The Japanese American Citizens League issued the following statement on April 29 about the passing of Lillian Kimura on April 23 at the age of 91..
JACL is devastated by the loss of Lillian Kimura to COVID-19.
Lillian was a true trailblazer in JACL as the first woman to be elected JACL national president. Her election did not come easily but was hard-fought and a result of years of advocacy led by her and others within the organization.
David Lin (JACL national president 2012-2016) stated, “I am deeply saddened upon hearing the news about Lillian’s passing. Lillian struck me as an extremely kind and generous person from the day we met at the EDC/MDC (Eastern/Midwestern) Bi-district Council meeting in 2007. She encouraged me to serve and she mentored and coached me when I was on the National Board. And above all, she inspired me to dedicate my service to the JACL just as she had. For that, I owe her a debt of gratitude. I will always cherish my association with Lillian and she will be missed dearly.”
Throughout her career, Kimura was a tireless advocate for civil rights through all of her work at the YWCA, where she rose to the position of associate executive director. The year of her election heralded JACL resolutions condemning sexual harassment, supporting family leave, and supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion. Over the next two years, JACL increasingly supported gay rights, including the right to serve in the military, culminating in a 1994 resolution supporting gay marriage.
Karen Narasaki, former president and executive director of AAJC (Asian Americans Advancing Justice), worked for JACL in the Washington office throughout this time: “Lillian was a force of nature. She became JACL national president at a time when few women had broken through the glass ceiling to lead national civil rights organizations. I learned a lot about leadership from watching her. She was one of the women executives at the YWCA that ensured that issues at the intersection of race and gender were a priority and that Asian American girls were included at the table.
“She had an inclusive vision of a multicultural democracy and a strong sense of the role JACL could and should play in helping to build it. Under her leadership, JACL became the first major national civil rights group of color to endorse marriage equality, long before the issue got to the Supreme Court. The nation has lost another woman warrior for equality.”
Susan J. Onuma, board member, JACL New York, and president of the Japanese American Association of New York, Inc., further highlighted Kimura as a powerful advocate for social justice. “Lillian Kimura was an important teacher and role model to many of us as the first female leader of JACL National as well as the YWCA and JACL NY for many years. She was one of the first among strong women leaders to stand for the inclusion of women in leadership positions and was a true inspiration to many of us involved in public or community service.
“Her strong sense of justice and her individual sense of integrity were well known in many circles outside the Japanese American community, both nationally and internationally. Her leadership style was injected with warmth and a sense of humor while never losing focus on her vision and the importance of achieving fair and just results. Active well into her 80s, she was a true example of how we can all make a difference, no matter how young or old we are, and the importance of speaking up and not giving up. She will be deeply missed.”
Looking back to working together on the 1994 National Convention in Salt Lake City, Floyd Mori (JACL national president 2000-2004) recalls, “Lillian Kimura was one of JACL’s great leaders. While she expressed a stern executive oversight on the operations and policy direction of the organization, she always had that twinkle in her eye that showed her love and respect to everyone with whom she worked.
“During her tenure, as chair of the 1994 convention held in Salt Lake City, I worked closely with her in what became a milestone in JACL history as we became one of the first national organizations to support gay marriage. The potentially divisive issue at the time was handled smoothly by Lillian, and members of the National Council went home proud of this groundbreaking stand for civil rights. It was a privilege to have been mentored by and to have worked closely with her for over 30 years.”
Mike Ishii, co-chair for the New York City Day of Remembrance and Tsuru for Solidarity, expressed, “We are feeling deep heartache in NYC at the news of Lillian Kimura’s passing. She was known as a just and kind person of reason who stood up for people who often had been denied a voice or a seat at the table. …She was a pillar of the community and I admired and loved her deeply.
“She was deeply inclusive and always supported the NYDOR programs. She came every year and her presence was grounding and central. She always made a point to speak to me and other younger organizers and to appreciate us and tell us how proud she was of our work. It deeply mattered and left an impression upon me. Her leadership in fighting for LGBTQ rights and challenging homophobia was both courageous and principled. Her legacy will live on in the NY Japanese American community.”
Kimura’s passing comes in quick succession to the loss of Helen Kawagoe, JACL’s only other female national president, and Irene Hirano Inouye, founding president/CEO for the Japanese American National Museum and the U.S.-Japan Council.
Carol Kawamoto, who served on the National Board with Kimura as the Pacific Southwest District governor, said, “It has been very sad to lose three very strong women, Irene Hirano Inouye, Helen Kawagoe, and Lillian Kimura…JACL and community leaders and icons who passed away so close together.”
JACL National President Jeffrey Moy commented, “Coming up through EDC, Lillian was a presence that helped me understand what a leader of JACL looks like. She was kind, clear about her vision, and incredibly supportive of the organization and our members. In particular, I remember her standing up to ensure that youth had opportunities to be heard and to lead, something I know that myself and others in my generation will not forget.
“Her passing underscores the need for more female leadership at all levels of our organization, particularly in forward-facing roles. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to know her and my deepest condolences go to her family and friends.”