Office Space: You Can Call Honda the Buddha of Longworth

Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:28pm

Rep. Mike Honda is not shy about his past, even though parts of his childhood may be painful to remember. The California Democrat spent the first few years of his life living in a Japanese internment camp in Colorado, a fact that he pays homage to in the foyer of his space in the Longworth House Office Building.

A large poster hangs on the wall with the words “explaining internment” printed on it. It is from a conference held by the Japanese American National Museum, which teaches people about what Japanese-Americans went through in World War II.

“That allows me the opportunity to tell the story of the Japanese-American community and how they were treated and how they were used and abused,” Honda says of the poster.

Honda’s family spent several years in and out of the camps during the 1940s.

“We were moved from our homes to the assembly camps, which was usually fairgrounds. In the fairgrounds, we were put into horse stalls,” he says. “We had to make the horse stalls livable.”

Many of the stalls, he notes, were filled with rotten apples left over from feeding horses.

In the years leading up to World War II, Honda’s father worked as a U.S. military intelligence officer. The government was desperate for officers who spoke Japanese to help crack enemy codes during the war, so occasionally Honda’s family was released so his father could work. Even this vital skill, however, was not enough to exempt the family from internment, and they were eventually returned to a camp.

Honda keeps the poster on his wall alongside a black-and-white photo of his second-grade class. He says the two are, in fact, related because they both illustrate his journey to Congress.

He began his life in California but was relocated as a baby to the internment camp in Colorado. After his family’s eventual release, they lived in Chicago for a decade before returning to California, the state that Honda now helps represent.

“It’s kind of nice for [constituents] to know who I am rather than to just see what they see in front of them because this,” he says, gesturing to his gray hair and wrinkled face, “is not a permanent condition. This is where I came from,” he says, pointing at the photo.

Despite his childhood hardships, Honda is a jovial adult who can often be heard laughing while trading barbs with his staff. In fact, Honda considers himself to be such a happy-go-lucky guy that he compares himself to Buddha.

“This sumo guy is my vision of myself,” he says, pointing to a small wooden statue of a chubby, laughing Buddha. “I look at this and say, ‘Buddha was pretty happy, too.’”

Across the room from the statue sits a framed photo of Honda and the Dalai Lama, whom he describes as a funny guy with a positive outlook on life.

“You know, there’s no anger there,” he says. “Just a lot of compassion and a lot of good thought even in bad times.”

About a year and a half ago, the spiritual leader presented Honda with the long white scarf that he is wearing in the photo.

“It must have been about 10 feet long. I looked at it and said, ‘My neck ain’t that big!’” Honda remembers. Upon further inspection, he realized that the scarf was so long because it had a series of prayers written on it.

Buddhist culture is not the only culture represented in the office. Near that photo, there is a large drum, a gift “from Native American Indian country,” according to Honda. Though he doesn’t play the drum, he is trying to learn to sing tribal songs with American Indians. Honda feels a kinship with American Indians because they have also been mistreated by the U.S. government.

He says he doesn’t think the government was “evenhanded” when it came to putting them on reservations, although he’s quick to crack a joke about the situation.

“I just tell Indian country that the problem was that their immigration policy was too liberal. I told you not to let them step on that rock,” he says, referring to the moment when the Europeans first arrived in what would become America and supposedly landed at Plymouth Rock.

While there are many artifacts relating to Honda’s beliefs and causes, his office is not without mementos of his family back in California. He has photos of his late wife, Jeanne, and his three grandchildren, Trey, Brody and Zachary.

The proud grandfather jokes that the children will be his legacy and that they were cursed with his large head.

“There’s the example of my immortality: three grandchildren, three boys, all C-sections, all because of my head,” he says with a chuckle.

Watch a video of Rep. Mike Honda’s office here. Do you know of a uniquely decorated Capitol Hill office? Let us know about it at abm@rollcall.com.