Remembering a Brilliant Scholar and a Special Mentor and Friend

Karleen Chinen
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

 “If you don’t control your own culture and your own vision of life, and your own participation in life, then you don’t control anything. And that’s what we’re about. The true spirit of any kind of democracy is to have people be autonomous at the same time that they know that they’re dependent on the community around them.” — Dr. Franklin Odo on empowering people and communities from a 1990 oral history interview with the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Center for Oral History.

Franklin Odo: scholar. Teacher. Mentor. Friend.(Photo from The Hawai‘i Herald archives)
Franklin Odo: scholar. Teacher. Mentor. Friend.(Photo from The Hawai‘i Herald archives)

Franklin Odo was never my professor at the University of Hawai‘i, but he was the sensei, the teacher, who I always turned to with questions about Japanese American, Okinawan and Asian Pacific American history and its impact on people. I know I was not alone.

“I often think about how he changed my life through his scholarship, activism and teaching,” emailed Kaua‘i native Wesley Ueunten, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and a recent Fulbright Scholar.

Known to more people as “Franklin” than as “Dr. Odo,” Franklin died on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at the age of 83 in Northampton, Massachusetts, due to complications from cancer. His passing is a major loss for Hawai‘i and Asian Pacific American communities worldwide.

The son of kibei parents, Franklin Shoichiro Odo, grew up in Koko Head, known today as Hawai‘i Kai, where his parents were vegetable farmers. Franklin attended Kaimukï Intermediate and Kaimukï High School, graduating in 1957. Isami Yoshihara, his former schoolmate, recalled that elections for Kaimukï High’s sophomore class officers were held late in their freshman year. Franklin was running unopposed for president until Yoshihara’s teacher urged him to run. Franklin won 370 votes to Yoshihara’s 25. “I always wondered who were the 25 that voted for me, because I had voted for Franklin,” Yoshihara said. 

Franklin was a bright and well-rounded student. He played baseball. He and Yoshihara took the same college prep courses. They were also in a YMCA club called the Ramblers and participated in many community service projects, including canvassing the Kaimukï-Kapahulu area with a petition calling for the building of an auditorium for Kaimukï High School. In his senior year, Franklin was elected student government president. Both he and Yoshihara were selected as the student speakers for their commencement. Both also were accepted to top colleges on the continent — Yoshihara to UC-Berkeley to study civil engineering, and Franklin to Princeton, its first Kaimukï High grad to attend the Ivy League school, Yoshihara said. 

Franklin in his early teaching days at Cal State Long Beach.
Franklin in his early teaching days at Cal State Long Beach.

“The last time I saw Franklin in our youthful days was when he and his bride left to study in Japan on an ocean liner from Honolulu in 1963 or so,” Yoshihara recalled. By the time Franklin returned to Hawai‘i to lead the UH Ethnic Studies Program, Yoshihara was a civil engineer working for the federal government in Tōkyō.

Franklin was the professor we all wished we had in college: He was smart, witty, friendly, never demeaning. He had impressive credentials — bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from Princeton, master’s in East Asian regional studies from Harvard and his Ph.D. in Japanese history from Princeton. He could have turned into an “ivory tower” academic. Fortunately for us, he was the exact opposite. 

He found his real calling in developing Asian American Studies and ethnic studies programs while teaching at Occidental College, UCLA and California State University-Long Beach. He had emerged as a leader during the civil rights and antiwar movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, galvanizing students, scholars and activists to demand representation on college campuses. Franklin’s ability to read and speak Japanese were assets in understanding Japanese history and culture and their impact on immigrant communities. 

