Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Fujio Matsuda belonged to the World War II cohort that journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” I don’t know if Matsuda, a veteran and the nation’s first Asian American college president, was ever comfortable with that moniker. But, in reflecting on his 95 years on this earth, it’s hard to argue against such praise.
Dr. Matsuda — “Fuj,” as I knew him, and “Fudge” to many others (same pronunciation, though) — left his beloved Hawai‘i nei on Aug. 23 with Amy, the love of his life since high school, and their six children, by his side.
To be honest, I personally knew Fuj for only about 11 years. However, I had known of him my entire adult life. He was a proven leader: director of Hawai‘i’s Department of Transportation, appointed by Gov. John A. Burns, and president of the University of Hawai‘i from 1974 to 1984 (some of the years I was a student at Mänoa). To date, he is the only person of color and the only keiki o ka ‘äina (child of the land) to have led Hawai‘i’s multiethnic state university system. After retiring from UH, he was tapped to lead the Japan-America Institute for Management Science and the Research Corporation of the University of Hawai‘i, among other institutions.
Fuj brought his life experiences to those positions, especially as UH president. The William S. Richardson School of Law was built during his tenure — its graduates included John Waihe‘e III, the state’s first native Hawaiian governor. The Mänoa campus also grew to include the Institute for Astronomy, the Art Building, the Korean Studies Center, the Marine Science Building, the UH athletic complex and Duke Kahanamoku swimming pool, among other additions. These weren’t just buildings — they represented educational opportunities for young people who had grown up just like him — as the children of hardworking immigrants who had wanted nothing more than to give their children a better life in their adopted homeland.
When he was in a position to affect change that would expand opportunities for those with the ability, but not the means, Fuj did not waste a minute of time. He is credited with developing the university’s first systemwide strategic plan.
Dr. Joyce Tsunoda, retired chancellor of UH’s 10-campus community college system, recalled the opportunity Fuj gave her in the 1970s. At the time, women in leadership positions at the university were a rarity, and Asian women even more of an anomaly.
“Out of the clear blue sky, he plucked me out of Leeward Community College, where I had been teaching chemistry and serving as the coordinator of community services,” recalled Tsunoda.
“He assigned me to serve as the provost of Kapi‘olani Community College, which was then next to McKinley High School. I remember him telling me, ‘Your job is to move the campus of this community college to the site at the former Fort Ruger at the foot of Diamond Head.’”
It was “a great challenge,” Tsunoda said, but also “a rewarding career opportunity.” “I will forever be grateful to Fudge,” she wrote in an email.
I met Fuj for the first time at a meeting at the 100th Battalion clubhouse. He strode into the lounge, his posture perfectly erect, a benefit of having practiced Urasenke tea ceremony for many years. With a warm smile on his face he extended his hand to me. “Hi, I’m Fuj,” he said. I learned later that he and Amy were avid Hawai‘i Herald readers.
The purpose of the meeting was to get going on the third volume of “Japanese Eyes, American Heart,” which came to be titled “Learning to Live in Hawai‘i.” Four members of the Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board would be working on this volume: Fuj; the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, former bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii; Drusilla Tanaka, who keeps our board’s wheels turning smoothly; and myself. Fuj was in his mid-80s at the time, a bit younger than “Yoshi” Fujitani (as he liked to be called), whom Fuj always addressed as “Sempai” respectfully, implying “leader” (but commonly used to mean “senior” or “mentor”). They were both enthusiastic about the project and had lots of good ideas.
As the meeting came to a close, we decided to schedule our next meeting. Fuj reached into his shirt pocket and took out his PalmPilot to check his schedule. I, on the other hand, took out my spiral-bound paper planner.
He amazed me. We were a generation apart, but he was the one who was comfortable with technology. Yes, he was an engineer by training. But, he was also very aware of how humankind was harming our fragile planet. At one meeting, he said he was looking forward to giving up his gasoline-fueled car for a hybrid, which he and Amy bought a short time later.
Fuj was one of the most forward-thinking Nisei I have ever met. As we continued to flesh out the book’s content, he expressed his hope that our book would leave as small a carbon footprint on our earth as possible. That book, published in 2013, was 100% made-in-Hawai‘i, from content to printer.
You can tell a lot about a person by their feelings for animals, especially their own pets. While chitchatting after a meeting, we somehow got on to the subject of pets. He said that when he and Amy were researching the senior retirement community they eventually moved into, one of the first questions he asked was whether their dog could come with them. If Koa couldn’t come with them, forget moving there, he said, sternly.
That, and the man I came to know, said so much about his character and heart. He was highly accomplished, but never acted high makamaka — he was always humble.
It was probably his upbringing that made him comfortable among anyone and everyone, be it top government or foreign officials; or singing with his fellow Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin choir members; or shooting the breeze with 442nd veterans at his neighborhood McDonald’s; or talking to a group of high-school students.
He was an engineer by training who grew to become an effective leader. At his core, however, Fujio Matsuda was a humanitarian. He was the sum total of his upbringing.
In his Volume 3 essay titled, “Things My Mother Taught Me,” Fuj wrote: “In their lifetimes, I never heard a single complaint about poverty and hardship from my parents or sisters, only words of hope and encouragement that hard work will change things for the better.”
He admitted in that essay he had lived the “privileged life of an only son.” “. . . [B]ut my sisters never resented it and, in fact, helped my mother spoil me,” he added. The four siblings remained close throughout their lives.
Growing up in working-class Kaka‘ako in the 1920s and ’30s and attending Pohukaina School with children of all skin colors taught him to see human worth in everyone from an early age. They all spoke the same language: Pidgin.
“We loved Pidgin, while ‘proper English’ was an affectation for classroom use. English was a foreign language that we acquired painstakingly, word by word, following strict rules,” he wrote.
