His death was confirmed to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by a former spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke. He had been hospitalized for several months, but the cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
Mr. Akaka, who did not seek reelection in 2012, was the first-ever native-born Hawaiian elected to Congress. Avuncular and with a penchant for giving hugs, he was widely liked in Washington but was not a power broker in the mold of Hawaii’s former senior U.S. senator, Daniel K. Inouye, who died in 2012.
“He has a very strong spirit of aloha that he carries in him to Washington,” Neal Milner, a retired University of Hawaii political scientist, said of Mr. Akaka, “and that’s important for a politician from Hawaii.”
Mr. Akaka was a teacher and school principal in Hawaii in the 1950s and 1960s and rose to head Hawaii’s anti-poverty efforts in the early 1970s. He was first elected to the U.S. House in 1976 and, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, directed money to Hawaii for education and military installations.
In 1990, the governor of Hawaii appointed then-Rep. Akaka to fill the seat of U.S. Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga, who had died in office. Elected to his first full Senate term in 1994, Mr. Akaka went on to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and sit on the Indian Affairs Committee.
Although Mr. Akaka served on a number of committees with wide purview — including Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Energy and Natural Resources — he rarely ventured onto the Senate floor and had little national impact, except in the arena of veterans’ affairs.
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As a World War II veteran himself, he spearheaded legislation to reassess the wartime service records of members of the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infanty Battalion, composed almost entirely of Japanese American soldiers. Engaged in some of the fiercest fighting in Europe, the units compiled some of the most exemplary combat records of the war. Yet only one Asian American soldier, who had been killed in action, received the nation’s highest decoration for military valor, the Medal of Honor, at the time.
After a reevaluation by the Defense Department, more than 20 Asian American veterans of World War II were awarded the Medal of Honor in 2000. One of them was Mr. Akaka’s fellow senator, Inouye, who had lost his right arm in battle. Mr. Akaka said the medals helped compensate for the institutional racism directed at many Asian American members of the military.
In 1993, Mr. Akaka and Inouye successfully pushed through a resolution in which the federal government apologized for overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy 100 years earlier, stripping islanders of their right to self-determination.
He also led efforts to win recognition for Native Hawaiians as an indigenous group deserving of the same sovereignty as Native American tribes elsewhere in the United States.
The idea enjoyed support from President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, as well as from a host of Democratic politicians and aboriginal peoples’ groups. Mr. Akaka introduced Hawaiian sovereignty measures every year beginning in 2000, once pressing for its passage with a running series of 15 daily speeches on the floor of the Senate.
He came closest to winning in 2010, when the “Akaka Bill” passed in the House. The bill died in the Senate, however, after Republican opponents charged that it would establish an unconstitutional precedent for race-based treatment of Americans. Others said the bill would trigger the first racially based secession movement in U.S. history.
Mr. Akaka decried the “misleading attacks” and “unprecedented obstruction” that led to the bill’s defeat. He reintroduced the bill in 2011, but it never reached the floor.
In 2006, Time magazine called Mr. Akaka “a master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee,” and chided him for being so politically inoffensive that even James M. Inhofe, a conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma, called him “a lovable person.”
Mr. Akaka’s supporters said Washington was simply not accustomed to his humility or respectful of his quiet persistence on behalf of Hawaiians, particularly Native Hawaiians.
“I was taught not to be a showhorse but a workhorse,” Mr. Akaka told a Honolulu newspaper in 2006. “So, in a way, it’s been a part of me not to brag.”
Daniel Kahikina Akaka was born in Honolulu on Sept. 11, 1924. His father was of Chinese heritage. His mother was Native Hawaiian.
After graduating in 1942 from the Kamehameha School for Boys, a private college prep school specializing in Native Hawaiian language and culture, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers and served as a mechanic for two years during World War II.
He considered becoming a minister but instead received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Hawaii. He directed Hawaii’s Office of Economic Opportunity from 1971 to 1974.
Survivors include his wife of 69 years, the former Mary Mildred Chong; five children; 15 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
Once, Mr. Akaka memorably shed his habit of silence on the Senate floor. During a debate over the 1990 farm bill, he forcefully spoke out against an effort by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) — the imposing, 6-foot-5 former basketball player — to cut the federal sugar subsidy by 2 cents per pound.
The measure, which was repellent to the Hawaiian sugar industry, was defeated 54 to 44.
“I’m only 5-feet-7,” Mr. Akaka later said. “But I slam-dunked him.”
This story has been updated to include Mr. Akaka’s efforts to gain recognition for Asian American veterans of World War II.