Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on Japanese real estate investor Genshiro Kawamoto and the controversy he’s generating along Kahala Avenue.

Part 1: Land Barren: Japanese Billionaire Is Raising Eyebrows, Razing Houses

Hawaii has known of Genshiro Kawamoto for nearly a quarter century now, but still little is known about the famously reclusive real estate mogul.

Kawamoto rarely grants interviews, and yet at times he has appeared to relish media attention. He is a man of many such paradoxes, known for being as charming as he is ruthless, equal parts impulsive and calculating. But in an attempt to find out what makes Kawamoto tick, you have to go back decades in time and to a faraway island.

Japan is where Kawamoto’s story began.

Scattered biographical details have been repeated about him in newspapers and magazines over the years. His name has been spelled Genshiro and Gensiro. He was born in Fukuoka, on the northern shore of the island of Kyushu, the eldest of six. He inherited his family’s small kimono company when he was in his early 20s, but closed the business to instead invest in real estate — first in ultra-expensive Tokyo and later in Hawaii.

Digging back through decades of local newspaper clippings, Kawamoto’s name first appeared nearly 25 years ago. On January 1, 1988, the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser carried this headline: “Japan tycoon buys 78 Oahu properties.”

By that time, Kawamoto had snapped up about $18.5 million in Oahu real estate, mostly in Portlock, the newspaper reported. Some other details emerged: A description of Kawamoto as being in his 50s, single and unmarried. He was said to be the owner of a real estate firm called Marugen, with his priciest Tokyo buildings filled with bars and cabarets. He rarely paid less than $1 million for a property, and always paid in cash. And there was this quote, attributed to Kawamoto and reprinted from an article in the Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun:

“I firmly believe in always looking ahead and taking steps ahead of others. Land is something which must be used for practical purposes. I do not like the nouveau riche.”

With that, Hawaii had officially met Kawamoto.

The Man in the Limo, and his ‘Lousy Candy Houses’

Within months, Kawamoto’s real estate dealings in the islands had already become legendary. There was the popularly repeated story of him cruising Oahu’s most luxe neighborhoods in a white — sometimes black, depending on the source — limousine with a real estate broker, casually pointing to each of the houses he wished to buy.

The Honolulu Advertiser reported in November 1989 that, while in Sacramento to inspect a real estate development he owned there, Kawamoto spontaneously bought an expensive German-made convertible because the car that greeted him at the airport was inadequate. In that same article, Kawamoto told the Advertiser that he had eaten every meal at a restaurant for the past 35 years, and that he didn’t keep any food in his house. He also said that chasing women was “good for the blood circulation … to the extent it doesn’t interfere with business.”

The newspaper reported it had conducted a three-hour interview with Kawamoto, who spoke at length about his childhood and the idiosyncrasies that made him different than his brothers and sisters. As a child he wanted to use “many” towels to dry off after bathing, and he developed an obsessive desire to have the arrangement of food on his plate please him aesthetically. He was the “one strange child” in the Kawamoto brood, he told the Advertiser through a translator.

In those days, Kawamoto still granted interviews to local papers, even national ones. The Boston Globe ran a lengthy piece on April 18, 1988, that painted the billionaire as brash and somewhat arrogant.

“I can’t understand why people make such a fuss over my houses in Hawaii,” the Globe reported him as saying. “It’s only 160. I was planning to buy 500 or maybe 1,000.”

The newspaper also quoted Kawamoto as describing Hawaii construction as shoddy, and his recent purchases as “lousy candy houses.” In the article, Kawamoto proudly spoke of turning his back on a potential buy when the sellers didn’t have indoor slippers ready for him to wear on a tour of the property.

Weeks later, Kawamoto told the Honolulu Advertiser that the Globe had distorted his views about Hawaii real estate. He said that he didn’t realize that a woman who came to see him at his Tokyo office — a translator for Tom Ashbrook, the reporter who wrote the piece — was there to quote him for publication.

Now years later, Ashbrook tells Civil Beat he doesn’t remember reporting the piece, and he definitely doesn’t remember meeting Kawamoto. The most recent phone number he had for the translator he worked with in his days in the Globe’s Tokyo bureau no longer works. Finding people who are able (or willing) to talk about their encounters with Kawamoto isn’t easy.

Several of the Honolulu-based attorneys who have represented him declined to be interviewed, as did many of the local reporters who have interviewed him over the years. Nina Wu, who has interviewed Kawamoto at least twice and wrote about him several times for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, says it was “hard to communicate” with him.

