Sen. Daniel Inouye and Nina Fallenbaum share a light moment on the last day of her fellowship in his Washington, D.C. office.


He was a shrewd politician with a soft spot for poor families. He supported big military and veteran’s healthcare. Raised Christian, he flirted with Judaism, going so far as to help a Torah recovered from the Holocaust make its way to Hawaii. He worked and lived with one arm and cared fiercely for Native Hawaiian and Native American issues. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who passed away last month at the fortuitous age of 88, was a testament to the power of diverse leadership.

Though Inouye’s official biography lists “World War II veteran” and “Watergate hearing,” those of us who worked with him (I joined his office thanks to a JACL graduate fellowship in 2008) saw plainly how many other passions he had. Many of them were informed by his upbringing. In his autobiography, “Journey to Washington,” he describes growing up poor in multicultural Honolulu: not on the sun-drenched beaches of tourist brochures, but the actual neighborhoods where immigrants and locals eke out a living. His mother was an orphan, his father forced to leave Japan for economic reasons.

Every leader is shaped by his or her upbringing, and the Senator was no different, voting often to fund public schools, low-income housing and public transportation. If I can venture to speculate, his experiences shaped his vision of democracy as dependent on equal opportunity. Sometimes, this just means reliable bus service.

I didn’t fully understand the difficulty of his job until I visited the Senate floor one day and saw how he stuck out, the only stooped Asian man among almost unanimously white colleagues. Yet he made friends wherever he went and tried to share his “aloha spirit”: passing out macadamia nuts and crude jokes, touching anecdotes and when needed, stony silence. He worked with former Klansmen and Socialists, and lived to see the first president to do the shaka.

As I watched from the peanut gallery that day, his steps were confident if slow as he walked to place is his vote (that day, for Filipino veterans’ benefits).

I didn’t agree with him on all topics, but that wasn’t the point. I learned from Sen. Inouye not to worry if your interests and allegiances fail to fall into neat boxes (or if you just feel like investing in your son’s punk band, as he did in the 1980s). His votes were unified on one thing: where he came from, and his loyalty to that place (geographic, economic, spiritual).

We need many different types of leaders in his wake, because each will bring their unique experiences and loyalties to the job. They will help correct our collective blind spots, and maintain our faith in this crazy idea called America. Senator, thanks for helping me see that, and thanks for your service.


A published author on food, agriculture and Asian American issues, Nina Fallenbaum is currently food and agriculture editor for Hyphen magazine, a print and online magazine profiling the arts and politics of Asian America. She is also a food and community fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. She sits on the boards of Tule Lake Committee and Japanese American Women Alumnae of UC Berkeley. Visit her blog at


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *