Nikkei of the Year: Continuing the Japanese American legacy in Congress

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A PATRIOT — Sen. Daniel Inouye speaks at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, Nov. 2, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Kyodo News photo
A PATRIOT — Sen. Daniel Inouye speaks at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, Nov. 2, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Kyodo News photo

The death of Hawai‘i political icon Daniel K. Inouye marks the passing of an era. There are no longer any sitting Japanese American members of Congress who worked on the landmark Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which won redress and reparations for persons of Japanese descent deprived of civil liberties during World War II.

The Dec. 17, 2012 passing of the nine-term U.S. senator, 88, also leaves a vast void in Hawai’i’s political scene.

If Inouye has his way, however, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will succeed him. Inouye made the request, his “last wish,” in a letter to Hawai‘i Gov. Neil Abercrombie that was delivered just hours before the Nikkei’s death.

While Hawai‘i’s Democratic Party scrambles to move forward in a post-Inouye era, his accomplishments, which paved the way for fellow Asian American politicians for decades to come, are in part evidenced by the historic gains Asian Americans made on Election Day in 2012.

Nationwide, these Congressional lawmakers include: Mark Takano, who will be the first LGBT Asian American to serve, and Grace Meng, the first Chinese American woman to serve New York. War hero Tammy Duckworth will represent Illinois, and Ami Bera will represent Sacramento. Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard will replace Hirono’s House seat.

Inouye’s significance is evidenced by the eulogies from current and former United States leaders, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton.

The distinguished combat veteran, a member of the esteemed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, has been heralded for his bravery on the field, and bipartisan leadership on Capitol Hill. Inouye was the second-longest-serving U.S. senator in history, behind the late Sen. Robert Byrd. Inouye was third in line to the presidency.

After Hawai‘i achieved statehood in 1959, Inouye served as its first congressman. He ran for the Senate in 1962, gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and chaired the special committee investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. He also served as a member of the Senate Watergate committee.

Inouye was among a number of Nikkei politicians who played a key role in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which resulted in redress for the Nikkei who were incarcerated during World War II. More than two decades later, Inouye would represent his fellow veterans of the 442nd RCT, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service, at the Nov. 2, 2011 Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“Seventy years ago we were enemy aliens, but today, this great nation honors us in this special ceremony,” Inouye said at the ceremony, expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

Inouye’s stature as a Nisei military icon helped to heal one of the most controversial issues within the Japanese American community, at a 2002 National Japanese American Citizens League Nisei “resisters of conscience” recognition and reconciliation ceremony, held in San Francisco’s Japantown.

“Sen. Inouye courageously videotaped a message at the request of our planning committee,” Andy Noguchi, the author of the controversial JACL resolution that led to the public ceremony, which he co-chaired, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “(He) recognized the Nisei draft resisters for their stand and wondered aloud whether he would have volunteered for the army had his family been locked up in American concentration camps.”

Noguchi recalled the hush among the audience, listening to Inouye. “With his talk, Sen. Inouye brought veterans, resisters and their families, religious, and community members together as perhaps no one else could.”

The highest-ranking elected Asian American official to serve in the United States, Inouye’s passing leaves a great deal of uncertainty for the political landscape of both Hawai‘i and Asian America. However, if the 2012 elections are any indication of the future of Asian American politics, the impact of political leadership is sure to continue.

Rep. Mazie Hirono made history on Nov. 6, 2012, becoming the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, representing Hawai‘i’s Second Congressional District. The Fukushima, Japan-born Democrat is the first immigrant woman of Asian ancestry to be sworn into Congressional office, and became the first Buddhist in the U.S. House of Representatives when she was elected to Congress in 2006.

Also breaking new ground is U.S. Rep.-elect Mark Takano, a Southern California Democrat who will be the first openly gay person of color to serve in Congress. The Rialto High School teacher in Rialto, Calif., is a Riverside Community College District board trustee. His win follows two unsuccessful bids for Congress in the early 1990s.

Hanabusa, a Yonsei whose grandparents were incarcerated in World War II concentration camps, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. Prior to that, she spent more than a decade in the Hawai‘i state Senate. In 2007, Hanabusa, a Democrat, became president of the Senate, and was the first woman to lead either house in the state legislature.

Hanabusa follows a legacy of women lawmakers in Hawai‘i that includes late Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, who battled racism and sexism in order to become the first Asian American woman and the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress, where she served from 1965 to 1977 and from 1990 to 2002. June 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the landmark Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, or the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, which opened up participation in high school and college athletics to women and girls.

Rep. Mike Honda has represented the 15th Congressional District in San Jose since being elected in 2000. The vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, Honda is a member of the powerful House Appropriations and Budget Committee. He is also chair emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, co-chair of the Democratic Caucus’ New Media Working Group and House Democratic senior whip. A former teacher, he rose through the ranks up to a state assemblymember before joining Congress. Never one to avoid controversy, while in the state Assembly Honda authored a resolution which called on Japan to apologize and give redress to victims of Japanese military atrocities during World War II. As a member of Congress, he also authored a resolution calling on Japan to formally apologize for the use of so-called Korean “comfort women” during the war.

Rep. Doris Matsui was elected to the Sacramento seat long held by her late husband, Robert T. Matsui, in March of 2005 following his death two months earlier. During Clinton’s first term, she served as one of eight members of the President’s transition board, and later served for six years as deputy assistant to the President in the White House Office of Public Liaison.

As the Japanese American community reflects upon the 25th anniversary of the landmark Civil Liberties Act of 1988 this year— a major historical milestone that provided redress and reparations, as well as an educational fund to teach the country about the Nikkei experience — we honor the predecessors of these trailblazing Japanese American politicians.

Their role in the Japanese American Redress Movement were invaluable, and necessary. Many of them — U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga of Hawai‘i, Rep. Bob Matsui of Sacramento, and now Inouye — have passed. Of the Nikkei politicians in office at the time, only former U.S. Reps. Norman Mineta of San Jose and Patricia Saiki of Hawai‘i remain. Without their collective efforts, however, the community’s ultimate vindication for their wartime incarceration may have never become a reality.

While most of them may be gone, their legacy of service continues.

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