“I think he prefers faxes and it’s usually through an interpreter, but the tricky thing is that the interpreters change,” Wu said in an email.

Even before Kawamoto became a familiar name in Hawaii, there was serious concern about the kind of influence that Japanese investors were having on the islands. After the 1986 economic boom in Japan, people like Kawamoto were paying higher than average prices on Oahu properties, thus driving up the cost of housing. At the same time, Japanese investors were snapping up so many properties that the pool of available housing got smaller.

It’s been impossible, despite extensive efforts, to speak with Kawamoto about his past. No one answered knocks on the doors of his houses, and calls and emails to his translators as well as several attorneys who have represented him over the years have gone unanswered. There has been no response to a letter sent to a post office box that he used in 2007.

Realtor Cedric Choi, who handles many of Kawamoto’s deals, declined to put Civil Beat in touch with Kawamoto.

But he defended the billionaire investor.

‘He’s Not a Mean Person’

“There’s a lot of statements by people who don’t know him,” Choi said. “I would say that it’s unlikely that if you met him that you would come away with anything but a smile on your face. He’s not a mean person.”

But he is a mysterious one, and he’s managed to attract plenty of attention from officials over the years. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he was well aware of Kawamoto’s controversial presence in Kahala during his time at the helm of the city.

“It’s very unusual, what he’s doing,” Hannemann said. “Very, very unusual. Usually, with someone like that, when their primary domicile is not Hawaii, they’re looking to flip, you know holding on for an investment. So they’d maintain (their properties). But this was a very different situation. I have never seen something like this before.”

Before Hannemann’s time, Kawamoto had a famous feud with former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi. In March of 1988, Fasi — who was known for his confrontational style — proposed a slew of buying restrictions on foreign investors. By May of that year, the battle between Kawamoto and Fasi had hit a boiling point. Kawamoto abruptly stopped his buying spree, the Honolulu Advertiser reported. With about 160 Hawaii properties in his portfolio, Kawamoto said Fasi’s criticism prompted him to abandon his plans to buy as many as 1,000 houses.

But Kawamoto later ended his moratorium on Hawaii purchases, and has continued to generate controversy in the post-Fasi era. At one point there was speculation that he would turn one of his Hawaii properties into a summer camp (he denied it was ever a consideration). In 2007, he announced he would invite homeless Native Hawaiian families to live rent-free in a half a dozen of his Kahala houses.

That offer generated a frenzy of public interest. Five years later, neighbors say the tenants who once tearfully accepted Kawamoto’s offer are no longer in the neighborhood. None of the former tenants contacted returned Civil Beat’s phone calls, emails and Facebook messages requesting interviews.

Those who have met Kawamoto describe dueling characteristics of cunning and naiveté. When Kawamoto was well into his 50s, newspapers still described his “boyish” good looks, but also his haughty decisiveness. A recent anecdote that illustrates this persona: Kawamoto’s stroll through an Occupy Honolulu protest in Waikiki. The irony of a billionaire casually cutting his way through a crowd of people speaking out against government favoritism for the supremely wealthy was not lost on photographer Jeff Fujimoto.

“I was actually photographing an Occupy Movement march through Waikiki and he happened to appear out of nowhere walking in the opposite direction,” Fujimoto told Civil Beat in an email.

But like so many facets of this mysterious man, there’s a paradox there. If he’s truly neglecting his houses to save money, he’s still willing to pay to stay in one of Hawaii’s nicest hotels, according to neighbor Georg Rafael, a former hotel developer. And yet the umbrella he’s been known to carry isn’t the fancy parasol you’d expect for someone of his affluence. Instead it’s unremarkable and mass produced, made available to Halekulani guests.

Choi, the realtor, says that there’s much about Kawamoto that’s misunderstood — like his reasons for demolishing some Kahala Avenue houses once he buys them.

“Like it or not, having taken down a lot of barriers to the view of the ocean — some houses and some walls and things like that — I’m sure the visitors to Hawaii have appreciated the view of the ocean from Kahala Avenue,” Choi said. “I mean, before when you drove down Kahala Avenue, and it’s only 1.5 miles long, there was wall-to-wall walls and houses, so you never did get to see the ocean. And that’s kind of a shame.”

Kawamoto’s presence between Kahala Avenue and the Pacific has the odd quality of a dream. Statues stand like marble scarecrows guarding stretches of empty yard. Rows of wilted flowers remain in their pots. The appearance is as though someone began rebuilding in the wake of destruction, but abruptly left.

The only hint that Kawamoto has been there is a royal blue umbrella, hooked over a gate to a property where no one lives.

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