- Special Projects
Forty-five years ago, Mike Hashimoto was the driving force behind an effort to regulate Hawaii acupuncturists, pushing for a bill that would require state oversight for the first time.
He went on to serve several terms on the board that monitors acupuncturists, from the early 1980s until late last year – a total of 21 years. The board develops acupuncture laws and regulations that shape the entire profession, as well as making decisions on licensing and disciplining individual acupuncturists.
On the wall of his office, just off Kapahulu Avenue, Hashimoto has hung photos of himself with several governors, starting with George Ariyoshi in the 1970s. The photos share the wall with diplomas and proclamations thanking Hashimoto for his contributions to Hawaii acupuncture and service on the board.
Now, at the end of his career, Hashimoto is the focus of the regulatory apparatus he helped set up. And a patient who says she was victimized by him believes the system has failed her.
During a treatment session in 2016, the patients says, Hashimoto stroked her groin, touched her vagina and performed what he called “clitoral engorgement” with a vibrating tool.
Hashimoto vehemently denies he did any of those things, and the prosecuting attorney’s office declined to file charges.
But the state Regulated Industries Complaints Office, or RICO, still has not concluded its investigation, even though the patient, Janet Moya, made her accusation almost three years ago.
RICO, which enforces the licensing laws of professional boards like the one that oversees Hawaii’s 767 licensed acupuncturists, says it is hamstrung by various limitations from concluding such investigations faster. For one thing, if there is also a criminal investigation, RICO steps aside and let’s prosecutors take the lead before launching a separate probe.
Hashimoto, appointed most recently by Gov. David Ige in 2016, continued to serve on the board, casting votes affecting the profession as a whole and individual cases for more than two years after the charges were made. Hawaii has by far the highest number of acupuncturists per capita of any state, according to one recent study.
When he finally did leave last fall, it was because he had hit the legal limit of eight consecutive years on the board, not because of the unresolved cloud over his conduct. He continues to treat acupuncture patients.
He did give up a separate license to do massage – because of his poor health, he said.
The governor’s office did not even know about the accusation against Hashimoto until Civil Beat asked about it, and in general there is no mechanism to alert the governor that an appointee is facing such charges.
Moya, meanwhile, says the system has let her down even though she took all the recommended steps in a case like this – contacting the police and RICO within days and giving a detailed account of what happened. It’s taken so long that Moya, a Shiatsu massage therapist and a mother of three, set an alarm on her phone as a reminder every three months to call RICO for updates.
“You’re trying to do what’s right,” she said. “You’re trying to put it behind you. It’s good to get the updates, but it’s frustrating to know how long the process takes.”
Moya said she has been seeing a sex abuse counselor to deal with an onslaught of difficult emotions, including anxieties about treating male patients in her own massage practice.
“Now I’m just hyperaware of things, and you always have to question,” she said. “You just lose that trust in people. You want to see things in a good way, not a negative way. I don’t have that anymore.”
She says she’s also struggled with feelings of shame for what she now believes is a failure to heed earlier warnings. She said that Hashimoto, for instance, once squeezed her nipples during a breast exam. The acupuncturist denies that charge as well.
“You feel stupid and so ashamed you would trust somebody like this,” she said. “Words can’t describe how shitty it is as a victim as you process these things.”
She also wonders if Hashimoto has gotten preferential treatment by virtue of his position on the board.
“I feel like he’s been able to navigate the system somehow to make himself look better,” she said.
In an interview at his office, Hashimoto recounted how he became an acupuncturist and ended up in Hawaii, where he would exert an out-sized influence on the profession.
Growing up in Japan, he said, he wanted to be a chiropractor like his father. But his father said he could treat a wider range of ailments as an acupuncturist. He said he got his acupuncture degree in Japan, then worked as a Shiatsu massage therapist at a hotel in Guam. He was planning on moving to San Francisco or Los Angeles to work as an acupuncturist, but had a stopover in Hawaii.
When he stepped out of the airport, he said, “I felt there was something here you cannot buy with money.”
At that time, he said, acupuncturists were completely unregulated, with practitioners serving their own ethnic groups entirely by word-of-mouth. He was troubled by acupuncture’s status as an underground business. He worked with then U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga, the future senator whose father was an acupuncturist, to write a law regulating the profession for the first time.
The regulatory system has grown and evolved considerably since then, often with his input on the board. Even though he is now a target, he believes it is working as it should.
But like Moya, he said it has taken a heavy emotional toll. He said he had a heart attack – his fifth – a few months after Moya accused him.
“Just to be accused by this kind of harsh accusation, it really hurt my pride,” he said.
“Words can’t describe how shitty it is as a victim as you process these things.” — Janet Moya
Moya said Hashimoto had been helping alleviate her pain and stress for two decades when she made an appointment to see him on a Sunday morning in July 2016.
As he was massaging her legs, she said, his fingers would briefly touch her vagina, which she at first dismissed as an accident, especially considering he had treated her for so many years.
She said there were some other odd moments that she at first discounted. When she grabbed her belly and joked about how much weight she had gained over the years by saying the Japanese word for “fat,” for instance, she said that Hashimoto replied, “It’s beautiful.”
But as Moya was laying on her back and Hashimoto massaged her inner thigh and groin, she said, he asked if he could “check something” and pulled her panty to one side. He rubbed her clitoris back and forth, looking at it closely as if he were inspecting it, she alleges.
In response to her question about what he was doing, he replied, “Frigid, no response,” Moya said, and told her he thought that all her stress was from “sexual tension.”
She said he asked her if she knew the term “clitoral engorgement” and whether she masturbated. Then, he took out a vibrating tool and placed it over her panties, she said, until she pushed his hand away. As he moved around the table to massage her head, she said, she lay there trying to process what had just happened.
