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JACL’s First Woman National President Dies

By April 27, 2020 May 28th, 2020 No Comments

Lillian Kimura, 91, also served the YWCA at the national level.

By P.C. Staff

Lillian Chiyeko Kimura, who served as national president of the JACL from 1992-94 and was the first woman to serve in that capacity, has died. She was 91.

Pacific Citizen’s coverage of Kimura’s historic win to become the first woman elected as the organization’s national president.

According to her niece, Margaret Golden, Kimura’s death on April 23 — she had just turned 91 on April 7 — was the result of COVID-19. She was residing in Albany, N.Y., at the time of her death.

In her professional career, Kimura also served as the associate executive director of the YWCA of the USA.

In reaction to news of Kimura’s death, JACL National President Jeffrey Moy said, “Coming up through EDC, Lillian was a presence that helped me understand what a leader of JACL looks like. She was kind, clear about her vision and incredibly supportive of the organization and our members. In particular, I remember her standing up to ensure that youth had opportunities to be heard and to lead, something I know that myself and others in my generation will not forget.

Lillian Kimura

“Her passing underscores the need for more female leadership at all levels of our organization, particularly in forward-facing roles,” Moy continued. “I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to know her, and my deepest condolences go to her family and friends.”

Recalling his relationship with Kimura, JACL National Executive Director David Inoue said: “I first met Lillian while representing the D.C. chapter at EDC meetings. She had that perfect balance of toughness and kindness that came through when we first met and talked about my having taken the overnight Chinatown bus from D.C. to Manhattan for the meeting. She really cared about people she came into contact with. The legacy she leaves for JACL is incomparable, and to lose her and Helen Kawagoe within the span of one month leaves a hole for us that cannot be filled. I hope that as more people learn about them, especially young women members of JACL, they will become inspired to lead this organization as she did, leading the fight for civil rights for all.”

Before her election as JACL national president in August 1992, Kimura also served as chair of the Pacific Citizen for two terms from 1988-90 and 1990-92. Her tenure as JACL’s president, however, began with controversy, a word that might encapsulate her one-term tenure.

Kimura’s rival in the race for the office of JACL president, John Saito Sr., was initially declared the winner of the election, with a one-vote win of 55-54 (P.C., Aug. 14, 1992). After a recount was demanded, followed by several more, a revised tally showed Kimura had won 59-50. Although Saito would eventually concede defeat, more controversy would follow Kimura.

At the Sept. 25-26, 1993, National Board meeting, Kimura fired then-P.C. Board Chair Paul Shinkawa. At the meeting, according to an Oct. 29-Nov. 4, 1993, op-ed piece by columnist and Pacific Citizen adviser Bill Hosokawa, “Some members of the National Board and the headquarters staff had been unhappy with Pacific Citizen’s treatment of the news. … Tempers flared and some inflammatory remarks were made. JACL President Lillian Kimura directed Paul M. Shinkawa, chair of the P.C. board, not to publish a detailed account of the proceedings.

“Shinkawa, citing the opinion of JACL’s legal counsel, interpreted Kimura’s order as a violation of JACL’s constitution, which places responsibility for P.C. on the P.C. board.

“He considered the gag order an attempt to keep important information from the membership and declined to carry it out. Kimura asked for Shinkawa’s resignation, which she had authority to do, and he tendered it.”

Pacific Citizen’s front-page coverage of Kimura’s firing of then-P.C. board chair Paul Shinkawa after he refused to follow her order that he considered a violation of the JACL’s constitution.

The firing led to several follow-up pro-and-con columns and letters to the editor in subsequent issues of the P.C., including an Oct. 15-21, 1993, editorial by then-Editor/General Manager Richard Suenaga, who summarized the brouhaha by writing: “They succeeded in removing Shinkawa; they failed as leaders.”

In that same issue, Kimura addressed the incident in her “In-Sight” column, writing: “It was with deep regret that I asked Paul Shinkawa for his resignation. He being the good JACLer he is did so immediately.”

Reached by telephone to get his reaction to Kimura’s death, Shinkawa, who lives in Texas, told the Pacific Citizen that while Kimura “fired me,” he struck a conciliatory tone.

