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Sunday, Dec. 29, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

A practical politician with his eyes fixed firmly on the stars


SPARKY: Warrior, Peacemaker, Poet, Patriot. A Portrait of Senator Spark M. Matsunaga, by Richard Halloran. Honolulu: Matsunaga Charitable Foundation, 2002, 259 pp., paper ($16.95)

At a reception for a visiting Japanese prime minister held at the White House in 1981, Alexander Haig, recently confirmed as secretary of state, greeted Hawaii Sen. Sparky Matsunaga in the receiving line. Thinking that Matsunaga was a member of the Japanese delegation, Haig asked if he spoke English. Sparky replied, "Yes, Mr. Secretary, I do -- and I had the honor of voting for your confirmation the other day."

The anecdote is classic Matsunaga. It shows his confidence, his quiet sense of humor, his understated presence and his ability to put himself at the center of Washington politics. Those traits are on display on virtually every page of "Sparky: Warrior, Peacemaker, Poet, Patriot," a biography by Richard Halloran, veteran Asia hand who served as a correspondent for the New York Times (among others) and who now contributes to The Japan Times.

Matsunaga's life is an engrossing tale. To tell it properly, Halloran must be a biographer, historian, political analyst and sociologist. Fortunately, he delivers on all counts.

Masayuki Matsunaga was born Oct. 8, 1916, on the island of Kauai to Kingoro and Chiyono Matsunaga, two of the more than 68,000 Japanese immigrants who fled poverty in their homeland. He was nicknamed Sparky because he was so slow; Sparkplug was the name of an old nag in a popular comic strip of the time. After World War II Matsunaga changed his name legally to Spark Masayuki Matsunaga, figuring it would be easier to recognize when he commenced his political career.

Winning a local contest to sell newspaper subscriptions allowed him to attend the University of Hawaii. There he met the Rev. Takie Okumura, who ran a dormitory. Okumura, who Sparky credited with being the biggest influence on his life after his family, taught him to "always think and act from the point of the view of the American people as long as you live under the protection of America." Those were important sentiments for a nisei -- especially when war broke out between his ancestral land and his home.

Matsunaga joined the 100th Infantry Battalion, part of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team (the most decorated unit in U.S. fighting history), and had reached the rank of first lieutenant by the time he was wounded crossing a minefield. After being discharged, he returned home, married and ended up at Harvard Law School. He returned home with a degree and the burning desire to enter politics.

He joined the 1954 race for the territorial legislature (Hawaii was not yet a state), and won a seat in the "Democratic Revolution" of that year, in which Democrats claimed 22 of 30 states in the House of Representatives and nine of 15 Senate seats. Spark's career was set. He moved to the U.S. House in 1962 and joined the Senate in 1976, where he stayed until his death on April 15, 1990. The only electoral setback in his entire political career occurred in 1959, when he lost an election for lieutenant governor.

Matsunaga measured that career by accomplishments, not column inches. "Where some members of Congress, especially senators, are show horses, Sparky was a work horse. Where some strive incessantly for recognition, Sparky thrived on being the faithful lieutenant who saw that the daily work of Congress got done." The most important part of that work was seeing that his constituents were happy. Matsunaga was famous for taking visitors to the congressional dining rooms; Halloran notes he consistently ran up the biggest tabs among all members.

Matsunaga was, writes Halloran, "a skilled, practical politician at the same time he was a dreamer, a visionary with his eyes literally and figuratively fixed on the stars. He mastered the intricacies of tax law and played a critical role in replacing military conscription with a volunteer force. He also persuaded Americans that we needed a poet laureate and should join hands with the Russians to explore space. . . . He relished the parliamentary machinations of procedure and debate on the floor of the House and Senate and was an acknowledged master of it."

His legacy includes helping to found the United States Institute of Peace; winning a pardon for Iva Toguri, better known as Tokyo Rose, who had been unjustly accused of treason after World War II; leading the effort to repeal the McCarran Act, which allowed the government to detain U.S. citizens without trial on suspicion of loyalty; and, his greatest feat, winning redress for Americans of Japanese ancestry who had been incarcerated during World War II.

Halloran attributes Matsunaga's success to his Japaneseness. While Sparky was "American to the core of his soul, his political tactics were often Japanese as he operated behind the scenes to cultivate support for whatever cause he had taken up." He assiduously courted colleagues to smooth potential wrinkles when passing legislation. In other words, he was a master of nemawashi. He was assisted in this by another very Japanese trait, and one that put him at odds with many of his colleagues: He disliked personal confrontation and to that end maintained the traditional distinction between honne and tatemae.

Sparky Matsunaga was very much a product of his times and his culture. The U.S. could use more of such individuals today. Fortunately, one of Matsunaga's greatest legacies is the mentoring he provided as a member of the first generation of Asian Americans in national politics in the U.S. He raised the bar for all who followed him.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum, CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank. Watermark Publishing can be contacted at tel: +81 (808) 587-7756 or sales@bookshawaii.net, or see the Web site at www.bookshawaii.net


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