Spark M. Matsunaga

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Spark M. Matsunaga

Born in Kukuiula, Hawaii, Spark M. Matsunaga (1916-1990) served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate, where he devoted himself to the cause of peace and the task of seeking redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II. He died in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

As one who was well acquainted with the devastating effects of war, Spark M. Matsunaga made peace the focus of his career in the United States Congress. For nearly two decades, he lobbied his colleagues to establish a National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution, which he envisioned as a place young Americans could go to learn how to resolve domestic and international disputes without resorting to violence. He also championed the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace. In addition, Matsunaga was committed to seeking redress for a special group of war victims the tens of thousands of people of Japanese descent who were unjustly held in U.S. prison camps during World War II. On this front, too, he battled long and hard, joining with a number of his colleagues to achieve the justice that had been denied to him and many others on account of their race."

Spark Masayuki Matsunaga was born in Hawaii to Kingoro and Chiyoro Fukushima Matsunaga, both of whom had emigrated from Japan. He and his five siblings grew up amid extreme poverty, yet their parents instilled in them the belief that hard work would bring them success. In fact, Matsunaga held a variety of jobs while still in high school and also worked his way through the University of Hawaii, graduating with honors in 1941. Postponing his plans to go on to law school, he joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant. But fate soon intervened; on December 7 of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.

In the weeks and months following the attack, Japanese Americans even those who were U.S. citizens became targets of prejudice, fear, and hatred by those who questioned their loyalty to America. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for the evacuation of some 120, 000 Japanese Americans (about two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens) from the West Coast to large "relocation centers" in isolated areas of Arizona, Arkansas, inland California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. (A number of smaller camps were also set up in about fourteen other states.) By and large, Japanese Americans living elsewhere in the United States and in Hawaii were not affected by the order. As a member of the military, however, Matsunaga was considered suspect, even though he had given no cause for anyone to doubt his allegiance. So he, too, was shipped off to an internment camp in Wisconsin.

But Matsunaga and many other young Japanese American men desperately wanted the chance to fight for their country and prove their loyalty. Before long, they began petitioning the U.S. government to allow them to serve in the armed forces. Finally, in January of 1943, the War Department announced that it would accept fifteen hundred Japanese American volunteers for a new unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Matsunaga joined up and fought for the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy, where he was wounded twice. The now-legendary 442nd went on to become the most decorated unit in U.S. military history; Matsunaga himself returned home as a captain with many medals and commendations.

After the war, Matsunaga enrolled in Harvard University and earned his law degree in 1951. He then headed back to Hawaii, where he worked as a prosecutor in Honolulu until 1954 and then entered politics as a member and later majority leader in the Territorial House of Representatives. He was also active in the administrative ranks of the Democratic party, serving as an executive board member of the state organization and a delegate to county and state conventions. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the immensely popular and personable Matsunaga known as "Sparky" to his friends in recognition of his lively, sunny disposition was elected to its new senate.

In 1962, Matsunaga made the leap to national office when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He went on to serve seven consecutive terms in that body before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976. While his impact on legislation was not as great as that of his fellow Democratic senator from Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye, Matsunaga's devotion to his causes peace, nuclear arms control, safeguarding the environment, securing redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II was never in doubt. Beginning almost from the moment he first arrived in Washington in 1963, for example, Matsunaga lobbied for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace, which he felt would institutionalize at the federal level "our nation's commitment to the goal of global peace." While he was not the first to propose such an idea, he was certainly one of its most ardent supporters.

As outlined by Matsunaga, one of the major responsibilities of the Department of Peace would be to establish and maintain another cherished dream of his, the National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution. It was envisioned as a place where young Americans could go to master "the art of peace." Explained Matsunaga: "The United States wields all economic, social, cultural, and political power over the world that is unequaled in history. I believe that [the Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution] will enable our nation to bring this power to bear directly on the problems of war and on those related problems that plague the lesser developed countries…. I submit that peace, like war, is an art which must be studied and learned before it can be waged well…."

It was not until 1984, however, that Matsunaga's idea finally met with a measure of success. While he was unable to persuade his colleagues to establish a Department of Peace within the cabinet, he did manage to secure approval for the creation of the U.S. Peace Institute. It awards graduate degrees to those who help resolve disputes in the national and international arena.

Another significant and highly personal achievement of Matsunaga's legislative career involved obtaining redress for those Japanese Americans who were victims of injustice during World War II as a result of the infamous Executive Order 9066. Ostensibly imprisoned for their own "protection, " these men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds had not been accused of any crime, yet they spent as long as three years imprisoned in tar-paper shacks behind barbed wire and guarded by armed military police. Many had been forced to give up everything they owned. But the greatest blow was to their dignity and sense of security; they could not comprehend why their loyalty was being questioned and why the government they respected and admired was so willing to cast aside their constitutional rights.

