HONOLULU (KHON2) — With the ongoing pandemic, Japanese tourists have been missing out on the blue skies, white puffy clouds and warm sandy beaches. While they can’t travel to Hawaii, one local company is giving them a dreamlike vacation on the streets of Osaka.
Families don’t have to fly to the islands or even leave their vehicles to see the most popular sights.
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“So you could drive around in the safety of your own car, see all these lights and things like the Honolulu Zoo, King Kamehameha statue, Diamond Head, surfers, palm trees… while listening to a broadcast that sounded like a Hawaii radio station being hosted by yours truly,” said Kamasami Kong, a radio disk jockey from Ohio who became a household name in Hawaii in the 1970s and 1980s.
Since Dec. 1, 2021, the Japan Illumination Association has been holding a drive-thru illumination course at the Sakai City Soccer National Training Center. The course titled “Drive-through Sakai Illuminage” is the first and only event of its kind.
“We wanted to bring a piece of Hawaii for the Japanese to enjoy,” said Marina Nishimura, owner of Illuminage Group in Hawaii.
Illuminage is a family-run business. In 2011, in wake of the northern Japan earthquake, Nishimura’s father wanted to give hope and light to the victims.
“My father started his first Illuminage event in Kobe — a city that has recovered from the devastating Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 — and started the Himawari ‘Sunflower’ Project to help the people in northern Japan,” said Nishimura.
She said their Hawaii office has partnered to design and produce past Illuminage events, but this will be the first one with a Hawaii theme.
The colorful course gives people in Japan an opportunity to see all of the key tourist spots. While “visiting” Hawaii, the island mood is set by a prerecorded, custom-made radio program narrated by Kong, along with Eri Sano who provided information in Japanese.
Since it started in December, there are songs like “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Local Boys” by Na Leo to create a Hawaii atmosphere targeted for Christmas time.
“And I know we had ‘Local Boys’ by Na Leo because I produced the first version of that song,” Kong added. “They were the winners of Brown Bags to Stardom back in… I think it was 1984.”
Kong recalls taking Nalani Jenkins, Lehua Kalima and Angela Morales to the studio to record the original version of “Local Boys.”
“And it was so funny because the song starts off singing:
Blue eyes and blonde hair don’t thrill me
‘Cause I’m in love with the local boys
And every time they came over here to perform in Japan at Billboard Live, they would say, ‘We’re sending this song out to the blue eyed, blonde hair boy, Kamasami Kong, up in the bleachers up there. This song is for you, Kong!’ Angela would always say something like that — and it was just kind of ironic,” he said.
PUTTING A STOP IN TRAVEL
Currently living in Tokyo, the 72-year-old radio legend hasn’t been back to the islands even before the COVID pandemic hit. He used to go back every week.
“I would be in Hawaii for 10 days. I’d be able to get together with friends, go visit shows, go to local restaurants, see my dentist, my doctor, my accountant, my attorney, you know, take care of all my business at home,” Kong said. “But then I guess, about five years ago, I just felt like I’ve had enough traveling.”
For 18 years, Kong was traveling from Honolulu to Tokyo, then to Osaka and Taipei, then back to Tokyo and Honolulu. Lather, rinse, repeat.
“And I was doing that like every 10 days in a 747, and I was flying either business or first class all the time, and it was simply because I was such a frequent flyer, so I was always upgraded,” Kong explained. “It was kind of like a resort in the air for me for 18 years doing that.”
When the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020, Kong spent his time recording out of his laundry room.
“It’s because there are so many clothes around, and it deadens the sound. So you don’t get room echo, right? ‘Cause if you go to a normal room, your voice will bounce off the wall,” he said.
It was also the same time when Kong was asked to create a show for MSC Cruises after they got a new ship called the MSC Bellissima, which was scheduled to dock in Yokohama. The plan was for Kong to do a show from the ship and send it back to Tokyo to be broadcast on-air there. During the one-week trip, the ship would leave Yokohama for Osaka, then go to Fukuoka and change course.
“And while I’m on the ship, interview passengers and the skipper, the captain, a couple of the various chefs to talk about the food and bring that stuff and put it on to my regular daily program,” he said.
That project was supposed to begin in March 2020, but then COVID hit.
“So, we’ve been holding our breath, waiting for restrictions to lighten up and for the cruise liners to be able to go back into business, and then maybe we will do that, but that would be really cool,” said Kong. “I think it would be a real treat to be able to broadcast from a giant ship.”