“I was very sad to hear that. Lillian marked a very important milestone in JACL history,” he said. “I supported what she was trying to do and was trying to get done, and things just didn’t work out. She and I thought things would turn out slightly differently, and we had a parting of the ways, or a parting of the philosophy, at least.”

Regarding Kimura firing him as P.C. board chair, Shinkawa added, “I wouldn’t say it was amicable, but I recognized her authority to do that, and she did it. Most of the storm, the tempest in the teapot, occurred after that.”

In other areas, Kimura had a goal to “have JACL reach 30,000 members by the year 2000.” While that failed to occur, during her administration, the JACL, at the Aug. 3-6, 1994, National Convention in Salt Lake City did vote in favor of a resolution to support same-sex marriage, a stance that, while divisive within the JACL, put it decades ahead of most other civil rights organizations — and the Supreme Court, which more than 20 years later voted 5-4 in support of same-sex marriage in 2015.

The controversial stance led to the resignation of Allen Kato, who had been the JACL legal counsel (P.C., June 10-16, 1994). In a letter to Kimura, he wrote that he could not “support the National Board’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage laws” due to a conflict with his religious beliefs.

Kimura, who did not run for a second term as JACL president, was succeeded in 1994 by Denny Yasuhara, who inherited a JACL with chronic fiscal woes and became a lightning rod for controversy when he presided over a December 1994 downsizing of JACL and P.C. staffs, which led to the resignation of the vp of membership and services (P.C., Jan. 6-19, 1995) and later, calls for his resignation (P.C., April 7-20, 1995).

Born in Glendale, Calif., Kimura was 13 during World War II when her family and she were uprooted and eventually incarcerated at the Manzanar WRA Center in California. Afterward, her family moved to Chicago, where Kimura would attend the University of Illinois, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and later, a master’s degree in social work in 1954.

Kimura’s career with the YWCA began in Chicago, and she later moved to New York City to work for the YWCA at the national level. Among her awards and recognitions, Kimura received the YWCA’s Racial Justice award and its Ambassador award. In 1993, the government of Japan bestowed upon her a kunshō (medal), the Order of the Precious Crown, Wisteria. She also received the Anti-Defamation League’s Ina Kay Award in 2008 and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund Justice in Action award in 2011.

Kimura merged her experiences with JACL and the YWCA in her Sept. 4, 1992, “In-Sight” column in the Pacific Citizen, writing: “My career with the YWCA has given me insight into many aspects concerning the operations of a nonprofit organization. As in many associations, JACL and the YWCA share many similarities in organization, purpose, structure, governance and fulfilling affiliate and membership needs. They are also two very different organizations with different histories and traditions and serving different constituencies. I hope that I can take some of what I have learned from my staff experience at the YWCA and combine it with my volunteer experience in JACL and other nonprofit management groups to advance this organization for the betterment of our members.”

Kimura was predeceased by her parents, Homer and Hisa Kimura; sister, Hiroko (Chester) Katayama; brother, Hikaru (Elsie) Nagao; niece, Laura DiCerbo; and nephew’s wife, Harriet DiCerbo.She is survived by her sisters, Florence (George) Sasabuchi and Rose (Louis) DiCerbo, as well as her nephews and nieces including Paul Katayama, Mark (Evelyn) Sasabuchi, Candi (Bob) Glassberg, Patricia Lee (David Mozer), Karen (Lori Oleachea) Nagao, Lou DiCerbo, Margaret (Patrick) Golden, Marina DiCerbo; and beloved friends, Ora Taylor and Martha White, as well as many great-nieces and great-nephews. Funeral services will take place at a future date. 

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Following Lillian Kimura’s death on April 23, several JACLers and others expressed their sentiments about her life and legacy.

Carol Kawamoto (former PSWDC governor who served on the JACL National Board with Kimura): “It has been very sad to lose three very strong women, Irene Hirano Inouye, Helen Kawagoe and Lillian Kimura … JACL and community leaders and icons who passed away so close together.”

Kimura died on April 7.

