Dr. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, professor emerita of sociology at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, died on Nov. 18 at the age of 91. Dr. Nishi was a pioneering scholar of Asian Americans and multiracial relations.

She was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 1921, the second of four and the eldest of three sisters. Her father, Tahei Matsunaga, an immigrant from Japan, was a local real estate dealer and the unofficial “mayor” of Little Tokyo. Her mother, Hatsu, was an educated woman. Nishi studied music at University of Southern California, with a minor in education, and joined the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity. Under the guidance of Emory Bogardus, she became interested in sociology.

Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon from Ambassador Shinichi Nishimiya, consul general of Japan in New York, in 2009.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she was caught in the mass removal of Japanese Americans. In contrast to many Japanese Americans, she moved to take action against the government policy — in early February 1942 she sent a telegram to the White House, urging President Roosevelt to recognize that the Nisei were loyal Americans with citizenship rights.

After being incarcerated briefly at Santa Anita Assembly Center, Nishi received a special opportunity to leave camp and attend Washington University in St. Louis, where she enrolled in the M.A. program in sociology. She reported on local communities for the UC Berkeley-based Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study.

Following graduation from Washington University, Nishi moved to Chicago, where her parents had settled. She enrolled in sociology at University of Chicago. There she also became attached to Ken Nishi, a California-born painter who was then serving as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. The two were married in 1944.

In the years that followed, the couple would have five children. Ken Nishi struggled to support himself as an artist. Setsuko Nishi and other family members assisted him in producing greeting cards, by which he helped support the family.

In 1951, the Nishis visited Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. They were so enchanted by the land that they bought land in the village of Mabou and built a house. Mrs. Nishi would spend the summers in Mabou for the rest of her life. They meanwhile built a home and art studio in Tappan, N.Y., which would remain their home base during the rest of the year.

Despite her large burden of child care and work at home, Nishi nonetheless took employment outside the home. In 1944, she was hired as a staffer at Parkway House, a settlement house in the city’s Black Belt directed by the celebrated African American sociologist Horace R. Cayton, who became a long-time friend and collaborator. There she organized community forums on such topics as Gunnar Myrdal’s celebrated study of racism, “An American Dilemma.”

In the process, she became both a bridge between the black and ethnic Japanese communities, and a visible activist in favor of racial equality. She went on speaking tours, and lobbied for a statewide Fair Employment Practices Bill.  She served as an assistant (and ghostwriter) for Pittsburgh Courier editor P.L. Prattis and as a research editor for The Chicago Defender.

With funds from the American Council on Race Relations, Nishi wrote a pamphlet, “Facts About Japanese Americans” (1946), which received widespread distribution. She simultaneously wrote a review of Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir “Citizen 13660” for the influential American Sociological Review.

In the following years, she teamed up with sociologist William Caudill to work for the Chicago Nisei Resettlers Committee (a social service agency directed by her father). Nishi also joined with Horace Cayton to produce “The Changing Scene” (1955), a two-volume study of churches and social service.

Although Nishi completed her comprehensive doctoral exams at University of Chicago by 1951, and was able to draw on the research she had conducted with Caudill for her dissertation, she was obliged to put off completion of her doctoral project. She would ultimately complete her dissertation and receive her doctorate in 1963. Her dissertation, “Japanese American Achievement in Chicago: A Cultural Response to Degradation,” is a notable contribution to the literature on Japanese Americans in its inquiry into the social and cultural factors that aided the postwar resettlement of the community.

In 1965, with support from sociologist Alfred McClung Lee, Dr. Nishi was appointed professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, and she remained there and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York until her retirement in 1999. During her tenure, Nishi taught the first courses on Asian American studies there and served as a mentor to a generation of scholars.

One notable part of her work was her insistence on multiracialism and her critique of the “model minority” thesis of Asian American success as simplistic and biased. In her later years at Brooklyn College, she organized and served as director of the Japanese American Life Course Survey, a large-scale investigation into the long-term effects of the wartime incarceration on Japanese Americans.

Her community involvement during her years in New York remained extensive. In collaboration with African American sociologist Hylan Lewis, she reported on methods and strategies for achieving school integration, and she subsequently served as an advisor on Kenneth Clark’s HARYOU-ACT minority youth aid project. She co-authored the 1976 work “Drug Use and Abuse Among Minorities: An Annotated Bibliography.”

She also served for three decades on the executive board of the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and became well known for championing the rights of all minorities against discrimination. In particular, in 1998 she joined the delegation of Japanese Americans in New York who met with Jewish community leaders to discuss the use of the phrase “concentration camps” at the Japanese American National Museum’s Ellis Island exhibition.

Professor Nishi was honored for her work on numerous occasions. She won awards from the American Association of University Women and the Asian Pacific American Women’s Leadership Institute. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Asian American Studies in 2007. In June 2009, she was conferred the Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Neck Ribbon by the government of Japan.

Ken Nishi died in 2001. Professor Nishi is survived by her five children — Geoffrey, Lisa, Paula, Stefani, and Mia — and numerous grandchildren, as well as her brother, Ernest Michio Matsunaga.


Greg Robinson is professor of history at Université du Québec À Montréal and author of “Pacific Citizens.” Barbara Katz Rothman is professor of sociology at City University of New York.

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  1. Professor Nishi was a great inspiration in my life. I met her at Brooklyn College in the late 1960’s. She was such a vibrant force that I decided to major in sociology and eventually get a doctorate at The City University Graduate Center. She will be seriously missed.

  2. Thank You so much, Greg and Barbara for your timely and thoughtful tribute to Setsuko’s legacy.
    With love and appreciation, Lisa Nishi