In the meantime, Kong’s voice can still be heard across channels from Love FM in Fukuoka to FM Cocolo in Osaka and on Tokyo FM. He’s moved out of the laundry room and can now walk to the Tokyo station where he does his broadcast mainly in English because they want him to, Kong said, but he’ll do the phone numbers and contest information in Japanese.
“I should be much more fluent than I am, but, you know, everybody speaks English,” said Kong.
Kong works with four other people who get to choose music for various programs — it’s all done by hand, not by a computer. They just think about what sounds good and which songs go together.
“I could never, ever, ever do that at home with the way radio stations are programmed because the playlists are so tight and there’s no wiggle room,” said Kong, “but here, I can play Twice followed by Led Zepplin, followed by the Carpenters and then followed by Utada Hikaru, a Japanese artist.”
PLAYING THE ROBOT GAME
Back home, the changing medium meant no more room for personality — and Kong has a lot of it. This, he said, is the reason why he left.
“They wanted basically robots at that time,” said Kong. “I did that for a while. I played the robot game, and it was boring. It was just so boring not to be able to put any personality or do anything to grab attention because of course they didn’t want you to become popular.”
If you became popular, then you would have some power to ask for more money. You’d have some bargaining power, and they didn’t want any DJs to have that, according to Kong.
“No, no, no. They wanted to keep you under control, and they wanted you to play the music and read the script — and that was it,” he said. “Everything became a formula, which is what remains today, which is why you don’t hear any wild DJs doing crazy things, fun things. They just squeezed the fun out of radio.”
But back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was a “really good time” for Kong after he moved from Oregon to Hawaii in 1976.
GETTING TO HAWAII TO LIVE OUT THE GOOD OL’ DAYS
“I was working at another radio station in Eugene, Oregon, and I hated it there because it was raining all the time,” Kong recalled. “I was looking in Billboard magazine… and I came across one ad that said, How would you like to live and work in the most beautiful place in the world, Honolulu, Hawaii?“
Kong headed straight to the stamp collectors store and bought all kinds of foreign stamps to send his audition tape and resume.
“I just wanted my package to stand out, and it worked,” said Kong.
When the tape arrived on Lan Roberts’ desk at KORL, he wanted Kong to fly out right away.
“I was doing a wild and crazy kind of show, like a Wolfman Jack kind of show, and I changed my name to Kamasami Kong and things just started to take off,” he said.
HOW KAMASAMI KONG GOT HIS NAME
Before Kamasami Kong, there was Bob Zix.
“I was using my real name,” said Kong. “It’s a very unusual name, and the program director said, ‘You’re going to have to stop using that name and starting tomorrow, we’re giving you the new name of Jack Stone.’ I thought, Jack Stone? What a terrible name? I don’t want to be a stone. I don’t want to sink to the bottom of the pool. I don’t want to be in the bottom of the creek or the lake. Jack Stone sounds like a name of a porno star. Definitely don’t want that name.”
Kong was then tasked to come up with his own name. He wanted something like onomatopoeia.
“Like Nick *knocks* Knock! Or Dan — ding! Or Bill — bell! See — saw! And have the sound effect of a saw,” Kong explained. “So I was listening to a sound effect record, and I came across the sound of a gong, and I thought, gong? That’s good! I like the sound of gong.”
The next night, Kong hit the gong and went on to sing, I call myself Gooooong! And in those days, they were taking song requests with six phone lines coming into the studio.
“You push the button, you’d say, ‘Hello, this is KORL. What do you want to hear?’ And usually a young person would come on the phone say, ‘Eh brah? Da kine? You can play that song by Kalapana?'” said Kong.
Then, a little girl called that changed his whole career.
“She said, ‘Eh brah? What’s your name?’ I said, ‘I call myself gong.’ And she said, ‘Ah?’ I said, ‘I call myself gong.’ She said, ‘Kamasami Kong?’ And I thought, oh yes, yes, Kamasami Kong. That’s the name! So it went from, I call myself gong to Kamasami Kong.”
Kong said that changed everything for him. He was now a character he could step into. He could be this wild and crazy guy on the radio, having fun without thinking about anything else.
But when he stepped outside the studio, he was back to being Bob.
“If I would have stuck with my real name, I never would’ve been able to have accomplished the things that I’ve done,” Kong said.
