Don Nakanishi, pioneer in Asian American studies, dies at 66


Don Nakanishi, a pioneer in the field of Asian American Stuides, recently passed away. photo courtesy of UCLA

Don Nakanishi, a UCLA scholar who gained national recognition for establishing Asian American studies as a viable and relevant field of scholarship, teaching, community service and public discourse, died March 21 in Los Angeles at the age of 66.

A faculty member at UCLA for 35 years, he served as the director of the Asian American Studies Center  from 1990-2010. In 2009, he retired as a professor emeritus of Asian American studies as well as social sciences and comparative education.

“Don’s contributions to Asian American studies and ethnic studies were pioneering, and those of us at UCLA were the prime beneficiaries of Don’s leadership and scholarship,” said David Yoo, professor and director of the center, in announcing Nakanishi’s death. “Of course, his visionary influence extended much further, literally to other continents reflected in his many travels to places like Australia and Japan to help establish and support ethnic studies.”

A political scientist by training, Nakanishi was the first scholar to demonstrate that Asian Americans, despite high group levels of education and income that are usually associated with active political participation, had very low levels of voter registration and voting. In 1971, Nakanishi co-founded the center’s Amerasia Journal, a leading interdisciplinary academic journal in the field. In 1976, he began to compile lists of Asian American elected officials across the country, launching the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, touted as an “indispensable guide to Asian American politics.”

Born to parents who were incarcerated during World War II in Poston, Ariz., and raised in the multiethnic community of East Los Angeles, he attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he was elected student body president. He was named “Boy Mayor” of the city of Los Angeles when he was a senior.

With a B.A. in intensive political science from Yale University in 1971 and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard in 1978, Nakanishi vividly recalled during an interview for a UCLA publication what occurred on Dec. 7, 1966, at Yale where he was a freshman and a third-generation Japanese American studying to be a physician. The day had been uneventful, he recalled, until 9 p.m., when “everybody in the dorm suddenly converged on my room and started throwing water balloons at me, chanting ‘Bomb Pearl Harbor, bomb Pearl Harbor.’” Then one student stood before a drenched Nakanishi and recited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war speech.

“I didn’t know what to make of it —  whether to laugh or cry,” the professor recalled. But soon his curiosity about why people felt so strongly 25 years after Pearl Harbor sent him to the library where he checked out the very first Asian American studies book he had ever read. Written by three UC Berkeley professors, “Prejudice, War and the Constitution” was their historical account of race relations and the law, leading up to Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“That’s when I learned for the first time what had really happened. I then understood what my parents had never told me and what my K-12 education had never taught me,” he said.

Nakanishi was later appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors. The board administered the nationwide public education and research program, established under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that provided a national apology and reparations to the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.

During his career at UCLA, Nakanishi, with characteristic humility, always focused on his students and colleagues, recalled Yoo. “He was often the first to advocate for and to celebrate their accomplishments. As I know is the case for hundreds if not thousands of others, I will be forever grateful to Don for his care and mentorship, extended to me since we first met when I was in graduate school and that has spanned decades.”

Among Nakanishi’s many former students are faculty members at colleges and universities across the nation and world, award-winning writers and artists, and elected officials, community leaders and educators.

Nakanishi wrote more than 100 books, articles and reports on the political participation of Asian Pacific Americans and other ethnic and racial groups in American politics; educational research on issues of access and representation; and the international political dimensions of minority experiences.

During his career, he received numerous awards for his scholarly achievements and public service, including the National Community Leadership Award from the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies in 2007, the Yale Medal from Yale University in 2008 and the inaugural Engaged Scholar Award from the Association of Asian American Studies in 2009. He served as the national president of that association.

In addition, he received lifetime achievement awards from the Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the California State Assembly. In 2010, then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented him with the “Spirit of Los Angeles” award. Lauding Nakanishi for having pioneered the field of Asian American studies, the mayor noted that “as a young Antonio Villaraigosa, I had the great fortune of being one of his students.”

Upon his retirement from UCLA, faculty colleagues, alumni, students, donors, and friends joined to establish a special endowment at UCLA, the Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American & Pacific Islander Studies, which annually recognizes and provides cash awards to UCLA faculty and graduate students in Asian American studies, who are pursuing outstanding community-based engaged research.

Nakanishi is survived by his wife, Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, who recently retired from the California State University system, and his son, Thomas, who completed his graduate studies in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The funeral ceremony for Nakanishi is scheduled for Saturday, April 2, 2016, 3 p.m., at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 815 E. First St., in Los Angeles. The Nakanishi Family has asked in lieu of flowers that donations be made to:

• Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American & 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.


Tenure lawsuit had impact

Don Nakanishi, who received his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard and began teaching at UCLA, challenged the decision by the university to deny his tenure. A lawsuit and community movement that ensued are credited with not only granting Nakanishi his tenure, but also helping to establish Asian American Studies as a legitimate field of study.

“Don’s courage and commitment to a diverse academia inspired him to challenge the irrational and biased decision to deny him tenure,” attorney Dale Minami of Minami Tamaki Law told NBC News. “Although it required winning two grievances for irregular and biased review and sit down strikes, demonstrations, boycotts of donations, critical editorials, and legislative hearings over two years, he finally achieved tenure and in so doing, became a symbol and inspiration for all those academics of color who had been shut out of the Ivory Tower because of their ethnicity.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *