Hawai‘i is mourning the passing of a man who lived aloha all his life, the type of person our society produces too few of these days. I’m writing, of course, about retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Kahikina Akaka, who passed away on April 6 at the age of 93.
We may not fully grasp our loss at this moment. Maybe it will hit home this summer when the gloves come off of our politicians as they elbow their way on to the general election ballot. If ever there was a person who chose to do it another way — a kinder, more civil way — it was Sen. Akaka. And maybe that’s why the loss feels more profound. Sen. Akaka showed us another way . . . the wise, old Hawaiian man way in how he lived his life.
Closer to home . . . I hope the AJA community never forgets that among Sen. Akaka’s many accomplishments is one for which we should always be grateful.
On June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton presented Medals of Honor to 22 Asian American soldiers who had served in World War II in a White House ceremony. Twenty of them were Japanese Americans who had served in the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Mind you, this was 55 years after the end of World War II.
How did the number of World War II AJA Medal of Honor recipients jump, virtually overnight, from one to 21?
It was because of Sen. Akaka.
In the mid-1990s, Sen. Akaka introduced legislation instructing the U.S. Department of Defense to review the citations of all of the Asian American and Pacific Islander soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross in World Wat II, regardless of whether they were still alive, had been killed in action or had passed on in the years after the war. Why did he do this?
Because he believed that justice must be served. He had long suspected that the racial hysteria of World War II had resulted in Sadao Munemori being the only Japanese American awarded the Medal of Honor — and posthumously, at that. How could the 100th/442nd have been recognized as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history and have only one Medal of Honor recipient? How could the units have been awarded over 18,000 individual decorations for valor, including 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and yet have been awarded only one Medal of Honor? To Sen. Akaka, that made no sense at all.
And so he set out to right a wrong, no matter that it was 50 years after the fact. It took nearly five years for the Pentagon to review all of those DSC citations. Some of the men who were eventually awarded the Medal of Honor passed away in the meantime, so the award was presented to a family member on that June day in 2000. As bittersweet as it was for those families, the pride they felt as they accepted the Medal of Honor — our nation’s highest award for valor in action — on behalf of their loved one was unmistakable.
Those veterans were: Barney F. Hajiro, Mikio Hasemoto, Joe Hayashi, Shizuya Hayashi, Daniel K. Inouye, Yeiki Kobashigawa, Robert T. Kuroda, Kaoru Moto, Kiyoshi Muranaga, Masato Nakae, Shinyei Nakamine, William K. Nakamura, Joe M. Nishimoto, and Allan M. Ohata, James K. Okubo, Yukio Okutsu, Frank H. Ono, Kazuo Otani, George T. Sakato and Ted T. Tanouye.
As a result of the senator’s efforts, the Military Intelligence Service was awarded its only Presidential Unit Citation in the year 2000.
But Sen. Akaka’s commitment wasn’t only to the AJA veterans. It was to all of the men and women who served our country in uniform.
Following the 1990 passing of his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga, Sen. Akaka picked up the ball and carried forth with Sen. Matsunaga’s efforts to build a full-service medical center connected to the Tripler Army Medical Center to serve veterans in Hawai‘i and the Pacific region.
There is a Japanese term — actually, it is a character value. Most of you have heard of it: Okagesama de. Basically, it is an expression of gratitude and an acknowledgment of the assistance and support of others that has resulted in something positive in your life.
In 2013, upon Sen. Akaka’s retirement from the Senate, the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans club honored him for his efforts on behalf of the AJA veterans.
The club wanted to present him with a mahalo gift at its 71st anniversary banquet. When told of their plans, Sen. Akaka expressed his desire to instead donate the value of the gift to the 100th Battalion’s Education Center so that the history and the stories of the men who fought for America in the 100th and the other Japanese American units in World War II would continue to be shared with all.
Sen. Akaka was always kind and genuinely humble. He was a good and decent man who, when you saw him or greeted him, made you smile from deep within, no matter what kind of day you were having. In describing former first lady Barbara Bush, who died earlier this week, an interviewee on an NPR radio program called her “the nation’s grandmother.” That’s it, I thought to myself. That’s what I’m feeling about Sen. Akaka: We have lost “Hawai‘i’s grandfather.”
The greatest tribute we can pay to Sen. Akaka is to try to live as he did — always with aloha. Aloha ‘oe, Senator . . . until we meet again.