Kong would also do singing requests asking people to perform their talent over the phone.
“As a result, you know, a lot of kids were listening to the program,” he said. “The ratings came out, and I became number one.”
BOB BECOMES KONG AND TAKES OVER HAWAII
Then, Rob Jacobs — a member of the founding 5 who started American Top 40 — wanted in.
“He was listening to my program while he was living over on Maui, and he came back to Honolulu and took over programming at KKUA. And he called me, and he said, ‘I’d like to hire you right away,’ like that,” Kong recalled. “And so I started working at KKUA, and that’s when things really took off.”
Kong kept busy doing the telephone talent show and a TV program called Hawaiian Moving Company. When disco died, he moved on to Breakin’ Hawaii then created another program called Brown Bags to Stardom with his colleagues at KIKI radio.
“It was a really good time back in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” said Kong. “There was no internet, so we were really the center of what was going on in Hawaii.”
On the radio, Kong became Hawaii’s premier DJ with Hawaiian contemporary music, often playing Cecilio & Kapono, Kalapana and Olomana.
“Those were some of the main artists back in the day,” said Kong. “It was too Hawaiian for the other Top 40 stations — the other pop stations — and it was too pop for the Hawaiian stations. So I found this little niche and I thought, you know, these guys sound really good and they’re from here in Hawaii, so why not promote them? And so I did, and they were always the most requested artists on any of my programs.”
Soon, Kong started to receive offers from Japan to do radio programs that he was recording in Hawaii — and things took off again. While he was traveling back and forth between Hawaii and Japan, he stayed at the Ritz Carlton hotel for 10 years.
“They gave me the same suite every time I’d return ’cause I was like their longest customer returning every month for 10 days,” said Kong.
KONG TAKES OFF IN JAPAN THANKS TO BOOTLEG CASSETTES
“[Japan] reached out to me first because what was happening, people would come to Hawaii during Golden Week or, you know, for their Hawaii vacation, and they were recording my program on KKUA on their cassette players,” said Kong, “and then they’d take those cassettes back to Japan and they’d duplicate the cassettes and spread them around.”
CBS/Sony then sent a representative to Hawaii to ask Kong to make a record.
“Huh? I don’t sing, I don’t dance. I don’t play any instruments. What do you mean make a record?” Kong said. “They said, ‘Just do your DJ stuff.'”
The concept was to do generic intros and outros, surf reports, weather forecasts, phoning commercials and phone bits to put into the tracks.
“What they wanted to do was to sell the kids here in Japan who were crazy about Hawaii,” Kong explained. “And back in those days, in the early ’80s, all the young men over here in Japan loved Hawaii. They would put a surfboard on the top of their car, even if they’ve never been to the beach, just to be cool.”
Here’s how it worked: To sell two turntables and a mixer, Sony would put Kong’s talking parts on one turntable, and on the other, people would put their favorite music on it. Then they’d mix it together to make their own mixtape with Kong as the DJ.
“A lot of people did that, and it became a very popular record,” said Kong. “Next thing I knew, one of the most popular artists in Japan asked me to be on his record, and I was on it, and it just took off and it went crazy and it was one of the best-selling albums of all time here in Japan.”
KONG BECOMES KING IN HAWAII AND JAPAN
From there, other radio stations started to ask Kong to record programs for their stations. Kong said there was a time when he would fly to Hawaii, and his manager would pick him up at the Honolulu airport to take him to KHNL TV where there was a recording studio.
Kong was king, earning top ratings on multiple radio and TV programs. But as time went on, corporations began to take over in Hawaii with marching instructions and restricted playlists.
“You couldn’t play your own music anymore,” he said. “You couldn’t pick your own music. It was all being determined by some consultant on the mainland USA.”
In 2005, Kong made his move to Japan — and the robot game wasn’t the only reason why Kong decided to give up the sunny skies.
DOCTOR PRESCRIBES KONG THE SHADOW LIFE
“I’d like to go back to be with my friends, but I had developed melanoma cancer from going out to the beach every day with no sunscreen,” said Kong.
He remembers going out with no sunscreen, no sunglasses, just hitting the waves.
“In fact, you put on some kind of cream that would give you a better tan,” he said. “Unfortunately, I got too many tans or too much sun.”
Kong is happy to say he’s cancer-free after having an operation 10 years ago. But the bad news?
