LITTLE TOKYO INC.: Sand, Surf, Golf and Politics, Local Style

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jon kajiBy JON KAJI

Hawaii in the winter? Now that’s always a great decision! Last week, while still recovering from a bout of bronchitis, I happily caught a flight from LAX to HNL for purposes not altogether business. Maybe medicinal? The golf bag was a dead giveaway.

The annual Sony Open golf tournament held at the Wailae County Club in Honolulu was a return to a semblance of normalcy after the wild ride of December. The hacking of Sony Pictures network (allegedly by the North Koreans), the release of confidential internal documents and the pulling back of the curtain on the personal and nasty emails made a weekend trip to the Islands all the more welcome. Who would have thought that watching a movie like “The Interview” would be an act of patriotism?

I attended as a guest of one of my long-time Sony executive friends, a higher-up who had at one time worked directly for Sony co-founder Akio Morita. Chef Roy Yamaguchi catered a sumptuous affair for the 1,000 Sony executives, their corporate clients and other guests. Even the music for the evening, Chic, was a blast back to the “bubble” 1980s, when Sony was #1, available taxis were in short supply on the Ginza, and America was being “sold” to the Japanese.

Entering into Wailae Country Club’s pro shop, there was a Sony display, with original Sony products including the ubiquitous transistor radio, reel-to-reel recorders, Walkmans, Betamax, Trinitron monitors and old photos of Morita-san and Ibuka-san. There was even a marketing poster of a Japanese monkey sitting in the water of a hot spring, relaxing to the sounds from a Walkman. “It’s a Sony.”

Some of the older guests were caught up in the glories of the past, remarking on the time when Morita-san’s Kahala oceanfront estate off of Hole 17 at Wailae was the site of many memorable parties. However, another crowd of albeit younger members, tossing back drinks and pupus, spoke of where the company was headed, and what the future might be.

Apparently, when Apple Inc. was in a tailspin, Sony was offered to take over the company. It was no surprise that Steve Jobs was a longtime fan of Akio Morita. However, according to the story, the Sony executives balked at the chance. Missed opportunity.

Of course, we all know how things turned out. Steve Jobs stepped back into Apple and revolutionized the tech space. IPad. IPhone. ITunes. Apple continues to crank out products that consumers line up and sleep over to buy. It’s been a long time since Sony’s had that kind of buzz.

I had a chance to briefly meet the current Sony CEO, Kaz Hirai. He’s a fully bilingual Japanese executive, very personable compared to former Sony CEO Howard Stringer. I wish him and his team well and hope that Sony recovers from the cyber-attacks launched by either the North Koreans or a disgruntled insider. They say in Hollywood that any press is good press. We’ll see if Sony will be able to work some magic and move the market again.

Another challenge now faces the State of Hawaii and its new governor, David Ige. Gov. Ige was also in attendance at the Sony dinner and I had an opportunity to ask him how he thought the state budget would fare, now faced with a Republican-controlled Congress and without the state’s primary fundraiser, the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

Obviously, the governor gave me an optimistic answer, that he looked forward to working with the Hawaii congressional delegation in seeing that projects such as the planned Honolulu rail system would be funded.

Reality “bites.” As a “blue” state that depends on tourism and federal defense spending via Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Seventh Fleet, a Republican Congress with new chairs cannot bode well for the state economy. But, on balance, fed funds will continue to flow as the Republican leadership continues to suspiciously eye Chinese expansionism in the Pacific and sees the need for a robust, Pacific platform. To many Republicans, Obama’s “Asian pivot” is a page out of the Republican foreign policy playbook.

As a Japanese American governor of the State of Hawaii, Ige will have opportunities to make his case on his trips to Washington, D.C. Given the governor’s background in engineering, he will need to apply analytics, logic and reasoning with equal parts of an aloha charm offensive on Capitol Hill. Perhaps, extending an invitation to all of the key congressional chairs to the Islands during the icy winter break? Now that would be a tough invitation to turn down!

I closed out my Honolulu visit by getting an answer to an open question from the last Hawaii gubernatorial campaign.

Many Rafu readers may have been shocked by the 36-point margin by which former Gov. Neil Abercrombie lost to State Sen. David Ige in the primary. To Hawaii political watchers, you may remember an interview conducted by The Los Angeles Times on April 11, 2014, in the lead-up to the election, in which Abercrombie questioned the authenticity of a deathbed letter written by Sen. Inouye. After all, President Obama himself supported Abercrombie’s re-election bid (of course, since Neil was a long-time friend with the president’s family going back to his days at Punahou School and the University of Hawaii).

In that personal letter, the senator asked Gov. Abercrombie to consider appointing Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to his long-held Senate seat.

My Honolulu sources all confirmed that Abercrombie was warned to steer clear of the deathbed letter issue. However, the governor decided to offer his own personal take on the authenticity issue, thereby reviving a long-festering resentment by Inouye loyalists towards the governor and forcing him to apologize to Inouye’s widow. The rest, as they say, is history.

There were other contributing reasons for Abercrombie’s re-election loss, including his alienation of different labor groups, including teachers and nurses, and Inouye’s JA support base. You can read the Aug. 11, 2014 edition of Honolulu Magazine for a local rundown (“Nine Reasons Why Neil Abercrombie Lost the Hawaii Governor’s Race”).

On the “undercard” race for U.S. Senate, Brian Schatz, Abercrombie’s pick, managed to beat Hanabusa to win the Senate seat, in spite of the campaigning by Irene Hirano Inouye and the senator’s son, Daniel Ken Inouye Jr. In the end, the internecine Hawaii Democratic infighting was a split decision between the Abercrombie/Schatz/Obama faction vs. the Hanabusa/Inouye/Clinton faction. A Hawaiian “House of Cards”? Tune in for the new season…

In the end, business and politics took a backseat to the perfect weather, the mild waves of Waikiki beach, a few rounds of golf with good friends and daydreaming about what life would be like as a professional golfer. I gladly made my economic contribution to the State of Hawaii economy. Thanks, Hawaii, for giving me “just what the doctor ordered!” Mahalo!

Jon Kaji is president of Kaji & Associates, a real estate firm based in Gardena. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the Japanese American National Museum and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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