Board Spotlight Series: Paul Yonamine

Meet Paul Yonamine, Executive Chairman, Central Pacific Bank and Chair, USJC Board of Directors.

How did you first become involved with USJC and what does USJC mean to you? 

Eleven years ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who, along with other prominent Japanese Americans, founded USJC. He said that since he started working on Capitol Hill, he perceived attitudes toward Japanese people changing. For instance, people no longer used the “J-word,” and he was very proud about that. 

I grew up in Japan, and when I moved to the United States for college, I was pretty intimidated. It was a very Caucasian, multi-ethnic environment and I just wasn’t comfortable. I carried that feeling for quite some time after I started working in the United States, so I really related to what the Senator said. It wasn’t just about no longer hearing a derogatory term, but it was also about seeing more Japanese and Japanese Americans in the highest levels of business and government. When he asked me to join USJC as a board member, it was a no-brainer.

What makes you passionate about contributing to the U.S.-Japan relationship? 

I’m Japanese American – a U.S. citizen born and raised in Japan to Hawaiian parents. My Okinawan grandfather moved to Maui for a better life. He got a job as a sugar cane farmer, which allowed him to support his family, including seven children. My father was a baseball Hall of Famer, who moved to Japan to join the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants as the first American ball player after the war and enjoyed a good lifestyle. With their stories in mind, I feel gratitude toward both my ethnic country as well as my patriotic country. That’s why being a part of the U.S.-Japan Council, where the mission is to further the most important bilateral relationship in the world, makes all the sense in the world to me. In my career, I’ve worked bridging Japanese and American organizations in both the private and public sectors for the past 42 years. I hope my children will also value and contribute to the U.S.-Japan relationship.

What areas would you like to see USJC focus on for future programming and other activities?

If there’s one thing I want to achieve during my chairmanship of the U.S.-Japan Council, it is to accelerate the development of the next generation of Japanese American leaders. We need leaders who understand the uniqueness of our heritage and culture and who can be great representatives, not just in the United States but also globally. We have some excellent young Japanese American talent and we can help them become the next Senator Inouye or the next Senator Matsunaga. We need that representation in the highest levels of government and business.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? 

In the late 90’s, I moved to Japan with my family to set up a new company, KPMG Consulting. Japan is known for having wonderful customer service, but it’s probably the hardest place to be a service provider, because everyone demands perfection! At the time, I didn’t have a full command of business Japanese, and yet I had to move to Tokyo, start a business from zero, sell our services and take care of my family, including three little children. It was tough, but I had to try my best. Ultimately, we built a successful thousand-person consulting firm. I still recall the first time that we turned a profit for a month, and I rewarded myself by going to see a movie. I was proud on a personal level, but on a larger scale, through this consulting firm we introduced many U.S. best practices into Japan, and in a very small way, I think added to fostering a better relationship between the two countries.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

A lot of people ask me that, and they think I’m weird because I actually enjoy work! I like to develop the next level of leaders, I like to make things better, and I like to make things grow. I feel the same way about my involvement with the U.S.-Japan Council. The Council is my passion, but it’s also my hobby. Despite the challenges, there are a lot of rewarding opportunities, and that’s where I like to spend my time. 

I play golf, but it’s the most frustrating game, and I don’t call that a hobby at all – I do it because of work. On the other hand, I would definitely call the U.S.-Japan Council and even aspects of my job my real hobbies.

Any Final Words? 

I really want to thank all of the USJC board members. They spend a lot of their time and energy. They solicit funding and give their own contributions. They care about the Council’s staff and morale. And they don’t get compensated. I greatly appreciate the leaders who volunteer their time and effort to make the U.S.-Japan Council a stronger organization.

This is a new series in which we recognize USJC Board Members, who provide generous contributions, support and guidance to the Council. We hope the USJC community will get to know them better on a professional and personal level!