He was one of six children of Kingoro and Chiyoro Fukushima Matsunaga, both of whom had emigrated from Japan.
He and his five siblings grew up amid extreme poverty, yet their parents planted in them the belief that hard work would help them to achieve the American dream.
In fact, Matsunaga held many jobs while still in high school. He also worked his way through the University of Hawaii, graduating with honors in 1941.
Putting aside his plans to go on to law school, he joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant. On December 7 of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.
Matsunaga, as well as many other young Japanese American men, were keen to fight for their country and prove their loyalty.
Ultimately, they began petitioning the U.S. government to allow them to serve in the armed forces. It wasn’t until January of 1943 that the War Department announced it would accept fifteen hundred Japanese American volunteers for a new unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Matsunaga joined up and fought for the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy, where he was wounded twice.
The now-legendary 442nd went on to become the most decorated unit in U.S. military history; Matsunaga himself returned home as a captain with many medals and commendations.
When the war ended, Matsunaga enrolled in Harvard University and earned his law degree in 1951.
He then headed back to Hawaii, where he worked as a prosecutor in Honolulu until 1954 and then entered politics as a member and later majority leader in the Territorial House of Representatives.
He was also active in the administrative ranks of the Democratic party, serving as an executive board member of the state organization and a delegate to county and state conventions. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the immensely popular and personable Matsunaga, known as “Sparky” to his friends in recognition of his lively, sunny disposition, was elected to its new senate.
In 1962, Matsunaga made the change from state office to national office when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He would serve seven consecutive terms in that body before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976.
While his impact on legislation was not as great as that of his fellow Democratic senator from Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye, Matsunaga’s devotion to his causes – peace, nuclear arms control, safeguarding the environment, securing redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II – was never in doubt.
Beginning almost from the moment he first arrived in Washington in 1963, for example, Matsunaga lobbied for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace, which he felt would institutionalize at the federal level “our nation’s commitment to the goal of global peace.” While he was not the first to propose such an idea, he was certainly one of its most ardent supporters.
Aside from being an accomplished harmonica player, Matsunaga was an avid poet, piloting legislation that led to the creation of the U.S. Poet Laureate position at the Library of Congress. He died in 1990 at the age of 73. Shortly thereafter, the Institute for Peace at the University of Hawaii at Manoa was renamed the Matsunaga Institute for Peace.
The Veterans Affairs Medical and Regional Office Center, Honolulu was named after Matsunaga.
While many Americans may be remembered and honored for their valor in combat, fewer are remembered for what they have done for peace. Spark M. Matsunaga (1916–90) is remembered for both. A decorated combat veteran of the U.S. Army’s all-Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, Matsunaga was a lifelong peacemaker as well as a soldier.
Matsunaga served the people of Hawaii as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1963 to 1977 and as a U.S. senator from 1977 until his death in 1990. Believing from his youth that peacemaking is as much an art as making war, and that it can be learned, he introduced legislation calling for the establishment of a “national academy of peace.” In 1979, Matsunaga was named chair of the Commission on Proposals for the National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution.
The U.S. Institute Peace Act of 1984 was based upon the commission’s findings and recommendations. After the Institute’s founding in 1984, the senator was a tireless supporter of its work and an invaluable guide, friend, and mentor to the Board of Directors and staff. In the late 1970s he helped establish the National Peace Foundation.
Matsunaga was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. On April 3rd 1990, in a wheelchair, he cast his last Senate vote with a “thumbs up” gesture because he was too weak to speak. He died on April 15th in Toronto Canada where he was receiving treatment for prostate cancer.
Matsunaga lies at rest in section V, site 334B at the National Memorial Cemetery Of The Pacific.
Duane A. Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights.” He also writes a weekly column in The Big Island Reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org