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Irene Hirano Inouye Dies at 71

By April 24, 2020May 28th, 2020No Comments

She was the founding leader of the Japanese American National Museum and the U.S.-Japan Council.

By P.C. Staff

Irene Hirano Inouye, whose leadership helped guide a campaign in the late 1980s to take Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum from a notion to a nationally recognized repository for Japanese American history and, in 2008, founded the U.S.-Japan Council and led it to become an international institution designed to “develop and connect diverse leaders to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship,” died on April 7. She was 71.

Inouye had just announced in late January plans to retire from the USJC, where she served as president, and help find a CEO to lead it (P.C., Feb. 7, 2020). While that announcement mentioned “personal considerations” among the reasons for her stepping away, the decision was believed to be health-related. Subsequent news reports revealed that she had been diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare smooth muscle cancer.

A woman of tremendous achievement, vision and leadership, Inouye was also the widow of the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who died Dec. 17, 2012. The second marriage for both took place in 2008, the same year she announced her resignation from JANM after 20 years of service. That same year, she launched the USJC.

In reaction to the news of Inouye’s death, JACL Executive Director David Inoue said, “Irene was a great leader in our Japanese American community serving as the founding president and CEO for the Japanese American National Museum and again for the U.S.-Japan Council.

“I had the opportunity to interact with her most closely first after the Tohoku earthquake mobilizing relief efforts to Japan and again as we traveled through Japan in 2018 as part of that year’s Japanese American Leadership Delegation,” he continued. “What impressed me most was the balance of respect everyone held for her and the warmth of her relationships.

“I have felt an especially powerful connection to her as our careers were both rooted in community health before moving on to serve our Japanese American community. Her passing is a tremendous loss to our community and to me personally,” Inoue concluded.

California Assemblyman Albert Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), said, “Irene was a strong, graceful leader and a pillar of the Japanese American community. One of many illustrious alumni of Gardena High School, Irene dedicated her life to serving her community.

“The arc of her life in public service began as an Asian American studies activist, then an executive director of a community health clinic. She then devoted 20 years of her life to build the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A.,” he continued. “Her subsequent marriage to U.S. senator and 442nd RCT war hero Daniel Inouye took her to the highest corridors of power in our nation, but she never forgot where she came from.

“She reached down to help many young Japanese Americans pursue public and community service as a calling, including this young(er) Torrance School Board member running for the State Assembly,” Muratsuchi concluded.

USJC Board Chair Phyllis Campbell said, “Irene was a singular figure in U.S.-Japan relations, respected by leaders on both sides of the Pacific as she carried out the mission of USJC. Since the founding of the council, she infused the organization with her wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit, kept her pulse on every aspect of USJC while keeping her eye on the strategic vision, and managed to approach every challenge with fearlessness and determination.”

In a statement on behalf of the museum Inouye guided and led from infancy to world-class status, former congressman and White House cabinet member Norman Mineta said, “As chairman of the board of trustees for the Japanese American National Museum, I wanted to express our deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to the family of Irene Yasutake Hirano Inouye on her passing … she was a caring, passionate person with unquestioned integrity. Irene was a giant and an outstanding bridge between and among all communities. Irene’s visionary leadership will be terribly missed, not only in the Asian Pacific Islander communities, but in American society as a whole.”

Mineta also stated: “Under Irene’s leadership, JANM opened several groundbreaking exhibitions on the core histories of our Japanese American community. In particular, the early exhibitions ‘Issei Pioneers: Hawaii and the Mainland, 1885–1924’ (1992) and ‘America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience’ (1994) resonated with our community’s families, whose personal stories had often been neglected or forgotten.”

The statement concluded: “Reflecting on her lifetime of incredible service to her community and country, I also wanted to express our profound gratitude. What she accomplished and what she meant to all of us will not be forgotten.”

According to her biography on the USJC website, Inouye’s community and nonprofit activities included serving as chair of the Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Center; trustee, the Washington Center; member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; member of the advisory board, Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California; and chair of the advisory board, Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, University of California at Los Angeles. She served as former trustee and past chair, Ford Foundation; and former trustee and past chair, Kresge Foundation.

A graduate of USC, where she also earned her master’s degree, Inouye served as the first president of the Asian Women’s Network in Los Angeles and subsequently served as executive director at the T.H.E. Center for Women for 13 years before becoming the president and CEO of JANM and finally as president of USJC.

She also administered the TOMODACHI Initiative, a public-private partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the government of Japan that invests in young Japanese and Americans through educational and cultural exchanges and leadership programs.

According to the USJC website, Inouye’s family requested that in lieu of flowers or cards to commemorate her passing, donations may be made in her name to the U.S.-Japan Council.

Inouye is survived by her mother, Jean Yasutake; daughter, Jennifer Hirano; sisters, Linda (Mike) Hayashi and Patti Yasutake; brother, Steven (Marla) Yasutake; nephew, Wesley Hayashi; niece, Alison Hayashi; stepson, Kenny (Jessica) Inouye; and granddaughter, Maggie Inouye.


Irene Hirano Inouye: Effectiveness and Grace

By Shirley Ann Higuchi, Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

One of the first stops I made when I decided to write a book about Heart Mountain, the camp where my parents were incarcerated as children, was to see Irene Hirano Inouye at the U.S.-Japan Council.

I knew that she had brought the Japanese American National Museum to health, had mastered the art of fundraising for nonprofits and, of course, was married to the late-Sen. Daniel Inouye, a role model for all.

It was Sen. Inouye, after all, who had sworn me in as president of the D.C. Bar and gave the keynote speech at the 2011 opening of our museum at Heart Mountain, which Irene attended. I knew that it was Irene who really pushed the idea of him speaking at the grand opening. From the photographs from the event, it was clear how committed she was to our cause.

In the days following her death earlier this month, I realized just how much company I had in feeling a great loss. She touched so many people and left a legacy that included not just JANM and the USJC, but also the financial well-being of the city of Detroit, which was just 30 miles from my childhood home of Ann Arbor, Mich. Irene had helped put together the package of nonprofit groups that helped Detroit emerge from bankruptcy.

That revelation was something I learned for the first time a few days ago. It wasn’t Irene’s way to show off or call attention to herself.

She just did it.

In the years I have known Irene, starting with her visits in 2011 and 2014 to the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation’s museum at the site of the former prison camp, I have benefited from her advice. She helped me become a better nonprofit leader. I know more about leading a foundation board because she showed me the paths and the pitfalls to navigate the sometimes-challenging politics of our community.

Heart Mountain would not be where it is today without her guidance and example.

Her quiet effectiveness and grace, exhibited not just in the nonprofit world but in her stewardship of her husband’s legacy, made her the logical choice to write the afterword for my upcoming book about Heart Mountain: “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration.”

Irene knew the Japanese American experience like few others. Her family had been incarcerated, and she later built ties throughout the community, first through JANM and later through USJC and the senator. As I read her afterword in the days leading up to my book’s publication, I am more grateful than ever for her contribution.

I am also more saddened than ever that she will not be with us to see her contribution in print and for me to thank her again in person for everything she has done, not just for me, but for our entire community.

[Editor’s note: The following is a link to the video of the JANM’s 2020 Virtual Gala and Auction, which includes a tribute to Irene Hirano Inouye.]