The UH-MĀnoa Ethnic Studies staff in February 1991 on the steps of their offices in the portable buildings off of East-West Road. Bottom row, from left: Franklin Odo, Marion Kelley and Ibrahim Aoude. Second row: program secretary Sandy Izawa, student help Karolyn Kaneshiro, Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor. Third row: Greg Mark, Lillian Yamasaki, student help Dana Iida, Kathryn Takara. Fourth row: student help Cynthia Guray and Dean Alegado. Top: Dr. Noel Kent. (Photo from The Hawai‘i Herald archives)
The UH-MĀnoa Ethnic Studies staff in February 1991 on the steps of their offices in the portable buildings off of East-West Road. Bottom row, from left: Franklin Odo, Marion Kelley and Ibrahim Aoude. Second row: program secretary Sandy Izawa, student help Karolyn Kaneshiro, Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor. Third row: Greg Mark, Lillian Yamasaki, student help Dana Iida, Kathryn Takara. Fourth row: student help Cynthia Guray and Dean Alegado. Top: Dr. Noel Kent. (Photo from The Hawai‘i Herald archives)

In 1978, he returned to Hawai‘i with his wife, Enid, and their three young children to accept the directorship of UH-MĀnoa’s Ethnic Studies Program and to also teach the Japanese in Hawai‘i course, delivering lectures twice a week and supervising a team of course lab leaders who were UH students. Professor Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor, acting director at the time, recalled that an administration review determined that a full-time tenure track professor was needed to direct the program. 

“We were quite surprised when someone of Franklin’s stature applied — a ‘local boy’ Kaimukï grad, educated at Princeton and Harvard! He turned out to be the perfect choice,” said McGregor, who has been with Ethnic Studies for nearly five decades. 

Franklin believed that Ethnic Studies was vital at UH-MĀnoa in order to critically explore race relations and the lives of working class people and the dispossessed. He lobbied the administration for more positions and to pay the faculty a living wage while ensuring that the instructors pursue the academic credentials expected of any university faculty. It was a precarious balancing act between academics and activism and Franklin navigated it skillfully.

“I see us as primarily academic, but academic in a very unusual kind of way,” he explained in a Feb. 15, 1991, Hawai‘i Herald story. “It focuses on race and class — taking theories and trying to apply them to community problems, but treating the outside community with respect as peers and stressing that ES is there not just to teach the community, but to learn from it, as well.”

Franklin had “the experience, vision, connections, determination and aloha to elevate the program into a department offering a B.A. degree,” McGregor said. Prior to that, students had to design their Ethnic Studies degree through Liberal Studies. He worked with former ES lab leaders and supporters in the Legislature and the university to increase the number of full-time tenure track positions so the program could evolve into a department. 

He cultivated “a culture of mutual support and aloha among the faculty, lab leaders and students,” McGregor said, hosting gatherings at his home, finding resources so the faculty could travel to national conferences and involving faculty members in research grants. He also attracted funding to create opportunities for ES students to do internships at the Smithsonian Institution and to earn scholarships.

The Odo family managed to get together during the COVID years. Back row: Franklin and son Jonathan. Front row, from left: Jonathan’s wife Christa carrying daughter Rebecca, Enid with grandson Ben (Jonathan’s son), daughter Rachel and son David. (Family photos courtesy of the Odo ‘ohana)
The Odo family managed to get together during the COVID years. Back row: Franklin and son Jonathan. Front row, from left: Jonathan’s wife Christa carrying daughter Rebecca, Enid with grandson Ben (Jonathan’s son), daughter Rachel and son David. (Family photos courtesy of the Odo ‘ohana)

On a personal level, McGregor credited Franklin with helping her evolve from a graduate student into a full professor. He played a major role in her academic growth and development throughout the 45 years she knew him, she said. “He helped me navigate the UH system and the ins and outs of an academic career while also being an advocate for my community. He was a good friend who looked out for me and always had my back,” McGregor said. 

By the time she earned her first sabbatical as a professor, Franklin had moved to the Smithsonian, where he invited her as the inaugural scholar-in-residence. One of her favorite Washington memories was celebrating hanami, the Japanese tradition of sipping sake and enjoying a picnic while viewing the cherry blossoms. “It was amazing, only we enjoyed the blooming of the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., on a lawn along the Potomac with his staff and my daughter.”

“Franklin was a keiki o ka ‘Āina — a child of the land,” McGregor said. “He always found a way to include a focus on Native Hawaiians and Hawai‘i. His spirit is indomitable.” 

Franklin working on his laptop while holding granddaughter Rebecca.
Franklin working on his laptop while holding granddaughter Rebecca.

