Karleen C. Chinen
“Determined, unflappable, tireless and tenacious.” That is how Dr. Akemi Kikumura-Yano is remembering Irene Hirano Inouye, her friend and former colleague, who died April 7 in Los Angeles after an extended illness. She was 71 years old.
Most people knew Irene Hirano Inouye primarily as the widow of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawai‘i. They might have heard that she was president of the U.S.-Japan Council, which she established in 2009, and the former president/CEO of the Japanese American National Museum.
But in Hawai‘i, Los Angeles and elsewhere, there are groups of people mourning the passing of their former colleague, their mentor, a visionary and trailblazer, a friend. Even as they mourn her passing, however, they are smiling warmly as they reminisce working with her at the Japanese American National Museum and/or the U.S.-Japan Council, where she was always just “Irene.”
Kikumura-Yano’s working relationship with Hirano Inouye goes back over thirty years, to 1988, when Hirano Inouye was hired as JANM’s president/CEO. Kikumura-Yano had been hired to curate JANM’s inaugural exhibition and was working with project coordinators Nancy Araki and Dean Toji out of a two-story warehouse in downtown L.A.
“Irene was always the first to arrive and the last to leave, spending countless hours on the phone or in meetings with staff, community leaders and volunteers, politicians and scholars, identifying and recruiting leaders and supporters throughout the country who would help to make the museum a truly national entity,” she recalled.
The two women traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and to Japan and Brazil on behalf of JANM. “Despite jet lag, changing time zones, early morning meetings and late night dinners, she was up and about, moving, typing out messages on her Blackberry, cultivating and communicating with supporters and potential donors, never tiring of making yet another connection on behalf of the museum,” said Kikumura-Yano. “I never saw her nervous or angry, even in the most trying situations. Always gracious, composed and calm. Nothing seemed to rattle her.”
Upon learning of Hirano Inouye’s passing, Kikumura-Yano said she thought about many of the community leaders who had gotten to know Hirano Inouye well, including, from Hawai‘i, Dr. Margaret Oda, Sig Kagawa and Dr. Richard Kosaki, all of whom predeceased her.
Big Island resident Arnold Hiura, who curated JANM’s traveling exhibition, “From Bentö to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai‘i,” recalled meeting Hirano Inouye in Los Angeles relatively early in the museum’s history. JANM was housed in the former Nishi Hongwanji Temple building at the time.
“Nice digs, I thought,” recalled Hiura, now executive director of the Hawaii Japanese Center in Hilo. From the third-floor conference room window, he gazed across the street, now a pedestrian mall, at volunteers assembling an authentic internment camp barracks in what was then a parking lot.
“That, Irene explained, was where the museum’s multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art pavilion would be built. Staring at the artist’s rendering of the elegant new building, I thought: ‘Wow, these kotonks think big!’”
Hiura’s involvement with JANM grew over the years. It impressed him that Hawai‘i leaders such as Dr. Margaret Oda, Gov. George Ariyoshi, Dr. Richard Kosaki, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sig Kagawa and others were on the JANM board. Key JANM staff, including Dr. Akemi Kikumura-Yano, Dr. Karen Ishizuka, Robert Nakamura and Cayleen Nakamura, among others, helped to support the museum’s Hawai‘i initiatives, Hiura added.
“It was Irene, however, who was in command of the flight deck, the ‘Captain Kirk’ of the ship as it flew through previously uncharted museum space,” said Hiura.
He worked closely with JANM in the ensuing years, gathering oral histories in Hawai‘i with filmmakers Ishizuka and Nakamura and curating the traveling exhibition, “From Bentö to Mixed Plate,” which was shown at the Bishop Museum, Kaua‘i War Memorial Convention Hall, Lyman Museum and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. It also traveled to JANM in L.A. and to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A bilingual English/Japanese version was shown at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Hiroshima Art Museum, Niigata Prefectural Museum and the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) in Ösaka.
“These were big events, attended by a collective audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands of people (approaching 1 million by some accounts), including prominent business, academic, cultural and political leaders. Irene was there at every turn,” Hiura said.
“Us Hawai‘i folks tend to hold back. We are quick to scale down and make do,” said Hiura. “As I watched Irene, however, I’d say that a key part of her legacy was knowing when to go for it and giving those around her the confidence to do so, too. She looked at our local JA story, the role it played in the broader American context, set all of it against the current global landscape . . . and then aimed high.”
Longtime JANM staffer Clement Hanami recognized Hirano Inouye’s gift of vision, as well. Hanami, now the museum’s vice president of exhibitions and art director, recalled the good first year JANM enjoyed after opening the historic building (Nishi Hongwanji building) in 1992. But as time passed, foot traffic fell off and he often worried about how they would manage to stay open.
“But, from that we have become what we have because of her leadership and vision, which took us from a small local institution and made us into the national institution that has worked with so many others in the field and made our name synonymous with other major institutions,” said Hanami. He marvels not only at Hirano Inouye’s vision, but her success also in getting others to buy in to her vision.
Hirano Inouye was one of Hanami’s first professional mentors. “She had a way of supporting and motivating us to accomplish the most amazing things for the institution and ourselves.”
One of Hanami’s best memories of Hirano Inouye was her bold decision to involve L.A.’s racial and ethnic communities in an initiative titled “Finding Family Stories,” which was launched just after JANM opened in April of 1992. It was the museum’s response to the riots that had erupted in South Central L.A. following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers who were caught on videotape beating a black man, Rodney King. JANM’s opening and the weeklong race riots happened almost on top of each other.
Hanami said JANM reached out to other ethnic institutions in Los Angeles and quickly developed institutional partnerships with them. Together, they developed cross-cultural art exhibitions in which the artists used their art to tell their family stories.
