How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Sen. Daniel Inouye's legacy in Los Angeles

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Angelenos are honoring late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died Monday at 88, for his role in helping to shape a Southland institution.

Inouye was a founding member of the Japanese American National Museum in L.A.'s Little Tokyo, said Greg Kimura, the museum's chief executive officer. He was active on its board of governors and in the museum's programs for many years. 

"We've been talking about him a lot around the museum," Kimura said on Tuesday. "It's been quite an emotional day."

The museum opened in 1992 after years of planning. It highlights the Japanese American experience in the United States and has a strong focus on education and civil rights. In 2008 Iouye  married Irene Hirano, the museum's  longtime president and CEO. For many years before that, Inouye had been involved hands-on with several of the museum's projects, particularly its National Center for the Preservation of Democracy.

The center is an educational institution that "provides tools for living democratically in a diverse American society," said its website. As with many of the museum's projects, its mission is rooted in the civil rights history of Japanese Americans, who were rounded up en masse and held in internment camps during World War II. Inouye, who served in the U.S. Army during the war, was not among them. But many of his fellow Japanese American soldiers had volunteered for service while their families were detained.

"Nisei veterans gave while their families were incarcerated unjustly behind barbed wire," Kimura said. "(The Senator) was both part of that history, but also working toward the future as well, and always aware of the ever-present danger to democracy when people are judged as a class or a group and not by the content of their character."

Inouye also helped to raise money to subsidize school field trips to the museum for students in Southern California and from as far away as Japan.

Inouye, a Democrat, had been a U.S. senator since 1963 and died as the longest serving member and president pro tempore of the Senate. Born in Hawaii in 1924, he volunteered for the U.S. Army afterthe federal government dropped a Japanese American enlistment ban during the early days of World War II. During a battle in Italy, while attacking German machine gun nests, Inouye lost an arm to a hand grenade attack. He was eventually awarded a Medal of Honor.

When Hawaiians elected him to the House of Representatives in 1959, he became the first Japanese American to serve in Congress.

He died Monday of respiratory complications in Washington, D.C. Inouye's staff in Hilo, Hawaii said his coffin will lie in state Thursday in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., followed by a memorial service Friday at the National Cathedral and burial in Hawaii.

The Japanese American National Museum has posted a statement on its website mourning Inouye's passing.

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