Remembering Irene Yasutake Hirano Inouye (1948-2020)

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Irene Hirano Inouye and Sen. Daniel Inouye

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): “My thoughts go out to the Yasutake and Inouye ohana today as we mourn the passing of Irene Hirano Inouye. Irene’s passion for serving her community on the local, national and international levels was profoundly evident in her life’s work. From her service as the president and founding CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, chair of the Ford and Kresge Foundations, to president of the U.S.-Japan Council, Irene was dedicated to the organizations and causes she believed in.

“In the years following the passing of Sen. Inouye, Irene worked to establish the Daniel K. Inouye Institute to carry on and preserve the senator’s legacy and continue the work that he started. Last June, I joined Irene at the christening of the USS Daniel K. Inouye in Bath, Maine, and we both looked forward to welcoming the destroyer to Pearl Harbor. Like so many others, I will miss her friendship, determination and spirit, but I and others will continue to build upon the strong foundations that she laid.”

Hawaii Gov. David Ige: “Irene was a respected, central figure in U.S.-Japanese relations. She worked tirelessly to develop leaders in the Japanese American community in Hawaii and beyond, and to strengthen ties between our two countries. Her wisdom and grace will be missed. Dawn and I send our deepest condolences to the Inouye ‘ohana.”

Former Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii): “I had the great honor and privilege of getting to know Irene and spending much time with her at her Los Angeles home. Though many of us in Hawaii may know her as the wife of our beloved Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, I can attest to the fact that Irene, in her own right, was a force to contend with.

“Irene was instrumental in the creation of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the president and founder of the U.S.-Japan Council. When she, Senator and others formed the USJC, it came at a fortuitous time because on March 11, 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake struck Japan, the USJC was ready to answer the call with the Tomodachi Initiative.

“She had served on the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Directors and as chair of the Ford Foundation for many years. She has left an amazing legacy in the global nonprofit world. I was fortunate to witness firsthand how she could bring the leaders of Japan and the United States together for common goals.

“My deepest sympathy to her daughter Jennifer, her sister Patti Yasutake, her Los Angeles ‘ohana and the Inouye ‘ohana here. Through her young leaders initiative, I am certain that those who had the opportunity to visit Japan and the United States share my profound sense of loss for this amazing person. She has left her mark on many.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono and Irene Hirano Inouye

Go For Broke National Education Center: “From her early days at the T.H.E. Women’s Clinic to her leadership at JANM and U.S.-Japan Council, Irene touched many lives. Her most recent work at USJC propelled the dream that she and the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye had of a stronger relationship with Japan facilitated by Japanese Americans. Their dream lives on!”

David Inoue, JACL national executive director: “Irene was a great leader in our Japanese American community, serving as the founding president and CEO for the Japanese American National Museum and again for the U.S.-Japan Council.

“I had the opportunity to interact with her most closely first after the Tohoku earthquake mobilizing relief efforts to Japan and again as we traveled through Japan in 2018 as part of that year’s Japanese American Leadership Delegation. What impressed me most was the balance of respect everyone held for her and the warmth of her relationships.

“I have felt an especially powerful connection to her as our careers were both rooted in community health before moving on to serve our Japanese American community. Her passing is a tremendous loss to our community and to me personally.”

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance): “Irene was a strong, graceful leader and a pillar of the Japanese American community. One of many illustrious alumni of Gardena High School, Irene dedicated her life to serving her community.

“The arc of her life in public service began as an Asian American studies activist, then an executive director of a community health clinic. She then devoted 20 years of her life to build the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown L.A. Her subsequent marriage to U.S. senator and 442nd RCT war hero Daniel Inouye took her to the highest corridors of power in our nation, but she never forgot where she came from.

She reached down to help many young Japanese Americans pursue public and community service as a calling, including this young(er) Torrance School Board member running for the State Assembly.

“Irene, I deeply regret not calling you to see how you were doing before you passed away. Thank you for making such a difference in the lives of so many, including mine. Rest in peace, Irene.”

