In May 1989, Don Nakanishi won a three-year battle against UCLA for tenure. After being officially granted tenure at Chancellor Charles Young’s office, Nakanishi had a small celebration at the Student/Community Projects office at the Asian American Studies Center in Campbell Hall. It was a victory not only for Nakanishi but also for the field of Asian American studies, as his research was initially considered “irrelevant” by his tenure review committee. (Photo courtesy of Gann Matsuda)

The Manzanar Committee wishes to express its deepest sympathies to the family of professor emeritus of education and former director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC), Don T. Nakanishi, 66, who died on March 21.

Nakanishi was born and raised in East Los Angeles, where he attended Roosevelt High School. He did his undergraduate work at Yale University, and received his bachelor of arts degree in political science in 1971, before attending Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in political science in 1978.

At UCLA, Nakanishi’s distinguished career spanned 35 years, the last 20 as the AASC director. Along the way, his record of achievement for his path breaking, pioneering research, along with over 100 books, articles and reports on Asian American communities that helped open doors for Asian Americans in politics, education, and many other institutions, earned him countless awards and accolades.

Nakanishi, who co-founded Amerasia Journal, the leading academic journal in the field of Asian American Studies, in 1971, is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of Asian American studies. He taught and mentored hundreds of students, many of whom have become faculty at colleges and universities around the world, writers, scholars, teachers, community leaders and even elected officials.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton, Nakanishi served on the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, which administered the national public education and research program established under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided a national apology and reparations for the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.

In 1987, Nakanishi began a three-year fight against UCLA, which initially denied him tenure (permanent faculty appointment), with his tenure review committee stating that his research on Asian American communities was “irrelevant,” making him unqualified for tenure.

Nakanishi went on to engage the university on all fronts — legally, politically, and in the social justice arena, eventually becoming the focal point of a movement that became a national cause celebre for justice and equal access.

“Don Nakanishi wasn’t just fighting for himself,” said Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee, who, as a UCLA undergraduate and student activist, was deeply involved in the movement. “Don understood that our entire community had much, much more at stake than his tenure. After all, the racism in his tenure review was pretty obvious — they stacked his tenure review committee with those who weren’t qualified to evaluate research related to Asian Americans.

“We knew that if Don Nakanishi, our best and brightest, could not get tenure at that time, that door would slam shut for many more years, maybe decades. We knew that we had to make sure that door was pushed wide open, and for good, and so did Don. It was why he fought, and it was why we all fought. We were all inspired by Don.”

Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey praised Nakanishi’s commitment to community-based research.

“Don Nakanishi had a immeasurable impact on Asian American studies in particular, and higher education in general,” said Embrey. “Don Nakanishi was a rare breed who could weld theory with practice. Whether through Amerasia Journal, through his teaching and mentoring of students, through his work in the struggle for redress and reparations, and during his fight for tenure, he blazed new trails and left an impressive legacy that few can match.”

“This is a terrible loss for our community,” added Embrey. “On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to extend our condolences and best wishes to his wife, Marsha, his son, Tom, along with all of his family and friends.”


The funeral ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, April 2, at 3 p.m. at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 815 E. First St. in Little Tokyo.

In lieu of flowers, the Nakanishi family has asked that donations be made to:

Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies, UCLA,

Nakanishi Award, c/o UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Box 951546; 3230 Campbell Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1546, (310) 825-2974

Nakanishi Prize, Yale College,

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