By Derrick DePledge
Turk Tetsuo Tokita, who earned two Purple Hearts fighting for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II and became a trusted political ally on Kauai to four Democratic governors, died Saturday in Lihue. He was 94.
Shy before the war, Tokita was among the young Japanese-Americans who returned to the islands from the battlefield with the confidence and drive to transform Hawaii politics.
After the Democratic takeover of the Territorial Legislature in 1954 and statehood in 1959, Tokita became a political protege of John Burns, leading the Democrat’s campaigns for governor on Kauai. He would do the same for Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Wai-hee and Ben Cayetano, evolving into the patriarch of Democratic politics on the Garden Island.
“Before the war I was an introvert,” Tokita told author Pamela Varma Brown in 2011. “Because of politics I became an extrovert. My life really changed. I helped with statehood and became involved in all kinds of things.”
Ariyoshi described Tokita as a man who fought for his country and fought to make his state a better place.
“It’s not just political,” Ariyoshi said Sunday. “Turk turned out to be a very dear personal friend of mine.”
Cayetano remembered that Tokita was a reluctant supporter during his first campaign for governor in 1994 but wholeheartedly helped him in 1998. At the time, Tokita grumbled to Richard Borreca, then a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, that the party had deteriorated and that young people had forgotten the party’s roots.
“It must be because we are fat cats,” he said. “It is because we aren’t the have-nots.”
Tokita accurately predicted that the 1998 campaign for governor would be the party’s toughest. Cayetano would edge Linda Lingle, a Republican who went on to win in 2002 and 2006.
“They don’t make them like him anymore,” Cayetano said Sunday.
Tokita was a longtime administrative assistant to the Kauai Board of Supervisors and the Kauai County Council. He also worked as a land-use consultant and on a task force to promote economic opportunity.
Congress recognized the Japanese-Americans who served in the 100th Battalion, the 442nd and the Military Intelligence Service at a ceremony in Washington in 2011, 66 years after the war ended.
Tokita proudly attended.
Brown said it was remarkable that Tokita was not bitter about the delay.
“This is what I looked forward to,” he said, “that we would be honored as patriots.”
He is survived by wife Emi; children Lane, Mari and Ken; and five grandchildren.