Daniel Inouye, Japanese American Statesman and Hero


On December 17, 2012, US Senator Daniel Inouye passed away at the age of 88. President Barack Obama issued a statement the same evening, saying, “our country has lost a true American hero.”

As a longtime leader of the Japanese American community and a living link between Japan and the United States, the Hawaiian-born Inouye will be mourned on both sides of the Pacific. His death was a loss to both of our nations.

Big Shoes to Fill

On the day of Inouye’s death, Japan’s former Ambassador to the United States Fujisaki Ichirō spoke at an event I was attending, and I took the opportunity to ask him about the vigor and influence of the Japanese American community today. He answered that many Japanese Americans have intermarried with other Americans of Asian descent and that they form part of a rising Asian American community. But he also wondered aloud whether there was anyone in that community capable of filling the void left by Daniel Inouye’s death. Inouye was a towering presence at a time of rising tension in the Japan-US relationship, when the personal bonds forged in an earlier era were fraying. At this point there is really no one capable of filling his shoes.

I met Senator Inouye in person twice, in September 2011, when I was visiting Washington, DC, and again in October 2012, when he and his wife Irene were in Tokyo for the 2012 Japan Foundation Awards. Although I was unable to talk with him at leisure I did have the opportunity to conduct an hour-long interview with Ms. Inouye, a 2012 Japan Foundation Award recipient. Part of that conversation inevitably dealt with her husband’s heroic wartime service as a member of the US Army’s fabled 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans.

Going for Broke

Few people in Japan are familiar with this aspect of Daniel Inouye’s career, which Bill Hosokawa recounts in detail in his 1969 book Nisei: The Quiet Americans. I think the story is worth summarizing here.

In June 1944, the 442nd was deployed to Italy, where the fighting was intense and casualties were high. Following a series of critical victories, the troops in mid-October joined an offensive in the densely wooded Vosges Mountains in France near the German border.

There it was ordered to rescue the “Lost Battalion,” which had been surrounded by German forces and was under intense attack. After three days of desperate fighting, the operation succeeded in rescuing over 200 of the stranded GIs, but well over 100 members of the 442nd were killed and many more wounded in the process. Still the 442nd was ordered to continue its offensive. Ultimately the unit’s casualties in the European theater came to almost 900 dead and more than 3,000 injured.

Daniel Inouye was one of about 10,000 Hawaiian Nisei who volunteered in 1943, soon after the War Department decided to let Japanese Americans take part in the fighting. Promoted to second lieutenant for his actions in the Vosges Mountains, he was sent back to the Italian front and ordered to lead an assault on a heavily-defended ridge near San Terenzo in Tuscany on April 21, 1945—just days before the German armies in Italy surrendered on April 29. During the assault, Inouye was shot in the stomach as he stood up to throw a hand grenade at one of three German machine gun nests. He ignored the wound and proceeded to take out that emplacement and a second one as well. He was launching an attack on the third machine gun position when an enemy grenade nearly severed his right arm. Even then he continued to lead the assault until he collapsed from a leg wound and was carried from the field. He was the very embodiment of the 442nd’s motto—“Go for broke”—an American English idiom originating in Hawaiian Pidgin.

Senior Statesman

Inouye’s right arm was amputated. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his action, but the loss of his arm forced him to abandon his plans to become a surgeon. He turned instead to the study of law.

When Hawaii became the fiftieth American state in 1959, Inouye became its first full-fledged member of the House of Representatives and the first Japanese American to serve in Congress. In 1962, he was elected to the Senate. He delivered the keynote address at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and became an important force in government over the course of his six-decade career through his leadership on key congressional committees.

In the new US Congress that convened in January this year, there are four Japanese Americans in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. Unfortunately, none of these politicians can compare to Daniel Inouye in stature or influence. The personal bonds so important to Japan-US friendship were built by people like Inouye who understood the meaning of the words “go for broke.” We will need something approaching that determination to keep those bonds strong.

diplomacy United States US-Japan relations Japanese Americans Daniel Inouye Irene Hirano Inouye Nikkei