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Robert T. Matsui Legacy Project
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Biography of Robert Takeo Matsui (1941-2005)

Robert Takeo Matsui was born in Sacramento, California on September 17, 1941 to Yasuji and Alice (Nagata) Matsui.  The lives of the Matsui family, along with all other Japanese Americans, were dramatically altered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Tension and growing antagonism against Japanese Americans culminated on February 19, 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the removal of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to be from Military Zone 1 into small temporary assembly centers, and then relocated into one of ten large internment camps.  By March 1942, Mr. Matsui was six months old when his immediate and extended family members were sent to Pinedale Assembly Center near Fresno, California.  A few months later, his family was, for a short amount of time, assigned to the internment camp at Tule Lake, located at the California and Oregon border.  After about a year, the immediate family moved to Caldwell, Idaho for work.  They returned to Sacramento around May 1945, when Mr. Matsui was four years old. 

With the end of WW II the Matsui family returned to Sacramento to begin anew. Mr. Matsui and his sister Barbara attended local schools, and he graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School in 1959.  He continued his education at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in Political Science.  It was while studying at Berkeley that two major events would change Mr. Matsui’s life forever.  First, he met Doris Okada, who would eventually become his wife.  Second, he was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to Americans to serve their country.  After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1963, he went on to the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. Mr. Matsui finished law school in 1966 and married Doris Okada; the couple later moved to Sacramento where he started his own law practice. 

Mr. Matsui’s career as a public servant began when he ran and won a seat on the Sacramento City Council in 1971.  He won reelection in 1975 and was elected by fellow council members to be Vice-Mayor in 1977.  The following year, Congressman John E. Moss, a long-time representative of Sacramento announced his retirement and encouraged Mr. Matsui to run for his Congressional seat.  In 1978, Mr. Matsui won the election and became only the second Japanese American from the U.S. mainland and the first Sansei (third generation) to walk the halls of Congress.  Mr. Matsui went on to serve 13 consecutive terms (January 3, 1979-January 1, 2005) as the Congressman from California’s Sacramento region before passing away on New Year’s Day, 2005. 

As a freshman Congressman, Mr. Matsui found himself immediately thrust into the emerging movement for Japanese American redress and reparations.  In 1979, Mr. Matsui, along with senior congressional members Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Senator Spark Matsunaga (D-Hawaii), and U.S. Representative Norman Mineta (D-San Jose, CA), advised the national Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) on the most prudent course of action given the political climate of the times.  On the advice of Senator Inouye and the concurrence of the rest of the legislative delegation, they embarked upon a strategy of creating a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate the World War II incarceration.  In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill that created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC).

On January 3, 1985, Mr. Matsui gave a powerful speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives calling for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans: “What was the experience of those camps? For my parents there was the discouraging loss of business, home, and other possessions.  There are visions of barbed wire fences and sentry dogs, of loss of privacy and lack of adequate sanitation; and memories of the heart-wrenching divisions that occurred as families were separated by physical distance and the emotional distress of the camps.”   

In 1988, Mr. Matsui and others helped shape and shepherd the Japanese American Redress Act (HR 442) through Congress, which offered monetary compensation of $20,000 and a formal governmental apology for the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.  The legislation was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988.  Mr. Matsui also played a major role in getting Manzanar (one of the ten internment camps) designated as a National Historical Site, and he helped secure land on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the National Japanese American Memorial To Patriotism During World War II.  Mr. Matsui’s life of service was a fitting rebuke to that searing experience – he lived and worked with a determination to make this country a better, more just and more humane place for generations to come. 

During his 26 years of distinguished service in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Matsui rose from a position on the Judiciary Committee to become the third-highest ranking member of the powerful and influential House Ways and Means Committee. 
During that time, Robert Matsui became known as one of the pre-eminent legislators on a variety of important and complicated issues – including Social Security, international trade, tax policy, health care, and welfare reform.  In doing so, he established a reputation for complete integrity, for mastery of the legislative process, and for his ability to forge relationships and work with persons of different beliefs and backgrounds.  His compassionate advocacy on behalf of the middle class, children, the poor, and the elderly established an enduring legacy that continues to improve the lives of American families to this day. Mr. Matsui also chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2002 until the time of his passing.

Mr. Matsui died on January 1, 2005 due to complications from Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a rare blood disease.  At his memorial service in Washington, D.C., former president Bill Clinton talked about growing up in Arkansas, knowing about Japanese American internment camps, and the impact of Mr. Matsui.  "We had a Japanese American internment camp in Arkansas, and it was a great source of pain and regret," Clinton said.  "I saw it. I lived with it my whole childhood. And I love knowing Bob Matsui, knowing a man who could have given in to bitterness but instead overcame it."

Long-time friend and congressional colleague Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) also spoke eloquently about Mr. Matsui and his legacy.  "Can you imagine when his family was in an internment camp that they would ever have dreamed that their son would have a memorial service in the Capitol?" she asked. "That over the Capitol of the United States flags would fly at half-mast in his honor speaks to how special he is."

In a special election held on March 8, 2005, Doris Matsui was elected to fill the vacant 5th Congressional District seat. 

Congressional Record , January 3, 1985 (Vol. 131 No. 1).
David Whitney, "Matsui Mourned in U.S. Capitol," Sacramento Bee , January 6, 2005.


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