"Bob was a relentless
fighter against injustice and a strong advocate for seniors, working
families and civil rights."- Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald
At the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Japanese
immigrants flooded into the Pacific coast of America, generating
resentment and racist stereotyping. Robert Matsui, a Sansei, or
a third-generation Japanese American, was born on September 17,
1941 in Sacramento, California. To say the least, he was born at
the wrong place at the wrong time. Only three months after his birth,
on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, further
intensifying anti-Japanese sentiment.
The attack became justification
for anti-Japanese individuals to finally be able to rid of all those
Japanese Americans; over 100,000 of these citizens were immediately
forced into internment camps located throughout the western states.
Matsui was barely six months old at the time Executive Order 9102
incarcerated them in an internment camp at Tule Lake. His parents,
Yasuji and Alice Nagata, were forced to sell their family house
for fifty dollars and abandon their small produce business upon
their forced evacuation.
Although Matsui spent three
and a half long, horrific years at Tule Lake, he had few memories
of the experience. But three and a half years were enough to taint
him forever; causing guilt and the questioning of his own loyalty
towards the United States government whenever internment camps were
mentioned. As a fourth grader sitting in his American History class,
his teacher asked him to speak about his experience as a Japanese
internee, but he could only shamefully and persistently deny ever
Matsui’s parents, along
with other first and second generation Japanese Americans, were
old enough to remember and were so devastated by the experience
that they were unable to speak up for many years afterwards. Matsui's
mother constantly hoarded foodstuffs and dry goods, characteristic
of most civilian survivors of wars. Both parents were unable to
speak to Matsui about their experiences until the 1980s. Matsui
vowed to bring justice to his family and to his people.
Law and Public Service
“Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can
do for the country”- J.F.K. 1961 Inaugural Speech
At the end of World War II,
the Matsuis returned to their hometown Sacramento to rebuild their
lives. Robert Matsui’s years at William Land Elementary and
California Junior High soon went by. Entering the C.K. McClatchy
High School, he dreamed of studying architecture. But this dream
quickly dissipated after reading the autobiography of the famous
trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who believed that laws were created
to protect the underdog. Inspired by Darrow’s belief, Matsui
was determined to study law and someday be able to bring justice
to the disadvantaged, namely his Japanese Americans.
After graduating from C.K.
McClatchy High in 1959, Matsui enrolled at the University of California
at Berkeley. During his sophomore year in 1961, John F. Kennedy
made his now famous inaugural speech calling young people to public
service. This speech further inspired Matsui to dedicate his life
in helping others.
In 1963, Matsui graduated
from U.C. Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in political science
and went on to earn his J.D. degree from the university's Hastings
College of Law. After receiving his J.D. degree in 1967, he established
a private law practice back in his hometown of Sacramento and became
fairly successful. In 1971, Matsui saw his first opportunity to
run for public office when the city council districts of Sacramento
were redrawn, leaving an incumbent Republican's reelection in doubt.
He jumped at this chance to enter public life, calling on all his
networks of friends and business acquaintances and successfully
winning a seat on the city council with 54 percent vote.
Matsui further established
himself as a public figure in Sacramento when in 1977, his council
colleagues elected him vice-mayor of the city. The following year,
when he learned that the current Representative from Sacramento
would be relinquishing his seat in Congress, Matsui decided to try
to fill the post as underdog, and won by several votes. He was now
able to serve the public both locally and nationally.
As a congressman, Matsui worked up from a spot on the Judiciary
Committee, which was neither prestigious nor powerful, to becoming
the third ranking member on the influential Ways and Means Committee.
He was one of the main representatives to help push the Japanese
Redress Act in 1988, requiring that a formal apology from the government
and compensation be given to all the Japanese internees. He also
worked on reforming social security, healthcare, welfare, and tax
policies, as well as passing important laws on free trade. Unfortunately
Matsui’s career came to an end as he came up with pneumonia
caused by complications from Myelodyspastic Disorder and past away
on January 1, 2005. However, after his January death, his wife Doris
Matsui, a lobbyist and former Clinton administration official, easily
won a March 2005 election to fill his seat. Hopefully, his legacy
as a public serviceman will continue with this election.
Robert Matsui married Doris
Okada on his September 17, 1966. The couple has a son, Brian Robert
Matsui, who married Amy. Brian and Amy have a daughter named Anna.