In 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert visited American Fork resident Mary Kawakami to give her a proclamation stating that she was the oldest active voter in the state of Utah.
He leaned over her chair to show the 104-year-old woman the certificate. “Look what I’ve got for you,” he said.
“What is it?” Kawakami asked, looking up at him. “A million dollars?” Kawakami flashed a big smile and began laughing.
“I read somewhere that the person who laughs the most lives the longest,” Kawakami said in a recent interview. She turned 107 last December, and almost certainly secured her spot among Utah’s oldest voters when she returned her mail-in ballot last week for the upcoming Utah GOP gubernatorial primary.
Kawakami was born to Japanese immigrants in Colorado in 1912, 40 years before Japanese immigrants could become citizens of the United States. She took a special interest in politics because her father, who was not allowed to vote, would research candidates and give her tips on whom to vote for.
“She didn’t listen,” Kawakami’s granddaughter Aimee Stewart said. “She wanted her vote her own way.”
In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Act was passed, allowing Japanese immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Kawakami began teaching a class to help her father and other immigrants prepare for the U.S. Civics test so that they could become citizens.
She was working as a hairdresser in Helper, Utah, when she met her husband, Charles, who worked as a coal miner. Kawakami’s skills as a hairdresser led her to open a salon in American Fork, and later the Mary Kawakami School of Beauty in Provo.
Kawakami experienced prejudice as a Japanese American living in the U.S. during World War II.
“People mistreated us because we looked different, but we are Americans too,” Kawakami said. She found strength in being with other Asian American people. “It didn’t matter that much because the people we knew, our real, true friends, [looked just like us].”
She said her interest in politics continues because she wants to keep up with current events in America, and set an example of political activism for her family. She hopes her four children, five grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren will see similar value in voting.
“I like [a candidate] who is a fighter, who is going to fight for America,” Kawakami said. The American Fork Arts Institute has sponsored the Mary Kawakami Scholarship Speech Contest in her honor since 2003.
She lives in her own home with assistance from caretakers, and enjoys spending time with her family. COVID-19 has made having company over more difficult, but her family schedules socially distant visits and keeps in touch with her over the phone.
Kawakami said that she loves America and thinks, “we should treat everyone in America like Americans, because they are Americans.”