By AUDREY FISCHER
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) delivered an Asian-American history lesson during his May 22 keynote address for the Library's 2007 commemoration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It was a saga of "pain, patriotism and insults," according to the man who has represented Hawaii in the U.S. Congress continuously since the islands achieved statehood in 1959.
"Some believe that the Chinese may have been here before the Vikings," said Inouye. However, the senator began the story of Asians in America with the mid-19th century migration of Chinese to work in the fields and mines of the West and to help build the Transcontinental Railroad. "Many died, but no one cared," he said.
According to Inouye, when their contracts were up, many Chinese workers moved to the cities and started businesses. Next came the Japanese, who were initially content to work in the fields but then decided to improve their lot by forming labor unions. "That was the last straw for the plantation owners," said Inouye. "The National Guard was called in" [to handle the striking workers].
By the time the Filipinos came, the plantation owners really decided to crack down on the workers. "In my opinion, it was immoral to deliberately recruit single men, making them easy to exploit," said Inouye.
Then Inouye fast-forwarded to World War II. "It was no secret that America's enemy was the Japanese," he said. Unfortunately, that included American citizens of Japanese ancestry who were considered "enemy aliens." Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. "We in Hawaii had no idea this was happening," said Inouye, speaking of the involuntary imprisonment of Japanese Americans. "There were no trials. They were given 48 hours to leave their homes."
In addition to the forced relocation, Asian Americans were initially denied the privilege of serving their country. "They couldn't put on the uniform of this land, to demonstrate that they were 'good Americans,'" said Inouye. They petitioned the president, who issued an executive order reversing this decision. Many, like Inouye, joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese Americans. He interrupted his premed studies at the University of Hawaii to enlist. Among his fellow soldiers were many whose families were in the internment camps.
"Would I have volunteered if I had been in one of those places?" asked Inouye. "Would I have said, 'My country, good or bad'? They did, in large numbers. They were really heroic."
The 442nd was a highly decorated unit that sustained more than 800 casualties while rescuing hundreds of members of the 1st Battalion of the 36th Infantry (originally the Texas National Guard) from German forces. The unit boasts 22 Medal of Honor recipients, including Inouye, who lost his right arm in battle.
According to Inouye, many Asian Americans welcomed this opportunity to serve, "hoping America would treat us better." There were some victories, such as support for Hawaiian statehood by a few grateful Texans in Congress, including House Speaker Sam Rayburn. But the America to which the soldiers returned was still segregated.
"We were not welcomed with flags," recalled Inouye. "We went through a trying period of suffering." Inouye recalled that miscegenation laws made it illegal for interracial couples to marry. "It's only yesterday that these laws were repealed," said Inouye, speaking figuratively. "If you want to make sure these laws aren't repeated, you'd better register to vote."
The man who has spent nearly 50 years as a lawmaker is pained by the fact that Asian Americans—particularly Japanese Americans—have a low voter registration rate. "If you want to really become an American, get into the act. Vote," he said, "otherwise, we'll have what we have now in Congress. Only 23 of us voted against the war."
Motioning to the Capitol across the street from the Library, Inouye said, "Let them know what you're for."
The Library also commemorated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with a special display honoring notable Asian Americans, a Web page at www.loc.gov/topics/asianpacific/ and a special presentation titled "Asian Pacific Americans: Going for Broke" on the Veterans History Project Web site at www.loc.gov/warstories/.