ATLANTIC CITY — “Tokyo Joe” O’Donoghue is happy to explain. He says he gets more questions about the nickname than about the office he is seeking: Atlantic County sheriff.
He’s had the name since the third grade, when kids chased him home from school. Even his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sheriff Eric Scheffler, says he’s called O’Donoghue “Tokyo Joe” for 40 years.
Now, the name is on signs throughout the county, a somewhat discordant but self-referential epithet that keeps O’Donoghue’s campaign pivoting from matters of law enforcement to Joe himself sharing, over and over, his deep connection to his grandfather, the first Japanese American to become a citizen in Atlantic County.
“I can tell you, it’s the most-asked question,” O’Donoghue, 65, a Republican, said in a recent interview, on his way to campaigning on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, where he will coincidentally meet a man with an Akita named Celtic (the dog, like him, of Japanese origin with an Irish name).
“I say, ‘Don’t you want to know about the sheriff’s office?’”
The comments he gets on the campaign trail are “everything from ‘It’s racist’ to being accused of being a loyalist to Japan and imperialists,” he said. “There’s been some unkind comments. I’ve dealt with that my whole life.”
But mostly people are curious.
And so O’Donoghue, who has had a 41-year career in law enforcement in Atlantic County, including time with the Atlantic City and Hamilton Township police departments and with the sheriff’s office itself, will launch into the story of George Susumu Otachi, who records say died in 1975 at the age of 91 but who Joe believes actually was 101.
“My grandfather came to this country very young,” he said. “He was a man of royalty. He was listed as a servant. He ultimately wound up in New York City looking for his brother.”
The brother had died, Joe says, and his grandfather soon made his way to Atlantic City, where he met the owner of the Central Pier, a Jewish man, and got into the import-export business. He settled in the Inlet section of Atlantic City.
″There were not a lot of Asians in Atlantic City," O’Donoghue said. “They were not allowed to be citizens or own property. During the war he lost everything. They burned his warehouse.”
O’Donoghue’s plastering of the “Tokyo Joe” name on signs (and some masks) all over Atlantic County is an election twist in a state where as recently as 2018, a Korean American candidate, Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey’s 3d District, was the target of mailings that used Asian fonts and sought to exploit his heritage in a negative way.
“I’m proud of my heritage,” O’Donoghue said. “It’s a badge of honor. We place too much emphasis on negativity of cultures. I see heritage as a strength. Take the best and not be offended.”
He admits the local Republican Party tried to talk him out of using it.
Ronald Chen, a former dean of Rutgers Law School and a founder of New Jersey Promise, an advocacy group for Asian Americans in New Jersey, said in an email: “Context is always important in these matters. The ads against Congressman Kim two years ago were clearly designed to highlight demeaning racial stereotypes and encourage antipathy towards him because of his Korean heritage.”
Of O’Donoghue using the “Tokyo Joe" nickname, Chen said: “I don’t see any such stereotyping or demeaning impact. Sometimes a name (or nickname) is just a name.”
Its origins, O’Donoghue said, dates to the third grade, and a teacher with a bias against Japan.
“She was teaching history,” he said, and had lost her father and other relatives at Pearl Harbor. “She was bitter about that. She was talking about Tokyo Joe bombed the country. Tokyo Joe was a war criminal. The kids chased me home from school. I got teased a lot, so it made me more determined.”
Despite the sting of the name’s beginnings, he has embraced the name ever since, using it to connect to people of all heritages while a police officer. The flashbacks he now sometimes has are to what his grandfather went through.
He recalled being surrounded in Atlantic City with a group that was spitting at his grandfather, who was a skilled fighter (but also wrote letters to Helen Keller about Japanese culture and flower arranging). “He told me to run,” O’Donoghue said. “He was the toughest gentle person.”
O’Donoghue, who has 12 children and 26 grandchildren, says that he can trace his Japanese ancestry back thousands of years, and that his family traces to Samurai royalty.
From that perspective, he said, some of his relatives think he’s aiming a bit low trying to be Atlantic County sheriff, a position that oversees about 111 deputies, but not the jail.
He says he believes he would be the first Asian American sheriff in New Jersey, and the first minority sheriff of any kind in Atlantic County.
He would not, however, be the first Atlantic County sheriff with a nickname.
“Mario Floriani,” he said, of the sheriff back in the 1970s, “was nicknamed Mud.”
His opponent, Scheffler, traces his own heritage to the Holocaust, which his father survived. Scheffler has not used any nicknames in the campaign.
He’s known Tokyo Joe since he was a teenager when he worked one summer for O’Donoghue’s landscaping business. They’ve traveled in overlapping law enforcement circles ever since. (O’Donoghue retired four years ago from the court system.)
“I’ve heard that name from him for 40 years,” Scheffler said. “It doesn’t throw me off at all. I’ve had people ask me: ‘What’s that all about? Why is he doing that?’ I try to explain to them. It didn’t pop out of nowhere for me.”
Scheffler, 54, would rather be talking about the work he’s done as sheriff, in which he started a “Hope One” mobile addiction outreach program, placing 1,200 people into treatment across the county.
He’s returned money to the county every year, he said, and is taking a broad view of law enforcement as sheriff, emphasizing social services, training, and changing the culture of police departments.
“I’m not for defunding police,” he said. “What I am for is always taking a critical eye to what we do and improving who we are. That’s why I’m a big advocate for mental health, physical fitness, resiliency training for police officers. New Jersey’s one of the most progressive policing states in the country.”
O’Donoghue, who has been endorsed by multiple law enforcement groups, takes a more traditional approach to the role of sheriff, a boots-on-the-ground supporter of police across the county.
He views himself as a moderate Republican, and with his own powerful immigration story, believes in DACA and a pathway to citizenship. He said the enforcement of immigration laws when someone is arrested needs to be in proportion to the crime.
Meanwhile, out on the Boardwalk the other day, O’Donoghue met up with a supporter, Matt “Lightning” Lyall, a professional MMA fighter who is of Korean descent.
“Nowadays, I don’t think anybody would play the race card," Lyall said. “It’s personal history. I’m proud of that. He has all the right in the world to do it.”