The Worst Neighbor on the Block: Genshiro Kawamoto
The eccentric billionaire ends his dramatic reign over Kahala Avenue.
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Kawamoto's tenure along Kahala Avenue was only the latest chapter in his long, strange history of real estate investing in Hawaii. He first appeared on the scene a quarter of a century ago, during the go-go days of the 1980s housing bubble, when Japanese investors on real-estate-buying sprees drove prices in Oahu’s depressed housing market through the roof.
During the last four months of 1987, Kawamoto quietly bought 78 homes and apartments in Honolulu, including many in the Portlock and Hawaii Kai neighborhoods.
Stories were told of Kawamoto cruising Oahu in the back of a limousine, pointing out houses that caught his eye, then dispatching agents to knock on doors and make cash offers. It didn’t matter whether the places were for sale or not. By the end of 1988, he owned more than 170 properties.
He made all the purchases in cash, often above market price with what he called “pocket money.” He was dubbed “a one-man inflation spiral.”
Unlike other Japanese investors at the time, who generally kept low profiles, Kawamoto seemed to relish the spotlight. He called press conferences frequently, and quickly became the most public face of the real estate bubble, which squeezed many local people out of the market entirely. Kawamoto insisted he was no speculator, though. He said he only wanted to help with the housing situation, but he seemed to be more talk than action.
Political backlash ensued, including a very public war of words with then-Mayor Frank Fasi, who had proposed banning foreign buyers from investing in residential real estate. Kawamoto said he wanted to build affordable housing on Oahu, but insisted on first meeting with the mayor to see if he had his support. The mayor insisted that Kawamoto go through the housing department, like any other developer.
The two swapped insults in the news media. Fasi called Kawamoto a “jackass” and said “I think he’s all mouth.” Kawamoto said the mayor acted like a “lunatic.” Everyone looked bad.
By his own accounting, Kawamoto was always an odd duck. In a 1989 interview with The Honolulu Advertiser, he said, through an interpreter, that his parents had six children, and “out of the bunch just one strange child.” Him. Among his early eccentricities, he explained, he used far more towels to dry himself after bathing than anyone else, and he demanded that his mother arrange his food on his plate until it suited his aesthetic sensibilities.
Like Donald Trump, America’s homegrown odd-duck real estate mogul, Kawamoto was the scion of a successful real estate investor. Kawamoto’s father made a fortune buying up tracts of bombed-out Tokyo land after World War II. He also ran a kimono company, which Kawamoto took over at a young age, though he was far more interested in building upon the family’s real estate holdings. He eventually came to own about 60 buildings in Tokyo’s business and entertainment districts, many occupied by nightclubs, hostess bars and pachinko parlors. Kawamoto became known as “landlord of nightspots.” When property values skyrocketed during Japan’s bubble period, Kawamoto, who has never married, became one of the wealthiest men in Japan.
In Hawaii, Kawamoto insisted that he wasn’t a speculator, and tried hard to paint himself as a philanthropist, who wasn’t concerned about making money off his local investments. He said he wanted to help Hawaii by providing affordable housing in a tight housing market. In 1988 he pledged to build 2,000 houses on Oahu to correct “wrong impressions” about Japanese investors. He made some false starts, but he never built any housing here.
There was, for instance, the second phase of housing construction at Kapolei, which the state had picked him to build. But Kawamoto bailed out of the project because, he said, local politicians wouldn’t agree to let him hand out keys to the new homes once they were built. There was also the rental apartment complex he announced that he would build in Kakaako, but he never followed through. And there were the 147 acres he bought in Kihei, where he planned to build 1,050 homes—half of them affordable units. But after disagreements with the county over water, sewer and drainage, that project fell through, too.