Douglas Montgomery, chair, Japan America Society of Southern California: “We unfortunately have some sad news to pass along. Irene Hirano (our 109th Anniversary Gala ‘Kokusai Shinmin Sho’ – ‘International Citizen’ awardee) passed away yesterday. Irene was a great supporter of JASSC and a personal friend. Please join us in mourning her passing.

Irene provided great assistance and guidance for our programs involving children, and in particular the Tomodachi exchanges that JASSC participated in. She will be sorely missed, but we take comfort in the positive relationships created between the young people both here in the U.S. and Japan.”

Japanese American Bar Association officers and Board of Governors: “Irene’s passing tugs strongly at our hearts. She will always be remembered as an iconic leader, champion, and friend by the many people whom she touched. Just last year, JABA was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to honor Irene with its Unity Leadership Award and to have her as the keynote speaker at our 43rd annual Installation and Gala Dinner.

“Irene’s work as the founding executive director and president of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, has allowed many to enjoy and learn about the remarkable history and heritage of the Japanese American people and culture. As the founder and president of the U.S.-Japan Council, Irene promoted and championed community leaders to create deep and lasting relationships to develop and mentor our next generations.

“Irene will also be remembered for her generosity and experience in nonprofit administration, community education, and public affairs with culturally diverse communities nationally. She served as chair of the Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Center, trustee of the Washington Center, former trustee and past chair of the Ford Foundation, and the former trustee and past chair of the Kresge Foundation.

“She has truly been a defining force and we will miss her as we have missed her late husband, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to Irene’s family, but most of all we want to thank Irene for all that she gave and shared to service our community and to support each of us.”

Dale Minami, attorney and civil rights advocate: “I went to high school and college with her and saw her become an extraordinary leader of our community. A rare talent and a force of nature. RIP.”

Paul Igasaki, former chair and chief judge, Administrative Review Board, U.S. Department of Labor: “I came to admire her as a nonprofit exec while she was CEO of the Japanese American National Museum and worked with her on a number of community matters after she married Dan Inouye. The community has lost a great leader.”

Lynn Miyahira, president, Hawaii United Okinawa Association, and alumna, USJC’s TOMODACHI Emerging Leaders Program: “Gone too soon. Irene Hirano Inouye inspired so many of us to be better and strive higher. She led with kindness and compassion — she was the ultimate diplomat. Knowing she was out there working harder than anyone else, traveling tens of thousands of miles every year to build bridges, made me want to work harder. I feel blessed to have known her personally and will do my best to make her proud. I owe her that much.”

Fred Katayama, content producer/anchor, Reuters News, and member, 2020 Japanese American Leadership Delegation: “We mourn the passage of a dear friend, an inspirational executive who spawned a new generation of leaders. Irene Hirano Inouye founded and headed the U.S.-Japan Council, served as founding CEO of the Japanese American National Museum and chaired the Ford Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Yet she was humble and selfless.

“A workaholic brimming with energy, Irene never frowned about the peripatetic pressures of the job she loved. Instead, all you saw was her perpetual smile. She never said anything negative about anyone, and if it wasn’t positive, she was ultra-laconic in her neutrality. You could always confide in her.

“I’ve had the honor of introducing her at many events, and I once made the mistake of calling her our ‘most dear and great leader’ before realizing I had read one too many KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) stories in my cub reporter days. Irene had a great laugh. And I’m grateful for the time she surprised me by stopping by to hear a speech I gave in Los Angeles.

“Things we had in common: we grew up in Southern California and shared ancestral roots in Fukuoka and a weakness for carrot cake. I once introduced her to one of my favorite New York cakes. I wish I had had the chance to introduce her to another one.

“She can now rest and catch up with her late hubby, the elder statesman Sen. Daniel Inouye. I miss them both already.”

Kathy Ko Chin, president and CEO, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum: “I’m beyond sad about the passing of my role model, mentor and friend, Irene Hirano. She was a founding board member of Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum and a leader in so many sectors. Rest in peace.”

Konrad Ng, executive director, Shangri La, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art: “I had the privilege of working with Irene Hirano as the chair of my board during my time at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was a superstar. She was extraordinary.”

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