12/21/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

What Sen. Inouye's Death Means for Japanese-Americans

Sen. Daniel Inouye did not start out as a friend to Japan. In fact, Inouye fought against the Japanese in WWII, enlisting in the U.S. army after Pearl Harbor.

My own grandfather also served in the American army in WWII, though he was not placed in the 442nd with Inouye and the other Japanese Americans who had been separated from other units because of their heritage.

Instead Thomas Takishi Ibata, who volunteered for service in 1940, had a birth certificate classifying him as "white." In Nebraska at the time, the only other box on the form was "black."

After Pearl Harbor, my grandfather's commissioning officer in the 13th Army Air Corp (a precursor to the Air Force) did not want to lose a good engineer -- so in a classic "don't ask, don't tell," he deployed as planned and was stationed throughout the war in the South Pacific Fiji Islands.

But my grandfather's younger brother Utah Ibata fought with Inouye the 442nd and was in the battle for the Lost Battalion.

Sen. Inouye, who will be laid to rest Friday, was an inspiration to generations of Japanese Americans. Unlike other ethnic groups, Japanese Americans were left scarred by the wartime Internment. After Pearl Harbor, Americans by birth, Japanese American by ethnicity, most who did not even speak Japanese, were taken by the U.S. military and put in prison camps in places like Montana and Nevada.

A few war-torn Japanese American families, like my grandmother's (maiden name Agnes Kazuko Morioka), were accused of allegiance to Japan. While my grandmother was interned in Tule Lake, Calif., one of her older brothers had the misfortune of being in Japan on the day of Pearl Harbor. A medical student, he was forcibly conscripted into the Japanese navy and later died in Southeast Asia.

Her father, my great-grandfather, was accused of espionage and sent to an interrogation camp in Texas. (I obtained his prisoner file under the Freedom of Information Act, but it was 90 percent redacted). He was never charged with a crime.

While the family was in the internment camps, their house, near Marysville, Calif., was literally torn from its foundation and everything in it was taken away.

After being released at the end of the war, first generation Japanese (issei) discouraged their children (nisei) and grandchildren (sansei) from looking, acting or speaking Japanese. Japanese Americans in the U.S. increasingly shut out their Japanese ethnicity, and today have only weak connections with their heritage.

Sen. Inouye took a path less traveled and became a national leader for our community.

He was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in WWII, Medal of Honor recipient and an advocate for Native American rights. He rose from being the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress to be its senior member.

The Senator also held great importance to U.S.-Japan relations. Throughout his career, Inouye worked to bring the former enemies together, and was revered on both sides of the ocean.

Inouye wasted no time as Hawaii's first congressman -- after the territory became a state in 1959. He was instrumental in the 1960 establishment of the publicly funded East-West Center in Hawaii -- a major center for policy relevant work on U.S.-Asia relations and economic development. Inouye has been credited for saving the East-West Center from the budget axe in recent years.

After moving to the Senate in 1962, Inouye lead early efforts in 1968 to establish the first bilateral parliamentary exchange program with Japan. The nonpartisan program offers Japanese politicians opportunities to experience American democracy up close and in person, with their counterparts in the U.S. Congress. U.S. Congressional delegations do the same in Japan.

In 2011, the Japanese government presented him with prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, the first awarded to a foreigner of Japanese descent, citing his contributions to improve the goodwill and understanding between Japan and the U.S. Prior recipients include General Douglas MacArthur and Senator Mike Mansfield.

He was a tireless supporter of his wife Irene Hirano-Inouye's own initiatives, including her work in creating the U.S.-Japan Council in 2009. USJC is the first Japanese American volunteer organization to aim to develop future generations of leaders who are committed to fostering relations between the two countries. The USJC established the TOMODACHI Initiative, inspired by the joint U.S.-Japan military Operation Tomodachi disaster relief efforts after the March 11, 2011 Japan earthquake.

In November 2011, just after he turned 87, his home state of Hawaii hosted the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). Not a mere ceremonial figure as member of the host committee, Inouye was able to ensure adequate federal support, to the tune of $7 million dollars.

I hope that his passing doesn't represent the end of an era. Hopefully, the organizations he helped build will continue and not be subject to budget cuts.

The last time I met Sen. Inouye was in Seattle in October 2012 on my son's birthday. Though the senator had endured a long day of meetings, he took time to chat with my son, a fifth generation Japanese American or gosei. They discussed my son's interest in studying American law.

Sen. Inouye holds a special place in the hearts of those of us working to support the U.S.-Japan partnership. His story reminds us of our shared history and how far we have come.

It is fitting that the senator's last word was "aloha."