Ibrahim “Brahim” Aoude, professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies, reflected on the times he and Franklin would lean along the railing outside of Franklin’s “office” in the paint-faded portable buildings off of East-West Road, sharing light moments that made them laugh, despite Ethnic Studies’ challenges. “Franklin’s passing reminded me of the ephemeral nature of our existence as individuals. What remains are memories of shared experiences,” said Aoude, who taught classes in Hawai‘i’s political economy and the Middle East. 

He said Franklin’s “organizational genius” was instrumental in galvanizing community support to further strengthen the program. Aoude himself served 13 years as Ethnic Studies’ director. He said Franklin’s accomplishments were the building blocks that elevated Ethnic Studies to a bachelor’s degree-granting department. He grew the program within UH and in the community while also nurturing and cultivating the program’s student scholars who became its supporters in the community after graduating.

Franklin worked with all segments of the community to eventually secure department status for Ethnic Studies in 1995. He believed the community was an integral part of Ethnic Studies and participated in community projects, believing they were partners who could learn from each other.

In addition to his ES responsibilities, Franklin also served on the University of Hawai‘i Press editorial board. In 1979, Gov. George Ariyoshi appointed him to the 1980 Okinawan Celebration Commission. Franklin was also appointed to the board of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and then served as its chair from 1986 to 1989.

In 1985, the centennial anniversary of the arrival of the kanyaku imin, or contract immigrants, from Japan and the start of mass immigration to Hawai‘i, he co-authored “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawai‘i, 1885-1924,” with Kazuko Sinoto of the Bishop Museum’s Hawai‘i Immigrant Heritage Preservation Center. Another of Franklin’s books, “No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i During World War II,” detailed the story of the Japanese American UH ROTC cadets who were expelled from the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard because of their race. They went on to form the Varsity Victory Volunteers. His most recent book, “Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i,” published in 2013, highlighted the holehole bushi songs sung by sugar plantation workers as they labored in the fields. Franklin did extensive interviewing, documenting the stories of the people who had actually lived the history in the Ethnic Studies philosophy of “Our History, Our Way.”

At the time of his passing, Franklin was working with Honolulu attorney William “Bill” Kaneko, his former Ethnic Studies student, and journalist Sara Lin on a book about the Hawai‘i AJAs who, although not incarcerated, were forcibly displaced from their homes. Kaneko had asked Franklin to serve as the book’s editor. 

Aside from his parents, “Franklin had the greatest impact on my personal and professional career,” Kaneko said. “He was my teacher, mentor, advisor and friend.” In Franklin’s Japanese in Hawai‘i class, he learned about Japanese immigration and about their history and contributions to Hawai‘i. And, for the first time, the future lawyer learned about the unlawful incarceration of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and in Hawai‘i. The civil rights violations and the lack of due process imposed upon the 120,000 AJAs who were incarcerated during World War II left Kaneko aghast.

“Franklin made history come alive. He challenged our way of thinking and evaluating events of the past and how it is relevant to current events, and he did so in a way that was kind, supportive and inquisitive,” Kaneko said.

Franklin and granddaughter Emma playing on a slide in Brooklyn, New York.
Franklin and granddaughter Emma playing on a slide in Brooklyn, New York.

Their relationship continued through the Honolulu chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, of which Franklin was a founding member. In 1981, he had assembled the delegation to testify about Hawai‘i’s experience before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. “Franklin was key in ensuring that the commission knew and understood the impact that Executive Order 9066 had on Hawai‘i AJAs, in addition to the West Coast experience,” Kaneko said. Inclusion of the Hawai‘i experiences in the larger wartime incarceration story was essential in ensuring that Hawai‘i AJAs were included as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and, therefore, eligible for redress, Kaneko explained.

Although they lost touch when Franklin began working at the Smithsonian, Kaneko said his mentor was never far from his thoughts. “He instilled in me the need to remember where you came from and the need to take care of those in need.” Franklin reminded him and others of how fortunate Hawai‘i AJAs had been to have had people like Gov. John Burns and other supporters in their corner, giving the Japanese community a chance to influence politics in the 1950s and 1960s, creating an equal playing field that enabled them to advance relatively quickly in society. 

