George Ariyoshi was born on March 12, 1926, the eldest son of Japanese immigrants. His father, Ryozo, arrived in Hawai'i from Chikujo-gun, now Buzen City in Fukuoka, Japan in 1919 as a twenty-four-year old crewman aboard a Japanese ship. He worked as a stevedore, construction worker, and proprietor of a rice shop, saimin stand, beer parlor, and tofu shop before establishing R & M Dry Cleaning in Kalihi. Ryozo was also a sumō wrestler who wrestled under the name Yahatayama in exhibition bouts on the Big Island where he met his future wife, Mitsue Yoshikawa. As a child, Ariyoshi attended a variety of schools and completed kindergarten in the Wai'alae area, first grade in Lā'ie, and he attended Central Intermediate School in downtown Honolulu where his teacher Mrs. Margaret Hamada encouraged him to think about various career options including law. After meeting a local attorney, Arthur Trask, Ariyoshi "decided lawyers help people in trouble, and that is what I wanted to do." From that moment in eighth grade, Ariyoshi embraced law as his goal and was supported by his father who often said to him: "I can give you money, but you can spend it all. If I help you get an education, it will be with you forever."
In 1944, Ariyoshi graduated McKinley High school as the senior class president, his early years at McKinley shaped by Principal Miles Cary who promoted progressive education. During World War II, Ariyoshi was drafted into the army and served as an interpreter in the Military Intelligence Service in occupied Japan for several months before returning to Hawai'i. After attending the University of Hawai'i for a short period under the GI Bill, Ariyoshi finished his education at Michigan State University where he earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science in 1949. Three years later, Ariyoshi graduated from the University of Michigan law school and returned to Hawai'i to open his own practice. In 1953, at a party given by a mutual friend, Ariyoshi met Jean Miya Hayashi who was a student at the University of Hawai'i majoring in mathematics and speech. After one year, George and Jean were engaged on her twentieth birthday—October 30, 1954—and the couple married on February 5, 1955. Their engagement came right before he decided to make a successful run for the territorial House of Representative as Ariyoshi became part of the 1954 Democratic Revolution in Hawai'i.
Ariyoshi served in the territorial House until 1958 when he was elected to the territorial Senate where he served until 1970 when he was elected lieutenant governor with Governor John A. Burns. In 1973, Burns fell ill with cancer and Ariyoshi served as acting governor. Following Burns' death, he was officially elected to the position the following year, with Nelson Doi elected as his lieutenant governor. During his second and third terms, Jean Sadako King and John Waihee served as Ariyoshi's lieutenant governors. During his political career, Ariyoshi guided the state through its first post-statehood economic recession and wrestled with the challenge of land development and population growth and the effect on Hawai'i's limited natural resources. He revised the state's welfare laws that previously allowed newcomers to receive government aid shortly after their arrival. In 1984, Ariyoshi also negotiated an eleventh-hour agreement that prevented a statewide walkout of public workers. According to Ariyoshi, his responsibilities as governor were shaped by his Japanese heritage:
As the first governor of Japanese ancestry, I felt a special obligation, and sometimes a special burden. From my background, I think you can see how the concept of haji came in. In Japanese terms, it was my job to avoid failure, to not bring shame on the family or on our heritage.
I had to do well not only for my own sake, but for the sake of many others.
After term limits prevented Ariyoshi from running for governor in 1986, Ariyoshi held a variety of corporate and nonprofit positions such as the East-West Center's board of governors, Queen's (Medical Center) International Corporation, Bishop Museum, and the Japan-America Institute of Management Sciences. He also served on the board of directors of the Pacific Islands Development Council (PIDC) and Pacific International Center for High Technology Research, was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, and was president of the Pacific Basin Development Council (PBDC). Ariyoshi was also the president and founding member of the Center for International Commercial Dispute Resolution, a member of the Japan-Hawaii Economic Council and honorary co-chair of the Japanese American National Museum. He also served on the advisory board of the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. The father of three children, Lynn, Donn, and Todd, he holds the distinction of having never lost an election.
Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura, University of Hawai'i
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---. With Obligation to All. Honolulu: Ariyoshi Foundation: Distributed by University of Hawai'i Press, 1997.
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"George Ariyoshi: A Personal History-Part I: The Formative Years." East West Photo Journal1:1 (May 1980): 26-29.
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1. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.
2. Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii's World War II Nisei Soldiers (Honolulu: Tendai Educational Foundation: Distributed by University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 306.
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