Funeral services were pending Thursday for Irene Yasutake Hirano Inouye, the inaugural director and former president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Hirano Inouye, widow of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, had been suffering from an “extended illness,” according to the U.S.-Japan Council, which she was leading at the time of her death Tuesday in her native Los Angeles at the age of 71. She had planned to step down later this year.
Hirano Inouye was instrumental in guiding the Japanese American National Museum from “its fledgling beginnings” in an old warehouse near Little Tokyo into a world-class museum that is accredited by the American Association of Museums and an official affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, said Norman Mineta, chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees.
“I was very saddened by the passing of Irene. She was a caring, passionate person with unquestioned integrity,” said Mineta, who served as secretary of transportation in former President George W. Bush’s administration.
“Irene was a giant and an outstanding bridge between and among all communities,” he said. “Irene’s visionary leadership will be terribly missed, not only in the Asian Pacific Islander communities, but in American society as a whole.”
Hirano Inouye started working with the museum in 1988 and led the multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to renovate the former Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo that became JANM’s first headquarters in 1992.
During her tenure, JANM received funding from Japan’s Keidanren, the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations, to open its Pavilion in 1999, Mineta said.
Under Hirano Inouye’s leadership, JANM produced several groundbreaking exhibitions on the core histories of the Japanese American community, including “Issei Pioneers: Hawaii and the Mainland, 1885-1924” in 1992 and “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” in 1994, according to Mineta.
In 2002, Hirano Inouye and the museum began the Japanese American Leadership Delegation program, which fostered educational and cultural exchanges between younger leaders in America and Japan.
Hirano Inouye was honored by the JANM with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
“When Irene stepped down from her role with JANM in 2008 to marry my good friend, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, she founded the U.S.-Japan Council in partnership with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and became its first president,” Mineta said.
Under the USJC, which now has almost 700 members in the two countries, hundreds of Japanese Americans representing areas such as business, culture, academia and government have visited Japan, often for the first time, with “life-altering results,” Mineta said.
Hirano Inouye’s survivors include her daughter, Jennifer Hirano; stepson, Ken Inouye; sister, actress Patti Yasutake; and brother-in-law, director Michael Uno.
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