By Alton Takiyama-Chung
Spark Matsunaga was a member of the 100th Battalion in WWII. He was elected to be a U.S. Senator from Hawaii and spearheaded the Redress Act through the Senate compensating Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the U.S. during WWII.
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- Spark was a warrior and a strong advocate for peace. What did he feel needed to happen for people to want peace?
- Why did Spark feel that poetry saved him after he was wounded in WWII?
- What is nemawashi and how did Spark use it with regards to the Redress Bill?
- What is Redress and why did Spark feel so strongly about it?
- Halloran, Richard, Sparky: Warrior, Peacemaker, Poet, Patriot (2002). Watermark Publishing, Honolulu, HI. 272 pages.
- Asian Americans/Asians
- Living and Traveling Abroad
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hello, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung and this story that follows is a condensed version of a larger story which I call Spark Matsunaga, Warrior Poet. In the story I will portray a friend of Spark Matsunaga.
Folks asked me to say a few words about my friend Spark Masayuki Matsunaga. If Sparky were here right now, he’d be laughing his head off, because he knows I don’t – I don’t like talking in public. I mean he was the, the outgoing, the guy, the outspoken guy. He was the one who believed that everyone should be treated equally. Man and woman should be judged for himself or herself not by the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. He believed that he could do anything he set his mind to. He also got people like me to believe in ourselves too.
I first met Sparky in the 1920s when his family moved to Hanapepe on the island of Kauai. Masayuki. I mean that was his name back then. He was smarter than the rest of us all put together, but he was a slow runner. We used to call him Sparky after the slowpoke horse in the Snuffy Smith Barney Google comic strip.
Sparky was the first in his family to even graduate high school and the first to go to university. In 1941 he got his degree and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. He volunteered for service. Me – pfft, I got drafted! But that’s how Sparky became the executive officer of my company on the island of Molokai.
We were gonna go deer hunting, ya know, that first Sunday in December. And then the radio started squawking saying that we’re under attack by the Japanese. We all looked toward the wall. We could see the smoke rising up over Pearl Harbor about 60 miles away. Huh! After that things got a little crazy.
May 1942, all the Japanese American soldiers we are gathered up and organized into the 100 battalion separate. We eventually got shipped off to go and fight the Germans in Italy. This place called Monte Cassino southeast of Rome.
Now Sparky was moving his troops up this hill when one of his men tripped a mine and slightly wounded Sparky in the neck. He’s waiting to be evacuated off the hill. Another soldier tripped another mine. This time badly wounding Sparky in his right leg; blinding another soldier.
Now the Mediscape Sparky ordered them to take the medic off, the medic to take the blind soldier off the Hill first time they were to come back. The darkness fell so they couldn’t go up the hill. So Sparky spent the whole night by himself with his own thoughts alone on that hill. With the dead.
They evacuated him off the hill next day.
Now Sparky wrote poetry as a kid and he wrote even more when he was recuperating in an Army hospital in Italy.
He said that poetry saved him. He said that his heart was numb, and that poetry made it come alive again. But by capturing the hopelessness and madness of war, poetry also rekindled feelings of hope and sanity. Said it made him feel human again.
Well, after he recuperated, he was promoted to be Captain, was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star.
After the war, he changed his name to Spark Masayuki Matsumoto – Ma, Matsunaga. I mean, he told me with a name of Masayuki I couldn’t even be elected dogcatcher.
Well, it’d be years before I saw Spark again. I got married, we moved to Washington D.C. because of my wife’s job. Hawaii became a state in 1959. And I became a Capital cop.
On a cold January day in 1963 who should I see in the House chamber but my friend Spark. He was elected to the House of Representatives. Huh! Throughout his entire career, the time that he spent in the House of Representatives, as well as in the Senate later on, Spark was always seen as a dreamer or an idealist partially because of his love of poetry. But Spark was also one of those guys who didn’t want to confront issues head on in public. He believed in practicing what the Japanese call Nemawashi or tending the garden. He’d go to his college ask for what he – told them what he wanted and ask for their support. And when he was ready he’d publicly unveil his proposal with the support already lined up. He used this technique to great effect when spearheading the Redress Bill through the United States Senate.
Now after Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 under which 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent. Two thirds of whom were actual American citizens were incarcerated in camps.
In 1982, a national commission concluded that Executive Order 9066 was not justified and that the decision had been shaped by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.
To Sparky, this whole redress issue was – went right to the heart of American democracy. What happened to the Japanese Americans in World War II could happened to any American. To Sparky redress was about setting the historic, political and moral record straight as well as clearing the conscience of a nation.
Sparky’s proposal followed the conclusion of the commission and it said that the United States government should apologize to the surviving Japanese Americans for violation of the civil rights and to what each survivor $20,000.
Sparky eventually lined up 76 of the 100 senators as co-sponsors of the bill a veto proof majority. Normally when you co-sponsor a bill, all you need is another senator or maybe a half a dozen of them at the most. Well President Reagan eventually ended up signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988.
Later that year Sparky was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer eventually spread to his bones. On April 3rd, 1990 Sparky went to the Senate to go and vote on the wrapping of the Clean Air Act. He was already confined to a wheelchair. He could barely speak. He signaled his vote. The thumbs up. That was the last vote Sparky ever made in the U.S. Senate.
On April 15th, 1990, on Easter Sunday, my friend, Spark Masayuki Matsunaga, passed away. He was interned at Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu beneath a simple marble marker that just simply reads:
Spark Masayuki Matsunaga
United States Senator
Oct 8 1916 April 15 1990
Beloved Son of Hawaii
It’s been said that war and peace are the ends of the same rainbow having taste the bitter dregs of war. Sparky was always looking for a sweet and everlasting peace. He showed us the way. Now it is up to us to find that end of the rainbow.