Masaji Marumoto was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Hawaii and a former director of Ewa Plantation Company.
That didn't keep the all-white Pacific Club from rejecting his application for membership. Then-Gov. John A. Burns declined his own honorary membership in protest, but Marumoto said that he did not consider the club's decision "a personal affront."
His life and career, after all, had been built on overcoming limitations through merit and persistence.
Marumoto, the son of Japanese immigrants, was born in Honolulu in 1906 and raised in Kona. While in the sixth grade, he asked his father to be sent back to Honolulu so he could get a better education.
After four years at Territorial Normal School, Marumoto attended McKinley High School, the only public high school in Hawai'i. He graduated at the top of the school's legendary class of 1924, which included future U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong and businessman Chinn Ho.
Born with a club foot, Marumoto nonetheless excelled in tennis and played for the varsity team at his next stop, the University of Chicago. Marumoto completed his undergraduate work in just three years, then earned a law degree from Harvard University.
Marumoto was working in private practice in Honolulu when World War II broke out. He helped form the Emergency Service Committee, which encouraged nisei to enter the military as a way of demonstrating loyalty to the U.S. He enlisted in 1943 and served 33 months with the military governments in Okinawa and Korea.
Back in Hawai'i, Marumoto's career took off with a series of social milestones. In 1954, he succeeded Samuel P. King as president of the Bar Association of Hawaii. The next year, he was elected to the board of directors of Ewa Plantation Co., the first Asian-American to assume such a position.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Marumoto, a longtime Republican, to serve as an associate justice on the territorial Supreme Court; the nomination was unanimously approved.
In a letter to his friend Herbert Cornuelle, Marumoto explained that he applied for the Pacific Club at the urging of other members, who wanted to see if the club had outgrown its exclusionary traditions. He did not consider himself a "crusader."
The last paragraph of his letter is telling: "Particularly in matters involving personal attitudes, the solution, I think, lies not in forcing the issue on any abstract notion of right or wrong but in developing further understanding and respect by more frequent exposure to each other."
First Among Nisei: The Life and Writings of Masaji Marumoto (266 pp.), by Dennis M. Ogawa, professor of American Studies, University of Hawaii.
- Advertiser staff. Book tells life story of nisei trailblazer Honolulu Advertiser, July 22, 2007.
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