Ken Inouye
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When I was first approached about writing a piece for this “Legacy of the Sansei” series, I had mixed emotions. My first thought was: “What can I offer to this discussion?” Looking at other essays on this topic only served to solidify my hesitation. After all, compared to others in the community, I’ve never considered myself to be particularly vocal about my being Asian American or Japanese American. In fact, for most of my time growing up, I kept a low profile in order to survive.

As a result of my father’s work requiring our family to live in the Washington, D.C., area, I went to school on the Mainland and grew up a bullied child, usually one of the only “Orientals” in the school. I dreaded every December 7th as a day I knew I’d be getting beaten up by four or five kids at a time because their parents taught them that Pearl Harbor was “all my fault.” I remember one time trying to explain to the meatheads who were pummeling me that my father was an American and fought in the 442nd, only to be told, “Fighting for Tojo doesn’t count,” and taking a blow to the head so hard I nearly passed out.

However, while my usual modus operandi usually involved keeping a low profile in school, my parents always taught me that you always participate when asked to contribute to a discussion. People wouldn’t bother asking for your opinion if they didn’t think it might add to the conversation.

So, I went about asking myself the question: “What is the Legacy of the Sansei?”

Photo of Ken Inouye
Ken Inouye: “School gave me the degrees that helped me become employable, but my time in music gave me the street smarts that prepared me for the moments school doesn’t cover and the resilience to get back on my feet when things didn’t work out.” (Photo courtesy Ken Inouye)

I revisited my childhood and early adult life and I came to a number of conclusions. My parents always impressed upon me that all of us collectively are our legacy and, in turn, all of us define and redefine who we are as individuals, as well as who we are as a people. Hence, it is incumbent upon us to work to maximize the chances that the next generation will succeed and be able to tell our story to the generations to come. While there are many things that can help advance this agenda, these are the things that I feel are especially important:

Encourage and enable the next generation to find their passion and realize their potential.

Teach the next generation about the generations that came before.


In the Japanese American community, there is a strong tendency to “guide” our children into certain interest areas and certain occupations. I’m sure we all can think of friends and family who have “guided” their children towards a career in law, medicine or some other profession with the requisite stability and proper bragging rights that many parents may desire. You may have done this yourself or had it done to you. I realize that this is all very well meaning. However, in doing this, we risk stifling the sort of spark and passion that will propel our next generation to fulfill their true potential.

When I was growing up, my mother and father always talked a lot about “following your dreams,” “making your passion your life,” “making sure you find meaning in your life” and other similar things. I always assumed that this was what all families did. I just assumed this was typical dinner conversation. However, I came to realize that very few of the families around us spoke in those terms.

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Photo of Ken Inouye (right), daughter Maggie, and Senator Daniel K. Inouye
Ken Inouye (right), pictured with his father, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and daughter Maggie, recalled his last conversation with his father before he passed on Dec. 17, 2012. (Photo courtesy Ken Inouye)


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