Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Genshiro Kawamoto as social scientist

Who would think that a person described as "an eccentric real estate tycoon" would be responsible for an experiment that brings into play social issues such as race, class, occupation, overthrow, and even--it's not much of a stretch--reparations:
The first Hawaiian family may move into one of Genshiro Kawamoto's million-dollar homes on Kahala Avenue as early as January and pay only $150 to $200 a month in rent, the Japanese billionaire said.

Kawamoto yesterday announced that he's moving ahead with a plan he floated last month to provide affordable housing in O'ahu's priciest neighborhood.

The 74-year-old eccentric real estate tycoon, who has baffled observers with past Hawaii investments and charitable visions, said he aims to have nine homes occupied by April, preferably by needy Hawaiians.
This will be interesting to watch, of course. The experiment has only just begun. How it will develop is anybody's guess.

Aside from the concern over Kawamoto's history--that he may fail to maintain these properties as he has failed to maintain others he has owned in the past--is the boldness of what he has done.

While discussion in print and on the web has often drifted to "racial" issues, there are other viewpoints possible. One is that in truth, Kahala is built on land originally belonging to the native peoples of this island. Before the mansions appeared, I believe breadfruit and taro (?) were cultivated there. I visited the UH library map section several years ago and found farmland there and perhaps graveyards (hard to spot on the maps they have). It would have taken more research than I had time for then to learn details of Kahala's history.

Now that some descendants of the original people have been injected into the community in an unexpected and unpredicted way, it will be interesting to see if current residents welcome back the children of their original hosts. Will they be at least civil, if not welcoming, to their new neighbors? Or will they attempt to re-establish their sovereignty over their "territory?" Did they feel "safe" and now feel "threatened?" How exactly do they feel?

The families who have accepted Kawamoto's invitation can be thought of as pioneers in a sense, re-entering a land that used to be theirs. No doubt they might have accepted a similar offer had Kawamoto proposed housing in another neighborhood, but here they are in Kahala. I'm sure they know that they have moved into a potentially hostile environment.

The new tenants face discrimination in many ways. Kawamoto began the discrimination even as he welcomed them to his properties, since they cannot have pools or fences like their neighbors have. Why can't they have pools? Maybe there are good reasons, but it's clear that they are not like their neighbors who are allowed to have pools. And so they are discriminated against from the very beginning.

Discrimination at least on a class basis is part and parcel of whatever is happening in Kahala. Would the rich residents feel the same about people who the South calls "white trash" moving into their neighborhood? Do they only welcome those like themselves who have bought into their enclave? Will class differences be disguised as racial issues? How will the racism that certainly exists manifest itself?

I'm interested in knowing if Kahala's newest residents are able to borrow tools from their neighbors. Have they been invited over for dinner, do neighborhood kids offer to mow their lawns? Indeed, what is the quality of their neighbors' interaction with them so far?

Let's see not only how it goes, but how the discussion goes. Let's see how the newspapers and TV frame the issues. Let's see whether they move beyond focusing on Kawamoto himself to analyzing how Hawaii reacts to this experiment in social justice.


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