He also believed, however, that AJAs in Hawai‘i have “a responsibility to care for newer immigrants and emerging communities in the same way that Burns and others did for us,” said Kaneko. 

Enid and Franklin pushing Emma in a stroller in Brooklyn, New York.
Enid and Franklin pushing Emma in a stroller in Brooklyn, New York.

In the early 1990s, concerned that the history of Hawai‘i’s more recently arrived and less affluent ethnic groups was being ignored, Franklin advocated for the creation of a “state history center” to collect the history and experiences of all of Hawai‘i’s ethnic groups before it was lost and to empower all groups equally. For various reasons, including the proposed $64 million price tag and the concern of existing museums that they would lose their funds, the proposal failed to gain any traction and the idea died. Franklin understood the politics of government, but always remained true to his convictions.

Kaneko said he was grateful for the six months he had to reconnect with Franklin while working on his book. “While our work together was, unfortunately, cut short because of his passing, Franklin, like he had always done for me in the past, provided incredible insight on how to look at issues and history,” Kaneko said. Franklin will never know the thousands of students, friends and colleagues whose lives he impacted, including his own, said Kaneko. Hawai‘i and America are a better place because of him, he added. 

I, too, am among the “thousands” that Bill Kaneko referred to. Franklin’s perspectives on history were priceless. In 1990, the 90th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawai‘i, I interviewed him on a variety of subjects relating to Okinawans, one of them being the notion that “Okinawans are a peaceful people.” Franklin cautioned against explaining characteristics in terms of “innateness” or to explain it in terms of culture. “I think Okinawans, too, could oppress other people if they had the power to do so,” he said. “It’s not that they’re innately peace-loving people.”

Franklin and Rachel teaching Max to play ball.
Franklin and Rachel teaching Max to play ball.

He underscored the importance of turning to history to understand how and why events developed as they did, including in Okinawa. The 1945 Battle of Okinawa claimed more than 200,000 human lives — military and civilians, Okinawans, Japanese, Americans and allies — in just three months of fighting. It taught us about the human cost of war. History, not DNA, is the reason Okinawans say, “Nuchi du takara — life is precious.”

Characteristics such as “cohesiveness” and “peace-loving” are not innate traits, he emphasized: They are rooted in a historical condition. “Something happened that made it more worthwhile for people to get together and put aside their differences than to maintain them,” he explained.

In 1990, Franklin was one of 10 Hawai‘i residents (and 100 worldwide) — and the only non-Okinawan from Hawai‘i — that the Okinawa Prefectural Government named an “Uchinaa Goodwill Ambassador” for his contributions to the Okinawan community.

Although Franklin lived thousands of miles away from Hawai‘i, he always enjoyed seeing and hearing from old friends and former colleagues. Kevin Kawamoto, a gerontological social work educator, recalled his chance meeting with Franklin in New York City around 1994, just after Kawamoto had moved there. “One day I was on the subway and I heard someone call my name. I looked back and it was Franklin. He was a visiting professor at Columbia, where I was working. I felt relieved to know that there was one person in the city who I knew, and not just one person, but Franklin Odo,” he said. 

Franklin and Enid with their harvest of Odo-grown eggplants.
Franklin and Enid with their harvest of Odo-grown eggplants.

“Whether Franklin was physically present or not over the years, I have always felt his ‘presence’ due to the impact that his knowledge, wisdom, character and personality had on me from an early stage in my life and career.”

Franklin also held visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College and at Princeton during the 1990s and served as president of the Association for Asian American Studies.

In 1997, he and Enid moved to Washington, D.C., where he had been named founding director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program and the first Asian Pacific American curator at the National Museum of American History. In 1999, he arranged for the exhibit, “From Bentō to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai‘i,” curated by writer Arnold Hiura for the Japanese American National Museum, to be shown at the Smithsonian. And, in 2002, he brought another important Hawai‘i story to the Smithsonian: “Kaho‘olawe: Rebirth of a Sacred Hawaiian Island.” Visibility of Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ history, arts and culture increased during his time at the Smithsonian. Franklin later served as interim chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, where his knowledge of traditional Asian Studies was put to good use.

