By GEORGE TAKEI
I knew Irene had been ill for some time, but, nevertheless, I was shocked and devastated when I learned of her passing. She was still so young at 71. Yet she had accomplished so much and served so many diverse constituencies.
I was a trustee of the Japanese American National Museum when she was hired as our first president and CEO in 1988. I was impressed by her boundless energy and initiative-taking. Opening the first JANM in the old Nishi Hongwanji building on the same day as the outbreak of the Rodney King riot was a nightmare. But she did it with controlled competence.
It wasn’t long before she was spearheading the fundraising for a new, more capacious museum building designed by architect Gyo Obata to be built in a parking lot across the street. The year after the Pavilion Building opened in 1999, I was asked to serve as the chair of the Board of Trustees.
Irene was amazing. Working with Sen. Dan Inouye, she was already drafting the idea of the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in the old “historic building” with a new addition of a theater, which is now the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Irene was brimming with ideas and new initiatives, and I was getting emails from her late into the night. She was incredible.
Irene developed funds to send JANM exhibits to travel abroad. “From Bento to Mixed Plate” traveled throughout Japan from Okinawa in the south to Osaka and Hiroshima and to the north to Niigata. “Kona Coffee” traveled to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where coffee culture was developed by immigrants from Japan. JANM was putting down markers in foreign nations thanks to Irene.
After JANM, she founded the U.S.-Japan Council, developing young JA leaders’ vision across the Pacific to Japan.
Irene was indefatigable.
Irene’s compassion was as great as her initiative-taking. When the devastating earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster hit the Tohoku area of Japan, she organized a binational “Tomodachi” initiative, which is today a lively bridge of friendship across the Pacific.
Irene Yasutake Hirano Inouye was an accomplished public servant, a builder of institutions and a treasured friend. She leaves a legacy as large as the grief we feel in our hearts.