In the process of mourning the recent loss of my good friend Irene Yasutake Hirano Inouye, the former president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and the former president of the U.S.-Japan Council, I’ve reflected upon her groundbreaking contributions to her community and to our country and how they are still relevant today.

Irene Hirano, first executive director of the Japanese American National Museum, at its historic first site in 2001. (Courtesy JANM)

I first became acquainted with Irene in 1988 when she was hired as JANM’s first executive director. The Japanese American organizers of this new museum wanted to address the absence of historical documentation of their community’s stories. The founders were concerned that the Japanese American World War II experience, especially the story of the government’s unlawful forced removal and mass incarceration of thousands of families (including mine), was a forgotten chapter of U.S. history.

Under Irene’s leadership, JANM premiered the “America’s Concentrations Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” exhibition in 1994. It provided a groundbreaking overview of how and why thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds American citizens, were unfairly ordered to abandon our homes and businesses by the U.S. government during World War II. I was a ten-year-old boy when my family was imprisoned in a camp in Wyoming for no good reason but because we looked like the enemy.

As the U.S. government’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) concluded, this massive failure of our justice system was the result of racism, opportunism and a failure of political leadership. As a congressman, I was one of the sponsors of legislation that became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided for an official government apology and reparations to the survivors of this injustice.

Today, in the midst of the most significant health crisis of our time, that same type of racism is asserting itself against innocent Asian Americans. While health officials have referred to the contagious and deadly disease as either COVID-19 or the new coronavirus, President Trump, members of his administration and political pundits have labeled it the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.”

The consequences of this sort of characterization have included thousands of racist verbal assaults and worse against people of Asian descent. A family of three, including a child, was stabbed outside a store in Texas. Even Asian American health professionals, working on the frontlines of this crisis while putting their own lives in harm’s way, have been spat upon and sworn at.

All of this reminds me of the prejudice inflected on my family and thousands of other people of Japanese ancestry in 1942. My parents, Kunisaku and Kane, were part of the Japanese immigrant generation, known as Issei, who settled in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland beginning in the 1880s. They had nothing to do with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war, but were subjected to overt racism.

While President Trump has since stated that he did not want Asian Americans targeted with unfair treatment, attitudes have already been inflamed. I believe President Trump could and should do more in providing leadership in this area. I felt extremely grateful that during my tenure as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, President George W. Bush spoke out clearly and strongly after the 9/11 attacks against scapegoating the Muslim and Arab communities in our country.

I was surprised that President Bush referred to my family’s experience during World War II as the cautionary historic story that all Americans needed to learn to help prevent another major civil rights violation. President Bush knew this essential historical lesson, I realized, because of the work of institutions like JANM. And JANM only exists today because of individuals like Irene Hirano Inouye.

Irene was a visionary who could see possibilities before anyone else. She had a particular knack for bringing together individuals and groups from diverse backgrounds and different regions for a common goal. If she were leading a project or campaign, people wanted to join in and help her succeed. Irene employed an old-fashioned style of leadership that I wish would insert itself back into our political arena today.

Challenged to raise millions of dollars to renovate a former Buddhist temple building in Little Tokyo while simultaneously assembling the necessary museum collection, curatorial and education units from scratch, Irene led a group of dedicated volunteers and staff that succeeded in opening JANM in 1992. In her tenure, Irene oversaw the development of educational tools such as school tours, public programs, traveling exhibitions, video documentaries and institutional partnerships to help cement the Japanese American experience as an integral section of U.S. history.

When Irene left JANM to marry my good friend U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye in 2008, she became president of the U.S.-Japan Council and its Tomodachi initiative, a private-public partnership that seeks to strengthen ties between America and Japan by organizing cultural exchanges between the next generation of Japanese and Japanese American leaders. Her drive to create better understanding between all people remained consistent throughout her life.

I was very saddened by the passing of Irene – she was a caring, passionate person with unquestioned integrity. Irene was a giant and an outstanding bridge between and among all communities. Irene’s visionary leadership will be terribly missed, not only in the Asian Pacific Islander communities, but in American society as a whole. We could use her leadership today and I hope her legacy will set an example for future generations.

Thank you, Irene.

Secretary Norman Y. Mineta

Chairman, Board of Trustees

Japanese American National Museum

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