In 2015, Franklin’s love for teaching and mentoring students beckoned him back to the classroom, this time to Amherst College in western Massachusetts, where he and Enid, his life partner for 58 years, would be closer to their adult children, David, Jonathan and Rachel, and their families.

Like Kevin Kawamoto, Franklin never seemed that far away to me, thanks in part to PBS Hawai‘i’s reprising of documentary films in which he was asked to provide a historical perspective. These included “Holehole Bushi: Songs of the Cane Field,” and “Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawai‘i.” Sometimes I would email him to say hello and to let him know that one of those films had been rebroadcast. He was glad to hear that those programs were being rebroadcast to remind the community and expose younger generations of this rich and valuable history. 

“Proof of Loyalty” highlighted the military service of Kazuo Yamane, a kibei who was born in Hawai‘i and educated in Japan. Yamane’s Japanese language abilities led to his transfer from the 100th Infantry Battalion to the Military Intelligence Service. In the film, Franklin highlighted the contradiction the government failed to grasp. “. . . [T]he two groups of linguists that we now so treasure and revere are the Navajo speakers and the kibei (who served in the MIS). . . . We prohibited the Native Americans from speaking their own language. We systematically tried to stamp that out. We tried to stamp out the foreign language schools, the Japanese language schools in Hawai‘i and on the mainland before the war. And yet, these people became extraordinarily important in the war effort,” he said.

Despite Franklin’s full schedule, he always made time to answer my questions and to put history into perspective. For that, I am eternally grateful. He was always encouraging during my time at the Herald and even after I had retired. In late May, he wrote: “Hang in there, Karleen, we all need your voice.” 

Bird-watching with Rebecca on the deck of the Odo home in Amherst.
Bird-watching with Rebecca on the deck of the Odo home in Amherst.

Professor Ty KĀwika Tengan, who was decades younger than Franklin, never worked alongside him. When Tengan joined Ethnic Studies in 2003, Franklin was already at the Smithsonian. They got to know each other, however, during Franklin’s visits home and corresponded more often when Tengan was Ethnic Studies’ department chair from 2013 to 2016 and again from 2019 until last semester. Tengan said he sought out Franklin’s advice when the fiscal crisis brought on by the pandemic threatened the Ethnic Studies Department with either a merger or complete elimination, despite a growing number of majors. Franklin’s advice to organize at the local level and to draw upon national and international networks of support resulted in a commitment from the administration to sustain Ethnic Studies and approval to hire two faculty members — a specialist in Japanese American and Okinawan diasporic studies and a new director for the Center for Oral History.

“Remember this crisis and keep it as an ES institutional prerogative — leaving this issue alone will continue to put the department in peril. Don’t let friends, alumni and supporters forget,” Franklin emailed Tengan in May.

“I later learned he wrote that while battling the cancer that eventually took his life — a true fighter for Hawai‘i’s people ’till the end,” said Tengan. By his example, Franklin inspired Tengan to “put in the hard work of grounding scholarship and activism in the needs of the community, caring for comrades we are in struggle with, holding accountable leaders who are not fulfilling their kuleana and finding time to laugh at the absurdities of life that might otherwise drive us insane.” In one of his last texts to Tengan, Franklin wrote: “Too much went into ES to let it die. Needed as never before. Call on me/us.” 

Aloha ‘oe, Franklin. Mahalo nui for your friendship, inspiration and conscience, and for always reminding us of the importance of “Our History, Our Way.” A hui hou . . . until we meet again.

The Franklin S. Odo Fund has been established with the University of Hawai‘i Foundation. Friends and supporters wishing to honor Franklin’s memory and lifetime of good work with a monetary gift for UH can do so at:

Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer. She is currently writing a book chronicling Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community from 1980 to 2000 titled, “Born Again Uchinanchu: Hawai‘i’s Chibariyo! Okinawan Community.”


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