Jonathan Okamura: Let's Talk About How To Make Hawaii The Aloha State For Everybody - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Hawaii has the most diverse population in the United States, but too many still face racism and discrimination.

Editor’s note: You can already find Jonathan Okamura’s name mentioned frequently in Civil Beat stories about issues related to race and ethnicity. He is one of the foremost scholars on the topics after all. We’re delighted that Okamura has now agreed to become one of our regular Civil Beat columnists. He plans to write about issues ranging from inequalities at the University of Hawaii Manoa to problems facing undercovered communities in the islands.

I was born and raised on Maui, and my family lived in Kahului in what was then called “Dream City,” although my Valley Isle students at the University of Hawaii Manoa seemed unaware the subdivision was ever called that.

In 1964, to my considerable unhappiness, we moved to what later became Silicon Valley, and I attended Cupertino High School. At that time, it was predominantly white with a sprinkling of Mexican Americans and Asian Americans like me. That has changed, and Asians have become the majority ethnic group both in the school and Cupertino itself.

But at the time attending school was major culture shock for me. I recall thinking that it was like being in an episode of the popular TV show “Leave It to Beaver” because some of my classmates reminded me of the all-white characters in the show. 

In my baby boomer class at Cupertino of almost 700 students, I was the only Japanese American male, and was outnumbered by three Japanese American women born in the continental U.S. This demographic situation was a huge difference from my previous circle of friends on Maui that, while primarily Japanese, also included a mix of other locals.

I grew highly conscious of my identity and status as a racial outsider in California, which certainly was not the case on Maui. That experience and others contributed greatly to my scholarly interest in race and ethnicity, leading me to become a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UH Manoa for more than 20 years until 2020.

I generally assumed an advocacy position in my teaching, research and publications, prompting some students to call me “too opinionated” and “passionate” in course evaluations. I fully agree that I have strong opinions and a passionate desire to end racism and discrimination, and to foster a more just, fair and egalitarian Hawaii for all of its people.

Now that I’m retired, I’d like to share those as a columnist for Civil Beat. I have no training in journalism — I’m a recovering social anthropologist. However, I have several decades of writing, research and lecturing experience on race and ethnicity in the islands.

UH ethnic studies Jonathan Okamura column
UH Ethnic Studies faculty and students participated in a Martin Luther King Day parade in 2018. (Courtesy of Jonathan Okamura)

Drawing from that expertise, I would like to write about the racial and ethnic dimensions of ongoing public issues and events in Hawaii. Other topics I will address in my column include the University of Hawaii, and Filipino Americans and other ethnic minorities. 

Tapping into my three decades of working at UH Manoa, I anticipate doing columns on how its policies and practices impact students, staff and faculty from different racial and ethnic groups in unequal ways. I also plan to write about the substantial underrepresentation of Filipino Americans throughout the UH system as students, faculty and administrators.

In addition to my high school experience, I think my subsequent residence in the predominantly Black community surrounding the University of Southern California in South Central Los Angeles while attending college contributed to my concern and interest in race and race relations.

As an undergraduate student, I was extremely fortunate to have had anthropologist Sally Falk Moore as one of my professors. She literally changed the course of my life by encouraging me to consider attending graduate school, something I had never contemplated. Until meeting her, I had two primary objectives after graduating from college in 1971 — to beat the military draft and to return to Hawaii because seven years of being away felt more like exile.

Instead of returning home, after earning my bachelor’s degree I entered the University of London to pursue a graduate degree in social anthropology. Living in London was another racialized experience that raised my consciousness about my ethnic identity as a Japanese American, but it was far more positive. London in the 1970s was and still is a great global city for meeting people from all over the world, which I had the wonderful opportunity to do.

As a graduate student in social anthropology, I had to conduct long-term fieldwork to obtain the data required for my Ph.D. dissertation. Most of my peers did their research in isolated rural villages in west Africa, the department’s area of specialization, but I chose the Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi as my village and Filipino immigrants as my community. 

My plan was to return to Hawaii after finishing my degree, and I figured that research experience in the islands rather than Nigeria would enhance my chances for landing an academic job, which fortunately turned out to be the case. 

So in late 1979, I rented a room with an immigrant Filipino family on Gulick Avenue, two houses down from the well-known Gulick Deli, to begin my fieldwork. My study was concerned with how Filipino immigrants asserted their distinct ethnic identity through various cultural practices and social activities, which also served to demarcate Kalihi as a Filipino American community. 

My fieldwork with Filipino immigrants led me to move to Manila to conduct research and teach at a private Catholic university for three years in the mid-1980s. After being hired at UH Manoa in 1989, I continued my research on Filipino Americans, including about racism and discrimination against them, which is why I plan to write about their experiences and status in Hawaii.

All of the above is a long way to say I hope that, by drawing from my personal and academic experiences, my column will contribute to Hawaii truly being the Aloha State in how we relate to others who are culturally different from ourselves, especially the Indigenous people.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Let's start with the Hawaiians. Hawaiians today are the minority in their own back yard fighting for their rights to be.

kealoha1938 · 7 months ago

I hope Civil Beat continues to now post balanced stories like this.

Kalama · 7 months ago

Jonathan, please remember that all "races" and ethnic/cultural groups in Hawaii are minorities. Please remember that many people in Hawaii come of mixed ethnic/cultural groups and that people who grew up here also grow up under the influence of ethnic/cultural groups that may or may not be of their so called "race". You can't divide people here into different "races". You have to take into account family culture, class, neighborhood, education, family income. People who grew up here are not of this or that "race". Every person who grew up here is a product of their individual life experiences in the community that is Hawaii. This is a much more complex issue than "race". People who grew up on the mainland and did not go to the local schools, especially the public schools, including, I'm sorry, yourself, will have to understand that you cannot apply Mainland United States concepts to Hawaii. You are more on the right track if you apply the "colonial" experience to Hawaii, such as that of Trinidad, or Peru.

Kai · 7 months ago

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