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OBITUARY: Irene Hirano Inouye, 71; President of U.S.-Japan Council, Former CEO of JANM

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WASHINGTON – U.S.-Japan Council (USJC) President Irene Hirano Inouye, who had announced her decision to retire later this year, died on April 7, following an extended illness.

She was married to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.

Hirano Inouye had been with USJC since its inception in 2008 and was advising the USJC Board of Directors in its search for a chief executive officer to succeed her. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with staff in California, Hawaii and Japan, USJC’s mission is to develop and connect diverse leaders to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship. The organization has almost 700 members in the two countries.

Irene Hirano Inouye

In January, Hirano Inouye informed the organization of her decision to retire: “Coupled with some personal considerations, I believe it is the right time to begin this change, which will better position us in this new decade to address a host of emerging and evolving opportunities.”

Board Chair Phyllis Campbell said, “Irene was a singular figure in U.S.-Japan relations, respected by leaders on both sides of the Pacific as she carried out the mission of USJC. Since the founding of the council, she infused the organization with her wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit, kept her pulse on every aspect of USJC while keeping her eye on the strategic vision, and managed to approach every challenge with fearlessness and determination.”

Until a new CEO is named, Hirano Inouye’s responsibilities at USJC will be supported in the interim by USJC Chief Operating Officer Terri Swetnam and Executive Vice President Laura Winthrop Abbot.

During her tenure, Hirano Inouye led the growth of USJC and said she was proudest of these major accomplishments:

– Created an organization that has brought together Japanese American leaders working with Japanese and other American leaders committed to strong U.S.-Japan relations through people-to-people connections at the regional, national and international levels;

– Built the TOMODACHI Initiative, in partnership with the public and private sectors, to invest in the next generation of young Japanese and American leaders;

– Increased the awareness of the important role that Japanese Americans and other diverse Americans can play in U.S.-Japan relations. Programs such as the Asian American Leadership Delegation have been an important part of USJC programming;

– Established a permanent $10 million endowment to support scholarships for young Japanese and Americans to study abroad through the generosity of The Toshizo Watanabe Foundation;

– Through the Emerging Leaders Program, engaged and invested in younger Japanese American leaders who are playing important roles in USJC and in their communities.

In 2013 and 2014, Hirano Inouye helped launch the Women in Business Summit in Tokyo, co-sponsored with the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan. In 2014 and 2016, she represented the U.S. at the World Assembly for Women, an international symposium in Japan.

In 2016, the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at USC launched a fund to support research and programs to explore foundation leadership as it solves society’s most pressing problems, in honor of Hirano Inouye.

“Irene exemplifies what bold and thoughtful philanthropic leadership should look like,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said at the time. “She understands the dynamic interplay between board members and their executives, discovering how and when to take calculated risks. She also understands the important role organizational culture plays in a foundation’s ability to deliver on its promises.”

Irene Hirano Inouye looks on as Vice President Joe Biden administers a ceremonial oath of office during a mock ceremony for her husband, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), in 2011 in the Old Senate Chamber.

Hirano Inouye served as president and founding CEO of the Japanese American National Museum for 20 years. During her tenure from 1988 to 2008, JANM opened at the former Nishi Hongwanji building in Little Tokyo in 1992 and its 85,000-square-foot Pavilion in 1999. JANM has been at the forefront of research, preservation and education related to the wartime incarceration and military service of Japanese Americans, redress, and broader civil rights issues.

She chaired the Board of Directors of the American Association of Museums and was a board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Her professional and community activities also included serving as chair and trustee, Ford Foundation; chair and trustee, Kresge Foundation; chair, Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Center; Advisory Board chair, Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, UCLA; trustee, Washington Center; trustee, Independent Sector; member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; member, National Board, Smithsonian Institution; member, Toyota Corporation’s Diversity Advisory Board; member, Business Advisory Board of Sodexo Corporation; and presidential appointee, President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Irene Hirano Inouye (left) in 2019 at the Japanese American Bar Association’s annual gala, where she was an honoree and the keynote speaker. She is pictured with her daughter, Jennifer Hirano, and sister, Patti Yasutake. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Born Oct. 7, 1948 in Los Angeles, Hirano Inouye (nee Yasutake) attended Gardena High School and was one of only three women in the Public Administration Program at USC, where she graduated in 1970. She started her career in public administration as executive director of T.H.E. Clinic, a nonprofit community health facility for low- and moderate-income women and families, where she worked for 13 years.

Gov. Jerry Brown selected her in 1976 to become chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women. She worked throughout the state and found that often, “Asian American women were invisible.” In 1980, she helped organize the Asian Women’s Network in Los Angeles and served as its first president.

In 1984, she introduced Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson at a campaign rally in Little Tokyo.

Among the organizations that honored Hirano Inouye over the years were the Anti-Defamation League, League of Women Voters, National Education Association, USC Alumni Association, Liberty Hill Foundation, Arab American National Museum, Asian American Federation, Asian Justice Center, and Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics.

Additional recent recognition includes the 2012 Japan Foundation Award; honorary doctorate degree in 2015 from Southern Methodist University; and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New York’s 2016 Eagle on the World Award. Also in 2016, Forbes Japan included Hirano Inouye on its list of 55 Women Leaders of Japan.

Those who worked with Hirano Inouye paid tribute to her leadership.

Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit for Women, noted that Hirano Inouye during her tenure at JANM also chaired the National Women’s Political Caucus, Los Angeles Metro:

“With her warm smile and quiet leadership, she was greeted with enormous respect by all she worked with, whether as chair of the U.S.-Japan Council, or as chair and trustee of the Ford Foundation and The Kresge Foundation.

“She had many more leadership roles, but she never played ‘queen.’ When I asked her to do phone-banking for Hillary Clinton four years ago, she found a quiet corner in my home amid all the other volunteers and made her calls.”

The Japanese American Veterans Association issued a statement on Wednesday, saying: “Irene’s countless contributions to the Japanese American community and to enhancing U.S.-Japan relations were tremendous. Her loss will be greatly felt by all of us. The Japanese American Veterans Association sends heartfelt condolences to her family. Her warmth and generosity of spirit will be remembered by all at JAVA.”

She married Sen. Inouye in 2008 in Beverly Hills. It was the second marriage for both. After his death in December 2012, she was active in advancing many of the causes that were important to her late husband.

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.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in her name may be sent to the U.S.-Japan Council. Memorial services will be announced at a later date.

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