Japanese American History

Japanese American Politicians

With the nation agog with politics and the upcoming elections, we thought it was an opportune time to look at the history of Japanese Americans in the national political arena. With the help of author Mitch Maki, we’ve put together some quick trivia facts. Hopefully, these tidbits of information will inspire you to learn more...

There are three Japanese Americans currently serving in Congress—Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Representative Robert T. Matsui of California, and Representative Mike Honda of California. Both Matsui and Honda were young children interned during World War II (Matsui was sent to Tule Lake. Honda spent his early childhood at Granada/Amache).

Senator Daniel Inouye has led a distinguished political career. After his combat service with the 442nd during World War II in Europe for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, he eventually returned home to Hawaii where he broke into politics in 1954 during the “Democratic revolution” with his election to the Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives. He was elected to the Territorial Senate, and then with Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Japanese American to serve in Congress. He served from August 21, 1959 to January 3, 1963. He was elected to the Senate in 1962 and has represented Hawaii there ever since.

Hawaii has also had several other significant Japanese American politicians come from its shores. Patsy Takemoto Mink served for twelve terms in the House of Representatives, including six consecutive terms. She was the first woman of color to be elected to Congress, and co-authored the law and was a leader in the passage of Title IX to promote educational equity. A little-known fact was that she also holds the distinction of being the only Japanese American to run for president—she ran as a presidential candidate in the Oregon primary of 1972.

Other notable Japanese Americans from Hawaii include George Ariyoshi—the first and only JA to serve as a governor of a state; Patricia Fukuda Saiki—Representative serving from January 3, 1987 to January 3, 1991; and Spark Masayuki Matsunaga—Representative and Senator. Interesting trivia: Senator Matsunaga was assigned the same desk as then Senator John F. Kennedy. Senator Kennedy had carved “JFK” into the desk. Matsunaga followed suit by carving his kanji symbol into the desk.

California has produced some notable politicians of Japanese ancestry as well. In addition to Representatives Matsui and Honda, two others have served in the United States Congress—Samuel I. Hayakawa and Norman Mineta. Norman Mineta served as a Representative from California from January 1975 until his resignation on October 10, 1995. He was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Commerce on July 21, 2000 under the Clinton Administration, becoming the first Japanese American to serve in a Presidential Cabinet. He now serves under the Bush Administration as Secretary of Transportation. As a child, Mineta was sent to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming with his family. He went dressed in his boy scout uniform with his baseball bat and glove. Along with other Japanese American members of Congress, he played a leading role in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

One last piece of trivia—the highest number of Japanese Americans to serve at one time in Congress is five. It’s happened three times: 1979-80 (95th Congress: Matsui, Mineta, Inouye, Matsunaga, Hayakawa), 1987-88 (100th Congress: Matsui, Mineta, Inouye, Matsunaga, Saiki), and 1991-92 (102nd Congress: Matsui, Mineta, Inouye, Mink, Saiki, Matsunaga—When Senator Matsunaga died, Representative Daniel Akaka became Senator. This created a vacancy which Patsy Mink filled. Therefore, Matsunaga and Mink did not serve at the same time).

October 2004

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