On August 2, 1979, Matsunaga co-sponsored a bill known as S. 1647 that proposed creating a commission to investigate the wartime relocation of Japanese Americans and determine what, if any, compensation was owed to them for the losses they had suffered both emotionally and economically. "Many unanswered questions remain about the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II …, " noted Matsunaga during Senate hearings on the bill held in early 1980. "Passage of S. 1647 will be just one more piece of evidence ours is a nation great enough to recognize and rectify its mistakes."

S. 1647 sailed through the Senate on May 22, 1980, and, after the House and Senate reached agreement on a final version, it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on July 31. On July 14, 1981, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) began gathering testimony from others with something to say about this dark episode in American history. In all, more than seven hundred people appeared before the CWRIC, which in 1983 published a report of its findings entitled Personal Justice Denied.

In this document, members of the commission condemned the relocation of Japanese Americans, insisting it was done not out of military necessity but as a result of "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." The CWRIC later issued several recommendations for redress, including an apology from Congress and the president acknowledging the injustice done to Japanese Americans and a payment of $20, 000 to each of the estimated sixty thousand survivors of the camps.

On April 19, 1988, a bill known as S. 1009 proposing that the CWRIC's recommendations be adopted finally made it to the floor. Matsunaga, who had shepherded the measure through the Senate with a number of impassioned speeches urging its approval, faced his colleagues yet again, this time to head off attempts by opponents to eliminate cash compensation to former internees. While few legislators had a problem with the idea of apologizing to Japanese Americans, some questioned the fairness of holding present-day taxpayers responsible for wrongs committed decades earlier and raised the prospect that approving such payments would open the door to similar claims from African Americans and other groups.

Addressing his fellow senators, Matsunaga noted that "in the life of every individual, and every nation, there are certain events which have a lasting, lifelong impact and which change the shape of their future…. For Americans of Japanese ancestry who are over the age of forty-five years, the single, most traumatic event, the one which shaped the rest of their lives, is the wholesale relocation and incarceration in American-style concentration camps of some 120, 000 Americans of Japanese ancestry and their parents and grandparents…."

The debate over S. 1009 continued the next day, April 20. Matsunaga again rose to speak in support of the bill and against any attempts to remove provisions that awarded monetary damages to former internees. Shortly before a vote was taken, Matsunaga addressed his colleagues one last time. Newspaper accounts noted that he wept and momentarily faltered as he recalled the suffering of some prisoners, especially an elderly man whose innocent game of catch with his grandson ended in tragedy when their ball landed too close to the camp's fence and a guard shot and killed the man as he went to retrieve it.

"The stigma of disloyalty has haunted Japanese Americans for the past forty-five years, " declared Matsunaga, "and it is one of the principal reasons that they are seeking congressional action to remove that cloud over their heads…. The sponsors of the bill do not pretend that history can be erased, but the measure would provide for the first time an official acknowledgement of the grave injustice which was done, and it would provide token monetary compensation to those who suffered irreparable losses…. Its passage … will prove that our beloved country is great enough to acknowledge and correct its past mistakes."

Later that same day April 20, 1988 the Senate voted 69 to 27 in favor of S. 1009, including the provision awarding a $20, 000 payment to former internees. After President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in August, Matsunaga was hailed for almost single-handedly bringing about its passage.

In addition to his interest in conflict resolution and securing redress for Japanese Americans, Matsunaga supported legislation aimed at safeguarding the environment. He backed efforts to investigate alternative sources of energy, including planes fueled by hydrogen instead of petroleum-based products and commercial ships powered by the wind. His last official act as a U.S. senator was to cast a vote in favor of extending the Clean Air Act.

Matsunaga also harbored a love of space exploration and envisioned a day when international cooperation would lead to a manned flight to the planet Mars. And his interest in poetry (he himself wrote haiku) led him to push for the naming of a national poet laureate, a proposal that gained legislative approval in 1985.

In January of 1990, Matsunaga announced that he was suffering from prostate cancer that had spread to his bones. He began treatments immediately but died three months later while hospitalized in Toronto, Canada. "He will be remembered most for his vision of peace and his faith in the human heart, " noted Hawaii Governor John D. Waihee in a statement issued after news of the popular senator's death was made public. "Sparky warmed our state and country with his humanitarianism."

Further Reading

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians Act: Hearing Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, 96th Congress, Second Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980.

Congressional Record, 100th Congress, 1st Session [and] 2nd Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988.

Daniels, Roger, Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II, Holt, 1972.

Hosokawa, Bill, JACL: In Quest of Justice, Morrow, 1982.

Matsunaga, Spark M., To Establish the United States Academy of Peace, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981.

Matsunaga, Spark M., The Mars Project: Journeys Beyond the Cold War, Hill & Wang, 1986.

National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on International Operations of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 95th Congress, 2nd Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978.

Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.

Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1990, p. A24.

New York Times, April 21, 1988; April 16, 1990, p. D10.

Washington Post, April 16, 1990, p. D6.