Irene Hirano Inouye, champion of Japanese American cause, dies at 71

Irene Hirano Inouye
Oct. 7, 1948 – April 7, 2020

Irene Hirano Inouye, a tireless champion of U.S.-Japan relations who successfully brought together networks of local, national and international leaders, and established the nation’s premier Japanese American museum, died peacefully at home on April 7 in Los Angeles.

She 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.

She was married to the late U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who predeceased her in December 2012.

Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), described her in a JANM statement as “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.”

Born to Michael and Jean Yasutake in Los Angeles, Irene Hirano Inouye was a third-generation Japanese American. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and an honorary doctorate degree from Southern Methodist University.

Ms. Hirano Inouye’s distinguished career in public administration began as Executive Director at T.H.E. Clinic, a nonprofit organization aimed at bringing affordable, quality healthcare to uninsured women in the underserved, economically challenged area of southwest Los Angeles.

She went on to serve for 20 years as the President and Founding CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, leading the multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign to renovate the former Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo that became JANM’s first headquarters in 1992, and JANM’s second headquarters – a modern structure that has presented over 70 exhibitions and attracted more than two million visitors from around the world. JANM honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in May 2017.

At the time of her passing, Ms. Hirano Inouye was the President of the U.S.-Japan Council (USJC), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization devoted to developing and connecting diverse leaders in the U.S. and Japan; USJC was the fulfillment of a vision that she and Sen. Inouye believed would effectively strengthen ties between the two countries.

During her tenure at USJC, Ms. Hirano Inouye raised the profile of the organization, growing it to almost 700 members, and creating programs to support next-generation leaders. One such effort, the TOMODACHI Initiative, was launched to help Japan’s recovery from the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and invests in educational and cultural exchanges as well as leadership programs for young people.

In addition to her leadership of USJC and JANM, Ms. Hirano Inouye was active in dozens of professional and community activities and served on the board of trustees for many prominent philanthropic, cultural and academic organizations, including the Daniel K. Inouye Institute, the Ford Foundation; the Kresge Foundation; the Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Center; the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, University of California at Los Angeles; the Board of Directors of the American Association of Museums; and the California Commission on the Status of Women and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

She was also a presidential appointee to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

In 2016, the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (CPPP) launched the Irene Hirano Inouye Philanthropic Leadership Fund to support research and programs to explore foundation leadership as it solves society’s most pressing problems.

She was also the recipient of numerous awards for her work in civic, cultural and museum leadership, including from the Japanese American National Museum, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Education Association, and the Asian Justice Center.

Los Angeles Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas noted in a statement, “Anyone who knew Irene knew she was a force of nature whose impact, over the arc of her long and storied career, isn’t just measured locally, but rather nationally and internationally…. Her commitment to community reminds us that though we all have distinct backgrounds and origins, we are bound in common purpose by our shared hopes and dreams for ourselves and our children….”

In lieu of flowers or cards, contributions in Irene Hirano Inouye’s name may be sent to the U.S.-Japan Council. Memorial services will be announced at a later date.