Today, the longest-serving U.S. Senator, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, died at age 88. For about half a century, Inouye broke new ground as a Japanese American in national politics. He also boldly spoke out about the injustices he experienced during World War II. Though he did volunteer with the military, and won distinction for his service, he was conscious of the deep and hypocritical mistreatment of Japanese Americans during the war.
In this video, he talks about the vilification of Japanese Americans, including both immigrants and native-born, as “enemy aliens,” which led to the internment of tens of thousands of civilians in concentration camps under horrific conditions. It was a massive human rights abuse for which the government did not even begin to atone until several decades later. “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal, and part of the enemy,” he said, which steeled his commitment to demonstrate patriotism through military service. Inouye went on to establish himself as a liberal pillar of the Senate during the turbulence of Watergate Era, as well as a representative of the fraught duality of Nisei identity.
We live in a different world today, in which the military, immigrants’ struggles toward “becoming American,” and the ramifications of U.S. foreign policy are interwoven in increasingly complex and politically explosive ways. But while our debates over U.S. militarism deepen, Inouye’s career remains a living embodiment of all those paradoxes: the extraordinary resilience of the Japanese American community, as well as the dangers inherent in the militarization of society, the passion for “American” ideals, and the ugly barbarism and inhumanity that war evokes, no matter how democratic a nation claims to be. And now it’s up to the newest generations of Americans to help bring reality and aspiration closer together.