Although his home life was largely Japanese because of his parents’ immigrant background, school was where he developed his love for Hawai‘i.
“We learned Hawaiian songs and lore,” he wrote. “I still remember some of the Hawaiian songs I learned from Mrs. Sea, who was our homeroom teacher and the school’s Hawaiian music specialist. The songs were old, of course, and are hardly heard anymore — ‘‘Imi Au Ia ‘Oe’ and ‘Mai Poina ‘Oe Ia‘au.’ Beautiful songs of old Hawai‘i. I have only a garbled memory of the words — I never knew what they meant. The beautiful melodies I do remember, though.”
He remembered attending the memorial service at Kawaiaha‘o Church for Gladys ‘Ainoa Brandt, who spearheaded the development of UH’s Hawaiian Studies Center (now expanded to become the Hawai‘inuiäkea School of Hawaiian Knowledge).
“All of the songs sung that day were in Hawaiian,” he wrote. “Some were familiar to me. But when the congregation sang ‘Mai Poina ‘Oe Ia‘au,’ it sounded so beautiful in a way that only Hawaiians can sing that song. I surprised myself when I found myself singing along; most of the words came back to me from my days in Mrs. Sea’s class.”
In July of 2012, Fuj and several of his contemporaries gathered in the Prince Kühio Federal Building office of his McKinley High School classmate and fellow 442nd veteran, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, for a discussion on “Nisei Values.” Most of the discussants were World War II veterans: Matsuda; Inouye; and Military Intelligence Service veterans Gov. George Ariyoshi, Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani and retired labor arbitrator Ted Tsukiyama, who had also served in the 442nd. They were joined by Sen. Inouye’s wife, Irene Hirano Inouye, president of the U.S.-Japan Council; Bishop Ryokan Ara of Tendai Mission of Hawaii; and then-Consul General of Japan Yoshihiko Kamo. A transcript of that Zadankai “talk story” conversation was included in “JEAH: Learning to Live in Hawai‘i.”
The “Japanese Eyes . . .” series, published by Tendai Educational Center, grew out of Bishop Ara’s deep interest in the World War II AJA soldiers and their unwavering loyalty to America. The first volume, “Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers,” was published in 1998. The second, “JEAH: Voices from the Home Front in World War II Hawaii,” was published in 2012, and the third, “JEAH: Learning to Live in Hawai‘i,” examined the character values that guided the Nisei generation throughout their lives. Volume 4 on the Military Intelligence Service is in the works.
During the Zadankai, Matsuda described his upbringing in Kaka‘ako as “very Japanese” in terms of language and the values he lived. Character values, such as avoiding situations that would bring about haji — not shaming your family or your race — were the bedrock of his family life from childhood.
“In those days, when you read the newspaper, talking about crime and whatnot, you seldom, if ever, saw a Japanese name. And when they saw a Japanese name reported in the paper as having committed a crime, the whole community felt shame. It wasn’t: ‘Oh, that’s somebody else . . .’ It was a Japanese! My parents used to tell me, ‘Don’t you dare bring shame on your family.’”
He said “Japanese values” are actually universal values practiced by all ethnicities and races, but in different languages — values such as gratitude, perseverance, respect for elders and others. Interracial marriage and the birth of a new generation of mixed-race children, like most of his own grandchildren, meant the concept of “Japanese values” were bound to become diluted over time.
“. . . I think the important thing is that some of these Japanese values are important as human values, not as Hawai‘i Japanese, or Mainland Japanese, but purely on the basis of one person to the next,” said Fuj.
Another lesson his parents taught him at an early age is that no one is “a self-made man.” “
. . . [N]o one, unless he lived on a desert island alone, did everything by himself. There’s a whole generation, and generations of culture and civilization, that came before us,” he said.
“[F]or example, all of us went to public school. If it weren’t for public school, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Especially the GI Bill made such a big difference to us and what we ended up doing. That’s partly because of the service we each performed. But on the other hand, if the country didn’t educate the veterans to become useful citizens, the postwar boom wouldn’t have happened,” said Matsuda, who himself took advantage of the GI Bill to pursue engineering studies at UH and Rose Polytechnic Institute in Indiana and then to earn his doctorate from prestigious MIT — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In his 2016 commentary for the Herald on the state of Hawai‘i politics, UH journalism professor Gerald Kato shared with Matsuda some of Kato’s interview for an oral history about Dan Inouye. Fuj talked about the role Inouye and their generation had played in building the postwar “New Hawai‘i.”
Matsuda suggested that “rather than losing faith in democracy and each other, now is the time for Hawai‘i’s new generation to experience a renewal of the spirit and idealism that guided the postwar generation.”
He told Kato that as UH president, he tried to contribute in “a very small way,” as Inouye had. Fuj said he was concerned that “. . . the modern generation, and not just the young people, the whole society, seems to be ‘me first,’ ‘take care of yourself,’ and now it’s becoming ‘me only, the heck with you guys; I’m just going to take care of myself.’” That kind of thinking, he said, has led to society becoming more stratified, “where the rich is very rich and getting richer, and the poor is getting, not necessarily getting poorer; they’re not getting anywhere . . .”
He told Kato that society needed more people like Inouye, “who really believe in democratic principles.”
“What is the purpose of government?” he asked. “What is the purpose of democracy? It’s not to arrange it so that the 1% of the people will end up with 90 percent of the wealth. It’s to take care of everybody . . . and everybody is not going to get a free ride . . . everybody has to work hard, but the opportunity to participate and to contribute and to get the reward, that’s the system that we want.”
As America gears up for the election of a lifetime this November, I hope Fujio Matsuda’s prophetic thoughts will resonate with all of us. Aloha ‘oe,
Fuj . . . until we meet again . . .
Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer.