United Methodists are remembering Sen. Daniel K. Inouye not just as a World War II hero and a longtime U.S. senator from Hawaii but also as a fellow church member respected for his integrity and commitment to fairness.
“Throughout his life and career, Sen. Inouye was an advocate for the underrepresented and marginalized persons of society who took seriously his United Methodist faith,” the Rev. Mark M. Nakagawa, chair of the National Japanese American United Methodist Caucus, said in a statement.
As an example of that advocacy, Nakagawa pointed to Inouye’s “constant support” of the Susanna Wesley Community Center, a United Methodist mission agency that serves the financially strapped Kalihi neighborhood in Honolulu.
Sen. Inouye, a lifelong member of the Methodist tradition, died Dec. 17 in Washington at the age of 88. The Democrat was Hawaii’s first U.S. congress member after it achieved statehood in 1959 and later its senator upon his election in 1962. He was also the first Japanese American in Congress.
When he died, he was chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. He was also the Senate president pro tempore — the designation for the chamber’s longest-serving senator — and the person third in line to the presidency.
Even with all his power and prestige, Inouye (pronounced in-NO-ay) never lost his common touch or his devotion to his home state.
“He understood the plight of the average working person in a way you would always hope a political leader would do,” said Donald L. Hayashi, president of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. “He always had that kind of compassion. He was never too big for even the littlest person.”
Hayashi was an adolescent in San Jose, Calif., when he first met Inouye, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Later, Hayashi knew the senator through his work with the Japanese American Citizens League and through his work with the national federation.
“He was very proud of being United Methodist,” Hayashi said. Inouye was a member of Harris Memorial United Methodist Church in Honolulu, which will host his memorial service. He has requested to be buried in Hawaii.
Phoenix Area Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata was born and raised in Hawaii. Upon his election as a United Methodist bishop, he received a note of congratulations from the senator.
“Sen. Inouye was a large part of what it meant to be a public servant,” Hoshibata said. “Our lives crossed in several places as I was growing up. I looked to him as a model and a person who demonstrated the highest ideals of what it meant to serve the country as well as to serve the public.”
Inouye’s last word, according to his office, was “Aloha” — a word that is both a greeting and a blessing.
Love for country
Inouye was born in Hawaii to Japanese parents. He bore the name of the biblical prophet and the Methodist pastor who helped raise his orphaned mother.
The Rev. Nobuko Miyake-Stoner, Harris Memorial United Methodist Church’s senior pastor, noted that Inouye’s middle name was Ken, which means bridge builder.
“He was always intentional to build the bridge between the haves and the have nots, and the privileged and under-privileged,” she said. “He really represented what his name stood for.”
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that Inouye’s parents, Hyotaro and Kame, “met at church and always preached family honor and discipline, a blend of Japanese tradition and Methodist sensibility.”
The future senator was a Red Cross volunteer who tended the injured on the day of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. And he immediately wanted to volunteer for the U.S. military, Hayashi said.
“He knew he was American,” Hayashi said. “Even though the country his parents had come from now was the enemy.”
At a time when the U.S. government was forcing thousands of Japanese-American families into relocation camps, Inouye and other second-generation Japanese Americans joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The all Japanese-American unit eventually became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.
Inouye was an exemplar of that valor, according to news reports. In 1945, near of the end of the war in Europe, three machine guns had his platoon pinned down during battle in Italy. Already shot in the stomach, Inouye took out two of the guns with a hand grenade and his submachine gun. Enemy fire nearly severed his right arm. Inouye pried the live grenade loose from his now useless right, threw it with his left and destroyed a bunker. He continued to fight until a gunshot hit his leg and he lost consciousness.
His right arm had to be amputated, and he required two years of recovery. His military decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. In 2000, President Clinton awarded Inouye and 21 other Asian Americans the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honor.
“When one meets some members of Congress, you tend to question their sincerity because their conversation with you seems so artificial. Not Sen. Inouye,” wrote the Rev. Cynthia J. Abrams on Facebook.
She directs the alcohol, other addictions and health-care advocacy program for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. She also worked with Inouye in his capacity as a prominent member and former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“When you met him, he looked you in the eye and there was a sense of true engagement and integrity,” Abrams said. “In a town full of hyperbole, his impact cannot be overstated — there are not many like him, and his death leaves a void. We need more elected leaders like him.”
In his legislative work, Inouye advocated for those who faced discrimination. He championed the rights of Hawaiian natives and other Native Americans. He supported the groundbreaking U.S. Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. He also worked behind the scenes in the 1980s for reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, Hayashi said.
Inouye served on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Nixon’s resignation. He also served on the Senate panel that investigated the Reagan administration’s sale of arms to Iran, whose proceeds funded Nicaraguan rebels.
“I remember when he was on the Watergate panel,” Hayashi said. “He was very clear and firm, but he wanted to make sure that there was fairness in dealing with that. When I talked to him a couple of times in that time period, fairness and justice was very central to the principles that he lived by. I think that is foundational to what it means to be Wesleyan.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a fellow United Methodist, called Inouye a “great mentor,” adding, “He dedicated his life to service, through wartime and peacetime and loved his home state of Hawaii.”
She noted that Inouye had a special connection to Michigan. He spent part of his recovery at a hospital in Battle Creek, where he met fellow wounded veterans and future Senate colleagues Bob Dole and Philip Hart. The building now bears their name as the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center.
Across the aisle, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., also paid tribute to his friend and fellow United Methodist.
“The Senate and our nation has lost an unsung hero who has been heroic in military valor, … a tireless guardian of our national security and champion to the men and women who put their lives at risk to protect the United States,” Roberts said in a statement.
Roberts described Inouye as a “truly humble man.”
“It is not an understatement to say, with regard to leadership, bipartisanship, integrity and achievement, it would serve every member of the Senate to ask, ‘What would Danny Inouye want us to do?’” Roberts said.