Mike Ishii (co-chair for the New York City Day of Remembrance and Tsuru for Solidarity): “We are feeling deep heartache in N.Y.C. at the news of Lillian Kimura’s passing. She was known as a just and kind person of reason who stood up for people who often had been denied a voice or a seat at the table. … She was a pillar of the community, and I admired and loved her deeply. She was deeply inclusive and always supported the NYDOR programs. She came every year, and her presence was grounding and central. She always made a point to speak to me and other younger organizers and appreciate us and tell us how proud she was of our work. It deeply mattered and left an impression upon me. Her leadership in fighting for LGBTQ rights and challenging homophobia was both courageous and principled. Her legacy will live on in the N.Y. Japanese American community.”

David Lin (JACL National President 2012-16): “I am deeply saddened upon hearing the news about Lillian’s passing. Lillian struck me as an extremely kind and generous person from the day we met at the EDC/MDC Bi-District Council meeting in 2007. She encouraged me to serve, and she mentored and coached me when I was on the National Board. And above all, she inspired me to dedicate my service to the JACL just as she had. For that, I owe her a debt of gratitude. I will always cherish my association with Lillian, and she will be missed dearly.
“Throughout her career, Kimura was a tireless advocate for civil rights for all through her work at the YWCA. The year of her election heralded JACL resolutions condemning sexual harassment, supporting family leave and supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion. Over the next two years, JACL increasingly supported gay rights, including the right to serve in the military, culminating in a resolution in 1994 supporting gay marriage.”

Gary Mayeda (JACL National President, 2016-18): “I am very saddened to hear of her passing. She was my first inspiration to be more involved in a leadership position in JACL when I saw that JACL elected its first female president. Even though she beat out John Saito Sr. of PSW, it was still an inspiration and a win for JACL. When I ran for my first National Board position, she really praised and encouraged me, saying that I had the heart to earn my leadership role in the organization. I always looked forward to each convention to see Lillian interact with the membership and see her commitment to the organization.”

Floyd Mori (JACL National President 2000-04): “Lillian Kimura was one of JACL’s great leaders. While she expressed a stern executive oversight on the operations and policy direction of the organization, she always had that twinkle in her eye that showed her love and respect to everyone with whom she worked. During her tenure, as chair of the 1994 convention held in Salt Lake City, I worked closely with her in what became a milestone in JACL history as we became one of the first national organizations to support gay marriage. The potentially divisive issue at the time was handled smoothly by Lillian, and members of the National Council went home proud of this groundbreaking stand for civil rights. It was a privilege to have been mentored by and to have worked closely with her for over 30 years.”

Karen Narasaki (former president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, former JACL Washington representative): “Lillian was a force of nature. She became JACL national president at a time when few women had broken through the glass ceiling to lead national civil rights organizations. I learned a lot about leadership from watching her. She was one of the women executives at the YWCA that ensured that issues at the intersection of race and gender were a priority and that Asian American girls were included at the table. She had an inclusive vision of a multicultural democracy and a strong sense of the role JACL could and should play in helping to build it. Under her leadership, JACL became the first major national civil rights group of color to endorse marriage equality, long before the issue got to the Supreme Court. The nation has lost another woman warrior for equality.”

Phil Tajitsu Nash (Asian American Studies professor, University of Maryland): “As a young N.Y. JACL board member and redress activist, I learned a lot from Lillian. She was grounded in the Japanese American community but also made essential connections for us to the broader worlds of advocacy and social services. Also, as a leader of both the JA redress movement and the National YWCA, she taught by example that strong, visionary, articulate and compassionate female leaders were essential for any successful strategy.”

Susan J. Onuma (board member, New York JACL chapter; president of the Japanese American Association of New York): “Lillian Kimura was an important teacher and role model to many of us as the first female leader of JACL National, as well as the YWCA and JACL N.Y. for many years. She was one of the first among strong women leaders to stand for the inclusion of women in leadership positions and was a true inspiration to many of us involved in public or community service. Her strong sense of justice and her individual sense of integrity were well known in many circles outside the Japanese American community, both nationally and internationally. Her leadership style was injected with warmth and a sense of humor while never losing focus on her vision and the importance of achieving fair and just results. Active well into her 80s, she was a true example of how we can all make a difference, no matter how young or old we are, and the importance of speaking up and not giving up. She will be deeply missed.”