In a daze, she made another appointment. But it didn’t take long, Moya said, for her to conclude that what had happened was anything but normal. Why, she asked, if she had gone in for treatment of her neck, shoulders and lower back, had Hashimoto focused on “sexual tension”?
Later that day, Moya attended a birthday party in Mililani for a good friend’s child and told that friend about it. The friend, a former sex crimes prosecutor, told her she should report it to the police and RICO.
“I urge you to please review my case and take immediate action to have his license revoked,” she wrote to RICO. “You must prevent this from happening to anyone else.”
In a written response to RICO, Hashimoto denied every aspect of Moya’s story and accused her of having “sexual delusions.”
He wrote that he did not respond “It’s beautiful” to Moya’s joke about her belly.
“Perhaps she wanted me to reply, `It’s beautiful’,” he wrote. “This may be Mrs. Moya’s psychological issue.”
Massaging the legs is normal for a low back problem, he said. He denied touching her vagina or clitoris. He did use a vibrating tool, he said, but it was a professional instrument used in Japan to remove cellulite.
“I suspect that she fantasized and subconsciously wanted me to (be) saying those words and acts,” he wrote.
He also questioned the “concept that female(s) are always victims” and that “false accusers win most of the time in this rude society.”
Earlier, in a letter to Moya 11 days after the treatment session, he defined the term “clitoral engorgement” and wrote that he had been mistaken to attribute her stress to “intimacy” problems. He also enclosed a $500 check, the cost of her past several treatments, and suggested she’d be better served by a different acupuncturist.
Hawaii’s acupuncture law does not go into much detail about the actions that warrant discipline against a practitioner, referring only to “professional misconduct.”
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that certifies acupuncturists, is more specific. Acupuncturists can choose to be certified by the commission and, in some states, are required to be. Hawaii is not one of them and Hashimoto is not certified.
One cause for discipline, the commission states, is “failing to maintain professional boundaries in relationships with patients, or in any way exploiting the practitioner/patient trust.”
RICO says it has not taken disciplinary action against any acupuncturists’ license since 2010, a few months before Hashimoto started his most recent tenure on the board.
The office cites various reasons why nothing has been resolved in Moya’s case almost three years later, even as Hashimoto continues to practice and, until last fall, serve on the board.
The Honolulu Police Department took statements from Moya’s husband, mother and a friend, who all verified that she had talked about the incident right away. But in early 2017, the Honolulu prosecuting attorney’s office, for unstated reasons, declined to file second-degree sexual assault charges.
RICO waited for the resolution of the criminal case.
“We normally just watch on the sideline,” said Esther Brown, the acting RICO head.
Prosecutors often don’t want the licensing agencies to get involved in the investigation, she said. And RICO doesn’t want to make victims go through the ordeal of repeating their stories to a second set of interviewers.
Also, the defense attorney in the criminal case may advise the licensee not to cooperate with RICO’s investigation for fear it could be used by prosecutors.
If a licensee is convicted, RICO can use that on its own to take action without further investigation.
In serious cases, RICO is empowered by law to suspend a licensee until the case is resolved. But Brown said that statute is rarely used. It requires a hearing in 20 days, an almost impossible goal. The licensee’s attorney would likely ask a hearing officer for extensions that would drag out the case.
RICO got 5,215 complaints in the fiscal year that ended last June 30 for all the professions it regulates, from doctors to contractors to private investigators. Of those, 2,864 were forwarded to field units for further review. On average, it takes almost a year-and-a-half for a case to result in legal charges being filed before the regulatory board.
Hashimoto posted a newspaper ad in June saying he was closing his business — prompted, he said, by his poor health. But he says the ad generated more business, and he decided to continue working part-time.
“We normally just watch on the sideline.” — Esther Brown, the acting head of RICO
As a licensee, he is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence, even if it takes three years. But what about his service on the board, a position of honor that is the prerogative of the governor?
In 2016, a few months before the alleged incident, Ige nominated Hashimoto for another four-year term on the board. The governor’s memo to the Legislature states that his term would expire on June 30, 2020. The Legislature approved the appointment.
Despite the 2020 date listed on the governor’s nomination, Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong said that Hashimoto had always been expected to leave the board in 2018, to comply with a law that limits members to eight consecutive years.
That’s not how Hashimoto says it happened. It was only last summer, he said, that Carol Kramer, then the board’s executive officer, realized Hashimoto was about to hit the eight-year limit and informed him he would have to leave.
Hashimoto said that Kramer was aware of the accusation against him. He said he also discussed his service on the board with one of the investigators, a man whose name he can’t remember.
“I said, ‘Those kinds of accusations, should I resign from the board?’ And the investigator said, ‘No, you don’t have to,’” Hashimoto said.
Moya said she wrote a letter to the president of the board at the same time she sent her complaint to RICO. She never heard back.
It’s unclear whether the whole board knew of the accusation. Investigations are kept confidential until they are presented to the board, said William Nhieu, a spokesman for the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
“Ideally, a conscientious board member would disclose that,” said Brown, the acting RICO head. “I don’t know that that’s a requirement.”
The board’s minutes normally reflect that a member is leaving – they often receive recognition for their service, as Hashimoto has in the past. But the minutes following Hashimoto’s departure are silent about him.
Moya, meanwhile, fumes that Hashimoto is able to continue with his normal life while the bureaucratic machinery grinds on. She finds it hard to believe that anyone would think that she would make a false claim, as Hashimoto alleges. Why, she asks, would she put herself willingly through such an ordeal?
“For every victim who comes forward,” she said, “there’s nothing to gain.”
Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.