“My doctor said, ‘You have to stay away from the sun. No more beaches, no more surfing.’ I said, ‘What about if I use SPF?’ He says, ‘No, not for you. You should walk in the shadows, on the shadow side of the street, and try not to go out when the sun is up,'” said Kong.
Though he was still visiting Hawaii during this time, Kong couldn’t go to the beach, and even if he did, it wouldn’t be the same.
“So I thought, what fun is that? I mean, one of the most fun things you can do in Hawaii is go to a beach and enjoy some fresh air and sea water,” said Kong.
Then the opportunity came to either continue to go back and forth or sell his home in Hawaii.
“I always loved Tokyo,” he said. “It’s such a fascinating place in so many different ways that I thought, OK, yeah, I could live over here. I’ll miss my friends back home, but then we have Skype.”
Kong talks to his friends often on Skype and Facebook messenger. He didn’t have those growing up.
WHEN KONG WANTED TO BE IN THE BOX
Before social media and TV, there was only radio. Kong remembers his grandma’s radio being the size of a small cabinet, about four feet high.
“So people would gather around the radio and look at the radio and use their imagination to try to create pictures based on what was coming out of the radio,” he said. “I watched how she used to listen to the radio, and I thought, wow, she really likes that. I got to figure out how to get inside of that box. How can I get in the radio?”
From that point on, Kong knew he wanted to be on-air, to be in the box that people listened to. He was so determined that he even built his own radio station at home at either 13 or 14 years old.
“I became a ham radio operator,” said Kong. “You go to take a test and you get a license and you can broadcast on shortwave, and so I learned how to do that. Then I built another station and I put it on the AM dial… and I was recording shows at that time onto a wire recorder and broadcasting from my bedroom.”
Though becoming an engineer did cross his mind, Kong said he become fascinated by the music and showbiz aspect of being on the air.
“Back in those days, you know, FM was almost a secret. Very few people knew about FM,” he explained. “AM was the king, and of course there was no internet… There was nothing on the internet that could provide you with information. So you depended on the radio station and the DJ to tell you about the concerts that are coming, about the movies that are playing, about stores that were having sales, about new things happening in the community.”
Kong said radio was really the centerpiece of the community. If you had a good show on the radio, you could become quite famous.
He remembers his first paying gig at 15 years old, making $1.25 per hour, which was minimum wage back then.
“I mean, if I get a paycheck at the end of the week for like $24, I thought, wow, I got some money now,” he said.
From making $1.25 to becoming the radio legend he is today, Kong shows no signs of slowing down.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR KONG
His next project is to be a DJ on a record album that aims to create a nostalgic atmosphere. With it being released on cassette tapes, it’s a full circle moment for Kong who said his tracks will be placed between J-pop songs from the early and mid ’80s.
“They said that there are some people who think that cassettes still sound better than anything else,” said Kong, “because they just sound so true to the time, to the time period when they were out, and some people are looking for that sound. So I’ll start on that project in March.”
The record — which will also be available on CDs and for downloading — will be released in June, with plans for a series.
Besides making a record album, Kong hinted at some news that will have his Hawaii fans excited, and once travel restrictions are lifted, Kong said he would love to come back home to visit his friends and some of his favorite restaurants “if they still exist.”
3660 On The Rise. Roy’s. Morton’s The Steakhouse. Like Like Drive Inn.
He also misses Leonard’s malasadas and lau lau.
“Oh, red licorice,” he added. “I know it’s not a Hawaiian food, but you can’t get red licorice over here. According to Kenji Sano of Kalapana… he says people in Japan think it tastes like medicine, so they don’t want to eat it.”
Japan has banned nearly all non-resident foreigners from entering the country since the pandemic hit. Most of Japan remains under tight restrictions, but beginning March 1, the country will ease its border controls to allow foreign students, technical trainees and business travelers to enter in limited numbers.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also announced that quarantine requirements for arrivals with a negative COVID test and a booster shot will be shortened to three days from the current seven.
Border measures are scheduled to remain in place until the end of February, though extensions could be added with unpredictable case counts.
Get more coronavirus news: COVID vaccines and boosters
In the meantime, people can still visit the “Drive-through Sakai Illuminage” until March 6.
Nishimura said there’s something exciting happening this summer, but she can’t share it just yet. She’s still working out the details with Kong. Stay tuned!