Kobayashi, Bert


Name Bert Kobayashi
Born July 8 1916
Died October 6 2005
Birth Location Hawai'i
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Bert Takaaki Kobayashi, Sr. (1916–2005), a lawyer, was attorney general of Hawai'i during the 1960s, and subsequently served as justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Born in Hawai'i in 1916, Kobayashi was the eldest son of five children of Zengoro and Kiyo Kobayashi. Zengoro, a native of Toyama prefecture, served as an intelligence officer for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War before migrating to Hawai'i. Once in Honolulu he worked as a chef and ultimately opened a restaurant, the Palace Cafe. The young Bert studied judo, and was awarded a black belt by age 15. He attended McKinley High School in Honolulu, where he was student body president and a Junior ROTC cadet colonel. After graduating in 1935, he received a scholarship from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he joined the varsity swimming and wrestling teams, and offered judo demonstrations. (In 1969 Gettysburg would grant him a Distinguished Alumni award). He graduated in 1938, after just three years at the school. He then returned to Hawai'i, where he worked at Lewers & Cooke, and married Victoria Tsuchiya, a native of the island of Hawai'i. The couple ultimately had four children, including the lawyers Bert Kobayashi, Jr. and Josephine Leilani Chang. They also raised four of Kobayashi's nephews.

In 1940 Kobayashi went on to Harvard Law School. As Kobayashi later described it, his father borrowed 300 dollars to enable him to make the trip. "I arrived in Boston at 2 a.m. and entered Harvard Law School without even enough money to pay the tuition."[1] Through a mix of part-time jobs, family support and student loans, he was able to get through law school, graduating in 1943. During this time, World War II broke out. Even after graduation, Kobayashi was unable to return to Hawai'i because of wartime restrictions, and he remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and family.

After his long absence on the mainland, Kobayashi returned to Hawai'i in late 1945, following the end of the war. After working briefly as a clerk for Attorney General Nils Tavares, in 1946 Kobayashi was hired as a deputy by Honolulu City and County Attorney Jean Gilbert, then served as deputy public prosecutor from 1947 to 1948. In 1948 he entered private practice, and soon built a law firm. Among the partners were Russell Kono, Alfred Laureta and George Ariyoshi. Ariyoshi later recalled said Kobayashi treated other partners as if they were part of his family. "It was almost a father-and-son relationship. He treated others as if they were his own children."[2] In addition to his law firm, in 1952 Kobayashi became an O'ahu district magistrate, in which position he served six years. In 1959 Kobayashi was elected president of the Hawai'i Bar Association.

In 1962, Kobayashi was named attorney general of Hawai'i—the first appointment by newly-elected governor John Burns. While he had been reluctant to enter public service because of the financial sacrifice, especially given his large family, the governor repeatedly insisted that he take the job, telling Kobayashi that he could thereby take care of all of the state’s children. After a month of refusals, Kobayashi reluctantly agreed to take the job.

Within the Burns administration Kobayashi became known for his talents as a mediator and negotiator in labor disputes, and intervened to settle a series of dock strikes that threatened to cripple the state's economy. He was also a powerful champion of antitrust law, and filed suit against oil companies. Kobayashi succeeded in breaking up the state's interlocking directorates. George Ariyoshi later recalled, "The big companies had interlocking boards, and a few companies had a lot of control over Hawaii's economy....Breaking them up was something that speeded up the increased opportunity for fairness and opportunity."[3] He was so effective an official that the governor called Kobayashi his administration's "strong right arm."

In a 1964 interview with The Honolulu Advertiser, Kobayashi explained that he considered the law to be a living force:

You've got to temper the technicalities of the law with humanity, or what might be called the human equation. When I interview perspective deputies, I tell them that everyone on my staff has to be honest and considerate. Enthusiasm must be tempered with humility, and of course, a man must have brains.[4]

Such was his prestige within the governor's cabinet that before the 1966 election Burns asked Kobayashi to join his re-election campaign as the candidate for lieutenant governor, replacing William S. Richardson, who had been appointed chief justice of the State Supreme Court. Kobayashi declined the offer. (He declined a similar offer four years later, thereby paving the way the way for George Ariyoshi's election as lieutenant governor, and later as the first Japanese American governor of Hawai'i.)

In 1969, Kobayashi resigned his position. After seven years as attorney general he was worn out and ill. In response, Governor Burns appointed Kobayashi to the Hawaii State Supreme Court. In a mark of respect, his nomination was confirmed in the state Senate with a standing vote. Even after he went on the bench, Kobayashi continued to serve without compensation as a mediator in labor disputes. In 1972, following a 72-hour waterfront strike, Kobayashi joined with federal mediator Robert T. Castrey at the request of Governor Burns to settle the dispute. In 1975, at the urging of Governor George Ariyoshi, Kobayashi joined again with Castrey to resolve a longshore dispute that threatened to paralyze waterfront operations.

On December 29, 1978, after serving for almost ten years, Kobayashi retired from the Hawaii State Supreme court. At the time of his retirement, he told associates, "I do not intend to vegetate in a meaningless way." Following his retirement, Kobayashi returned to private practice, but continued to work as a mediator. Kobayashi died in 2005 at age 89.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Borreca, Richard. "Isle Lawyer Lauded for Skill as Negotiator." Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Oct. 11, 2005.

Kobayashi, Bert. Oral History Interview by Dan Boylan, June 18, 1980. John A. Burns Oral History Project, Phase II. Hawaiian Collection, Hamilton Library, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. 38 pages.

Kodani, Roy M. "Bert T. Kobayashi, Sr.: Achievement and Humility." The Hawaii Herald, Sept. 7, 2001, A-7.

Ohira, Rod. "Bert Kobayashi, Former State High Court Judge." Honolulu Advertiser, Oct. 11, 2005.

Footnotes

  1. Rod Ohira, "Bert Kobayashi, Former State High Court Judge," Honolulu Advertiser, Oct. 11, 2005, accessed on Sept. 19, 2016 at http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2005/Oct/10/ln/FP510100333.html.
  2. Richard Borreca, "Isle Lawyer Lauded for Skill as Negotiator," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Oct. 11, 2005, accessed on Sept 19, 2016 at http://archives.starbulletin.com/2005/10/11/news/story03.html.
  3. Borreca, "Isle Lawyer."
  4. Ohira, "Bert Kobayashi."