“At that time, our museum’s focus was on the Japanese American experience, but she (Irene) was fully encouraging us to pursue this intercultural program that would allow us to work with Latinos, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans and many other ethnic communities in L.A. In the early ’90s, this was unheard of, but under her leadership, we were able to run this program fully funded for over six years,” said Hanami.
“Throughout the program, she always supported my ideas and allowed me to take risks and grow.” And, he added, she would “always find ways to leverage the work we were doing and take it to new heights.”
Many of the friendships and relationships that Hanami and other JANM staff members forged as a result of “Finding Family Stories” endure to this day, he said. “Many of those people today sent me their condolences, and I am reminded of her greatness and her impact on all the people of Los Angeles.”
Hirano Inouye “will live on in all our work today and forever,” he said.
JANM’s former Hawai‘i programs manager Rene’ Tomita remembers Hirano Inouye’s always cool and calm demeanor.
“I worked for Irene for 11 years and never lost my awe of her ability to grasp a situation and offer a solution . . . in minutes!” said Tomita. “She made it look so simple that there was no option but success. Our conversations left me wondering, ‘Now why didn’t I think of that?’
“She was the most positive person I’ve ever known. Really, an inspiration.”
Hirano Inouye mentored many young people, even Sansei a few years younger than herself, like Waipahu High School graduate Cayleen Nakamura, who earned her bachelor’s at the University of Hawai‘i and then pursued two master’s degrees at the University of Southern California.
Nakamura met Hirano Inouye for the first time in the mid-’80s when she was a young graduate student headed to Washington, D.C., for an internship.
“Being from Hawai‘i, my professional and personal network outside of the state was rather limited,” she said. “Someone suggested I meet Irene and ask her for some guidance, so I did. It was a cold call meeting; she didnʻt know me. But she was gracious and generous with her time and contacts. I was so impressed and grateful.”
Ten years later, Nakamura went to work at JANM, where she continued to learn and grow under Hirano Inouyeʻs leadership. She held numerous positions of responsibility and leadership during her long tenure at JANM: manager for public programs and education, director of national programming and director of special events, among others.
“She was a visionary leader, often envisioning a future that was light years ahead of our time and working nonstop to achieve that vision,” said Nakamura. “She worked harder than she ever asked any of us to, never complained about the burden and was always positive, generous and humble . . . . Irene made an indelible imprint on my heart and I will miss her dearly.”
Former Hawai‘i resident Pam Funai echoed Nakamura’s sentiments. Funai, who relocated to New York City last year, credited Hirano Inouye with launching her career in museums and the Asian American community.
“Some people come into your life and change it up in an incredible way. Irene was one of those people for me,” said Funai, who now works with the Open Society Foundations.
“Even years later, when I moved into philanthropy, Irene was a part of my work and brought a network of new people into my life. She has always been a guiding hand to me.”
In 2008, Hirano Inouye resigned from JANM when she married Sen. Inouye and moved to Washington, D.C. There, she founded the U.S.-Japan Council, an organization dedicated to strengthening ties between the U.S. and Japan through people-to-people initiatives.
Island Holdings chairman Colbert Matsumoto met Hirano Inouye in 2003 when she was with JANM and led the institution to become what he described as “a vibrant and respected museum of history.”
“I remember her as a quiet advocate for women’s rights. Never overtly, but through her example of confident leadership in the organizations with which she was affiliated,” Matsumoto said.
Their relationship grew closer with the establishment of the U.S.-Japan Council: Hirano Inouye invited Matsumoto to become one of its early members.
“It takes an exceptional person, especially a Nikkei woman leading a newly founded foreign organization like USJC, to so effectively engage and command the respect of the leaders in government and business in Japan and the U.S. to nurture USJC to what it has become today,” Matsumoto noted.
Wendy Abe, USJC’s director of external relations, working in Hawai‘i, shared a message she received from Hirano Inouye just weeks before she passed: “I appreciate your work to keep things moving forward in these unprecedented times,” it read, referring to the current COVID-19 situation.
“She was always gracious and generous with gratitude, and these last words from Irene will carry me through the sadness of losing her,” Abe said.
She called Hirano Inouye “a great American who committed her life’s work to making her community better.” Through USJC, Hirano Inouye invited global and international leaders to join her vision of bridging countries and creating relationships beyond borders. She was “fearless and tireless” in her pursuit of building the U.S.-Japan Council, building a strong foundation and network of leaders to work together on a strong bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Japan, Abe said. “The legacy she leaves will serve as inspiration to further her work. We will do our best to carry the torch forward. This will be our gift to her.”
For Yonsei like Hawai‘i public relations professional Lynn Miyahira, Hirano Inouye’s passing came too soon. Miyahira got to know Hirano Inouye through the U.S.-Japan Council’s Emerging Leaders Program, which is aimed at building a network of young leaders from the U.S. and Japan and fostering people-to-people relationships through its events and programming.
“Irene inspired so many of us to be better and strive higher. She led with kindness and compassion — she was the ultimate diplomat,” said Miyahira, who is also the 2020 president of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
“Irene always made time for the ELP members and invited us to small-group gatherings so she could really get to know us. Many of us agree that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the help of Irene and the U.S.-Japan Council.”
Irene Hirano Inouye lived only 71 years, but her contributions to the community and country and U.S.-Japan relations will live on, as shared by Akemi Kikumura-Yano.
“Even as we are gripped in a dark global pandemic, Irene Hirano Inouye has left us in a brighter place that she helped to create by building stronger person-to-person ties wherever she traveled and with whomever she met . . .”