The Worst Neighbor on the Block: Genshiro Kawamoto
The eccentric billionaire ends his dramatic reign over Kahala Avenue.
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One of the 27 Kahala Avenue properties that Kawamoto sold to Alexander & Baldwin.
Photos: Jonathan Morse
"You never know who the angels are going to be until they appear,” says Kahala Avenue homeowner Richard Turbin, who feels as if benevolent spirits have delivered his neighborhood from the blight-filled reign of Genshiro Kawamoto, eccentric Japanese real-estate tycoon and Kahala’s Worst Neighbor Ever.
For Turbin and other homeowners along this celebrated avenue—one of Honolulu’s most prestigious residential streets—the angels appeared in the form of local real estate firm Alexander & Baldwin and the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office.
The prosecutors hobbled Kawamoto last March when they locked him in jail for a month and brought him up on charges of tax evasion. They also had Kawamoto’s passport revoked, ensuring he won’t be back in Honolulu anytime soon. Alexander & Baldwin made a deal with Kawamoto, out on bail, to buy most of his Hawaii holdings. Altogether that was 31 properties, including 27 along Kahala Avenue—or 16 percent of all the parcels along the 1.8-mile street.
“He’s done his damage, and it will probably take five or 10 years for all of his properties to get sold to responsible owners,” says Turbin, who celebrated Kawamoto’s buy-out by popping open a bottle of champagne with his neighbors and buying stock in Alexander & Baldwin. “It’s finally over.”
Kawamoto hasn’t pulled out of Kahala entirely. He held onto three adjoining lots on the makai side of the street, where he has knocked down walls and mansions to make space for his sprawling collection of statuary. (The gaudy statues and miniature pagodas on some of Kawamoto’s other properties were the first things Alexander & Baldwin removed upon buying the properties.) Still, Kawamoto’s grip on the neighborhood has been broken. The big question remains: What was that all about?
Kawamoto wasn’t simply a bad neighbor. He was a bad neighbor on a colossal scale. He bought up every property along the beautiful street he could get his hands on—sometimes paying well more than market rate—and then he let most of them go to ruin. Some he let go through simple neglect. Others he helped on their way with sledgehammers and heavy equipment. He knocked down walls and left piles of rubble and twisted rebar. He filled swimming pools with big rocks, and let lawns die, weeds grow and thickets of brush go wild.
Some houses, he razed entirely, including a dozen perfectly good beachfront mansions. The derelict properties attracted vandals, who broke windows and left graffiti. Squatters set up camp on some of the lots, making pallet fires and hanging their laundry out to dry. Rats grew in number and boldness. Feral chickens crowed at dawn.
In a move that caught the attention of the world’s press, Kawamoto selected three large homeless or nearly homeless Hawaiian families and put them in houses rent free in 2007. He called the project his Kahala Avenue Mission.
Some theorize that Kawamoto was trying to drive down real estate prices so that he could snap up even more property. But if that were indeed the case, it didn’t work out very well. Kawamoto paid around $170 million for the properties that he sold to Alexander & Baldwin for $98 million.
Turbin believes Kawamoto relished tweaking his neighbors and showing off his power, both to the people of Hawaii and his countrymen. Turbin notes that thousands of visitors from Japan pass by Kawamoto’s Kahala Avenue properties every year. Every visitor attending the Sony Open, staying at the Kahala Hotel or running in the Honolulu Marathon (16,000 entrants from Japan in 2012) would see Kawamoto’s properties.
“Kahala Avenue is an important place for the Japanese from Japan, as well as local people,” says Turbin. “And I think he’s telling his countrymen in Japan, ‘Look at me—Kawamoto. I am so powerful, I can wreck this avenue that means a lot to you.’”