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Shunichi Kimura, former mayor and judge, dies at 87

Shunichi Kimura, the late Big Island mayor and judge was born March 30, 1930. A previous version of this story had an incorrect date of birth. The Tribune-Herald regrets the error.

Shunichi “Shun” Kimura, the Big Island’s last county chairman, its first mayor and a retired Hilo Circuit judge, died Saturday in California after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 87.

“I’m so sorry that he’s gone,” retired Hawaii Chief Justice Ronald T.Y. Moon said Tuesday. “He was a great judge. He was a great public servant. There’s a saying — and he fits it — that public service is the rent one pays for the space he occupies here on Earth. And Shunichi Kimura paid a lot of rent.”

Kimura was born March 15, 1930, in Mountain View. He was just 3 months old when his father, Magoichi Kimura, a tenant farmer, died. His mother, Tona Kimura, was left to support a family of seven. Kimura graduated from Hilo High School, attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa and served in the Army before receiving a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State College. He then earned a law degree from Hastings College of Law at the University of California in 1961.

He began his law practice as a deputy prosecutor in Honolulu, moved to Hilo in 1962 and immediately immersed himself in politics, becoming the island’s Democratic Party chairman.

In 1964, Kimura unseated incumbent County Chairwoman Helene Hale in a Democratic primary and edged then-Supervisor Elroy Osorio, a Republican, for the chairmanship. In doing so, he became the first American of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii to be elected as a chief executive and, at 34, the youngest county chief executive. He defeated Osorio again in 1966 to stay in office.

In 1968, he defeated former GOP Lt. Gov. James Kealoha in the county’s first mayoral race and was re-elected in 1972 against Wendell Kaehuaea.

“Shun was somebody that I looked up to,” said Andy Levin, a former state legislator who also served as county managing director. “He was a good, old-fashioned liberal. He believed in government; he knew that government could do good things and be good for the community. He, as far as I know, ran a scandal-free administration.”

Levin pointed to Kimura’s late planning director Ray Suefuji as an example.

“He couldn’t own a house because the only way he would buy a piece of property was if his Planning Department hadn’t rezoned it,” Levin recalled. “So it took him forever to find a piece of property that he hadn’t been involved in.

“That’s the kind of people that he attracted to his administration.”

Jay Kimura, executive director of the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council and former county prosecutor, said Shunichi Kimura was known statewide “as an honest and straightforward elected official.”

“He was instrumental in saving HCEOC in the early years by meeting with federal authorities in San Francisco and elsewhere when there was talk about defunding the agency. And he firmly believed in the mission to help those who were less fortunate and vulnerable in the community,” Jay Kimura, who isn’t related to the late mayor, said.

Shunichi Kimura stepped down as mayor in 1974 to become a circuit judge in Hilo. Jay Kimura described him as “an excellent judge.”

“He had a photographic memory of people and names and relationships,” the former prosecutor said. “He was infamous for having nighttime trials. He would let his staff go home and bring in his children to run the tape recordings, and he’d have trial late at night.”

David Kimura, Shunichi Kimura’s son, laughed when told the story.

“That’s true,” he said. “I’ve had to help out at nights and on weekends on more than one occasion.”

Judge Kimura announced his retirement in July 1993, but remained on the bench until October at the behest of the then-chief justice.

“I cajoled and encouraged him to stay on because he was doing a great job. Nobody is indispensable but he was close to it,” Moon said.

Kimura served on the UH Board of Regents before he and his wife, Grace, a Berkeley, Calif., native, moved to the San Francisco area in the late 1990s.

“When we helped move him and my mom up here … we found a bunch of letters and he had been corresponding with Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling,” David Kimura said. “And I thought it was funny because I just assumed it was a guy named Linus Pauling and not the Nobel Prize winner. So I said, ‘Oh Mom, Dad used to write letters to a guy named Linus Pauling. And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s the Linus Pauling.’

“I just remember being blown away that he’d never mentioned that. … I’ll always think of him as a very private, kind of humble person.”

David Kimura also described his dad as a devoted husband and father, and added that his father’s “single-minded focus” in his later years “was looking after my mom as her health started to decline before his did.”

Grace Kimura died Jan. 31, 2016.

Levin remembers Shunichi Kimura as “a mentor and a role model.”

“He was from an era when people trusted government. It was really a different era.”

In addition to his son, Kimura is survived by his daughters, Lynne Kimura, Leslie Kimura and Lisa Kimura.

No services are planned.

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