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Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012

Republican delegates from Hawaii know they face a tough challenge winning votes

Japanese-American GOP ranks rare


TAMPA, Florida — Like many Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii, Janell Yim loves eating "musubi" rice balls made with Spam and arranging flowers. When she travels, she never forgets to bring back "omiyage" for family and friends.

News photo
Standing out: Japanese-Americans (from left) Beth Fukumoto, Janell Yim and Sharin Burton confer at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 30. KYODO

But when it comes to one of Hawaii's native sons, President Barack Obama, Yim and her fellow island state residents don't necessarily see eye to eye.

"Barack Obama was change for the worse," said Yim, a 50-year-old social worker, as she stood on the floor of the Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Florida, passing out purple leis to fellow conservatives.

In Hawaii, Republicans like Yim are a rare breed. "We're a drop of red in a sea of blue," said Sharin Burton, a 48-year-old Japanese-American neurologist.

Burton made a 14-hour trip to Tampa with Yim as part of a group of 70 Hawaiians intent on unseating Obama in this year's presidential election.

The convention, held every four years, is a political jamboree for Republicans active in local party politics from across the country. This year's gathering saw the Aug. 28 nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the party's choice to face off against Obama in the Nov. 6 election.

The Hawaiians were clearly excited to be part of the process. The delegation decorated their state banner in vibrant tropical flowers and many of them were decked out in Hawaiian shirts, adding a laid-back vibe to a political event that, with its khaki and blue blazers, tends toward the conservative in both attire and political philosophy.

Yim, Burton and other Japanese-Americans in the delegation are unusual not only among Hawaiians but also among Asian-Americans, who overwhelmingly support Obama, according to research conducted by the nonpartisan political organization Asian Pacific Islands and American Vote.

This fact was clearly reflected at the convention, where Asian faces were few and far between.

While the event featured speeches by such prominent African-American and Latino figures as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, there was only one brief appearance by a politician of East Asian descent, Allan Fung, the mayor of a small city in Rhode Island.

Why aren't there more Japanese-American Republicans?

"It's a culture thing . . . in Asian cultures a lot of it has to do with loyalty," said Yim, who believes her Democratic friends, although they share many of her values, don't want to "betray" the party.

Beth Fukumoto, who at 30 is running as a Republican for a seat in Hawaii's state legislature, believes that the gap in party membership is the legacy of postwar racism.

After World War II, Fukumoto explained, some Hawaiian Japanese-Americans tried to join the Republican Party, but "because of the ethnic dynamics in Hawaii, they weren't allowed to, so they joined the Democrat Party."

Despite this history, Japanese-Americans should give the Republican Party a second look, Fukumoto believes. "We need to start reassessing and say, OK, well, the Republican Party has changed. It's different now, and it might fit better with our Japanese-American values than it did in the 1950s."

The party may have changed, but its members are still overwhelmingly white, and Republicans frequently struggle with accusations of racism, including recent allegations that the Romney campaign has been using "coded" political ads to appeal to the prejudices of voters who may be wary of Obama's race.

Given these and other issues, all three women agree that being a Republican, especially in Hawaii, can be difficult. Friends and acquaintances, Burton said, will sometimes ask, "Why bother because you're such a minority?"

The answer, according to Yim, is a simple one: "We all have that inner moral compass, knowing what's right and wrong . . . the platform of the Republican Party fits more my values and beliefs."

Burton, on the other hand, sees herself as part of a cross-generational tradition.

Her grandmother was a very strong Republican. "She was a hard working person, she ran her own business. She owned a restaurant . . . she was a very independent woman, so I think the values actually were what attracted her," Burton said.

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