.


One response to “A tribute to John Tanaka, a Renaissance Man”

  1. Noleen Avatar

    Aloha Gail…thank you for writing such a wonderful tribute. I worked at Kona Industries for John and Amy back in 1988-89 when they bought out Kona Air Condioning. I had no idea John passed away until my husband, Howard, informed me today. So I googled his name to find out when he passed and came across this article.

    First off, my condolences to you and your ohana. Although I never worked for them for long, I was happy to have had the privilege to do so. We didn’t have a really close relationship but it was close enough where Amy came and helped my husband and I paint our house when we lived in Kona. She’s a go getter, that Amy! I didn’t see them often after I left Kona Industries but when I did, we would just pick up where we left off.

    Well, I just wanted to say mahalo for the article and to introduce myself. Please send our fondest aloha and condolences to Amy with well wishes for a holiday season filled with the love and comfort of family and friends. Aloha nou…

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