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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Island Voices
Takahashi laid groundwork

By Tom Coffman
A Honolulu-based author, film producer and historian

The best-known story about Sakae Takahashi is the speech he delivered from his Army hospital bed to the wounded veteran in the adjacent bed, young Daniel Inouye. There would have to be a new Hawai'i as a result of the war, Takahashi was quoted as saying in Lawrence Fuchs' "Hawai'i Pono," and they would have to create it.

Masayo Duus, in "Unlikely Liberators," turned up an even earlier statement to a similar effect. When Takahashi was a junior officer in training camp with the 100th Battalion, he announced: "We're fighting two wars. One for American democracy, and one against the prejudice toward us in America." The goal of both efforts must be "to turn Hawaiian society around."

If Sakae Takahashi was not the original AJA veteran's voice for creating a new Hawai'i, he was inarguably one of the earliest. He was a little older than most of his comrades, and he had a habit of looking ahead.

After spending his first 17 years on the Makaweli Plantation in southwest Kaua'i, he went off to the University of Hawai'i to study agriculture. After two years in ROTC, he was invited to earn a commission.

On completing the requirements, he was temporarily blocked by the fact that he — like many Nisei — was a citizen of both Japan and the United States. He went through a cumbersome process of expatriation from Japanese citizenship, then got his U.S. Army commission. As a result, he was one of the few AJA officers at the start of the war.

The Nisei legend is filled with training camp stories — everything from incessant gambling to throwing the driver off a racially segregated bus — but Sakae's story was characteristically about anticipating what lay ahead. When others were on weekend pass, he stayed in camp studying military tactics and weaponry in preparation for battle. "I felt," he once said in an interview, "if you're going to go into combat, you might as well learn everything you can."

Because he already had earned a college degree, he quickly completed his law degree after the war. When he returned to Hawai'i, he was introduced by the teacher Mitsuyuki Kido to a Democratic Party organizer, John A. Burns. Burns and Kido, along with several others, had laid groundwork on the homefront for reinventing the Democratic Party.

At a time when most Nisei politicians were getting elected as Republicans, Takahashi was one of their first recruits. He first ran for office as a Democrat in 1950, four years before voters were to learn about Inouye and Spark Matsunaga. He won a seat on the old Honolulu Board of Supervisors. Then, in an intricate political maneuver, Kido and Burns negotiated a deal to have Takahashi appointed territorial treasurer — at a time when the idea of Japanese Americans serving at the executive level was still being steadfastly resisted.

When the Democrats so famously took over the territorial Legislature in 1954, Takahashi was again a step ahead — starting not in the House but the Senate. Meantime, he had played a major role in pulling together the coalition of old and new interests that made the startup Central Pacific Bank a success.

So in only a dozen years, he had executed on the vision he had described in training camp: Get advanced educations, open up new economic horizons and pursue the democratic process.

He never lost an election. Owning a lot of bank stock, and with an eye for investment, he made a lot of money, but he was unaffected by success. He was cheerful, subtly funny and thoroughly himself. In his plain-spoken way, you always knew that he was telling you his own thoughts, not someone else's.

By helping others, he became friends with people high and low of all groups and classes. He dismissed the role in which historians cast him by saying that most people he knew felt the way he did.

Although a Japanese American hero, he was wary of special claims flowing from ethnicity. Asked by a Mainland filmmaker about prejudice, he said, "There are people who discriminate, but the best thing to do is to ignore them, because there are more people who recognize the good things about you."