The National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) offers its condolences and salutes Senator Daniel Ken Inouye, who passed away on December 17. The senior senator from the State of Hawaii served for nearly nine consecutive terms. He was the President Pro Tempore and third in line to the U.S. Presidency, as well as a decorated World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. A lifelong public servant and champion of equality for all people, Senator Inouye leaves a legacy of leadership that befits his stature as the most senior Asian American in the U.S. government.
A second-generation Japanese American, 17-year old Dan Inouye enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He could not at first enlist because Japanese Americans and Nisei like himself were classified as “enemy aliens.” In his words, “The thought that I was an enemy agent not just insulted and angered me, but, like many of my colleagues, young kids, we decided we’d do something about this. We began to petition.” After petitioning President Franklin Roosevelt to let Japanese Americans fight for their country, Inouye joined ‘E’ company of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group that consisted entirely of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Inouye lost his right arm while charging a series of machine guns nested on a German-occupied hill in San Terenzo, Italy on April 21, 1945. A half-century later in June 2000, President Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to Senator Inouye and 21 other Asian American World War II veterans, some posthumously.
Having lost one arm, Inouye gave up his dreams of becoming a surgeon after the war. He went to law school and returned to his native Hawaii, where he worked to achieve statehood for the U.S.’ 50th state. He soon became the first Japanese American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and later became the first Japanese American in the U.S. Senate, blazing a trail for a record number of Asian Americans now serving in Congress. Fourteen total members are set to make up the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in 2013, with five new Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders elected to serve in the 113th United States Congress -the largest caucus of Asian American and Pacific Islander members in any single Congressional session.
As a member of Congress, Senator Inouye was a champion for equality and justice for all people, including ethnic minority groups. Senator Inouye was instrumental in achieving redress and reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, conferring full benefits to Filipino and Filipino American veterans of World War II, and working for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians. He also advocated for Native Americans, preserving tribal sovereignty and development and serving on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as Chairman and Vice Chairman for over a dozen years.
“Senator Inouye is an Asian American pioneer and icon who exemplifies the courage, integrity, and honor to which we should all aspire each day,” said Edward Hwang, Chairman of the Board for NAAAP. “We lost one of our greatest American leaders and heroes, and he leaves behind an immeasurable public service legacy.”
Senator Inouye was the most senior member of the U.S. Senate and with five decades of service, was the second-longest-serving senator in U.S. history. As a bipartisan figure, he served as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and as the first Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In a letter delivered just hours before his death, Senator Inouye, likely thinking of his native state and beloved country, asked Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie to appoint U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him. It was his last wish as a political figure. Hanabusa, who is a fourth-generation Japanese American, once served as a state senate majority leader and was the first woman to preside over a state legislative chamber in the United States.
“There may not have been a greater Asian American leader than Senator Inouye,” added Wilson Yip, President of the NAAAP Honolulu Chapter. “Senator Inouye once addressed my high school class about passionately pursuing one’s dreams and being brave in the face of adversity. His entire life was a shining example of his words and a source of inspiration to us all. Aloha, Dan Inouye. You leave a legacy that may never be equaled.”
At the 2008 NAAAP National Convention in Los Angeles, Senator Inouye accepted a Who’s Who in Asian American Communities award. In his acceptance speech, he said, “The last words my father told me before I left Hawaii to put on the uniform was, ‘Never dishonor the family or the country, and if you must give your life, do so with honor.’”
The NAAAP family joins other leaders in the Asian American community and across the world in mourning the passing and celebrating the life of the Honorable Daniel K. Inouye.