Sept. 28, 2023 marked one year since the death of Franklin Odo. In a nod to Franklin’s own powerful interest in Jewish culture, I would like to commemorate his Yahrzeit (death anniversary) with a kaddish (mourner’s prayer) in the form of an article on him.

Franklin Shoichiro Odo was born in Hawai‘i on May 6, 1939 and grew up in Honolulu. After attending Kaimuki High School, he went on to Princeton University. While at Princeton, he joined an elite eating club (i.e. fraternity) — he later claimed that he was their first non-white member since Prince Konoye. (Fumitaka “Butch” Konoye, the son of Japan’s then-prime minister, attended Princeton in the 1930s and starred on the golf team before flunking out).

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton in 1961, Franklin received his master’s degree in East Asia regional studies at Harvard University in 1963. (That same year, he married his wife Enid, with whom he would spend 59 years in wedlock). He returned to Princeton, where he completed a dissertation on Japanese feudalism in 1975. During the intervening time, at the dawn of the 1970s, Franklin joined the movement that created ethnic studies. He taught at Occidental College, then became an instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he helped found the Asian American Studies program. In 1971, he co-edited “Roots: An Asian American Reader,” a mix of scholarship and creative writing that was the first published anthology focused on Asian Americans.

In 1978, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa created an Ethnic Studies program. Franklin returned to Hawai‘i to become its first director. Under his leadership, Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i trained a generation of scholars engaged in issues of race and class. In 1985, he co-authored “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawai‘i 1885-1924.” From 1989 to 1991, Franklin served as president of the Association for Asian American Studies, then at the dawn of its existence.

In 1990, Franklin left Hawai‘i. In the following years he held visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College, Columbia University and Princeton University. He used his skills to help create multiple positions/programs in Ethnic Studies and Asian American studies.

In 1997, Franklin was named founding director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program (now Center) in Washington, D.C. There he worked to bring attention to Asian American and Pacific Islander history, arts and culture. He compiled a broad record of hosting events and celebrations, raising private funds to cover much of the costs.

Even amid such an administrative burden, he continued to produce scholarship. He published an important monograph, “No Sword to Bury” (2003), on the Varsity Victory Volunteers — the forerunners of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team — plus an edited anthology of primary sources, “The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience” (2003). In 2010, Franklin left the Smithsonian. He spent a year directing the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, then retired. In 2012, he received the AAAS Lifetime Achievement Award. Meanwhile, he published his ethnomusicological history “Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i” (2013).

In 2015, Franklin was invited to become the John McCloy Visiting Professor at Amherst College. Although he was in his mid-70s and had already forged a distinguished career, the position was a new departure. He took particular pleasure in occupying a chair named for McCloy, who as Assistant Secretary of War had been a main architect of wartime Japanese American removal. At Amherst, Franklin taught diverse courses and brought his students together with creative artists and political leaders. Once Franklin completed his term as McCloy Professor, he was named Simpson lecturer. However, he was diagnosed with cancer soon after, and he died in September 2022.

I met Franklin Odo in spring 1999, when I attended my first AAAS annual meeting. I was writing my dissertation on Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese Americans but I had not published anything and was very aware of being a non-Asian in an Asian field. I went up to Franklin and introduced myself. I was bowled over by his friendly manner.

I next met Franklin the following year, when I was in Washington, D.C. on a postdoc. Franklin invited me to lunch. With engaging frankness, he remarked that it was good for the field of Asian American Studies, both intellectually and politically, to have non-Asians working in it, and he encouraged me in my career choice.

Franklin remarked that he had personal reasons to be interested in my research on Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese Americans. According to family legend, his American-born mother had traveled to Japan, then had trouble with her papers on her return to Hawai‘i, and was in danger of being excluded. However, FDR was then making a tour of Hawai‘i and the territory’s immigration officials granted her entry in honor of the president’s visit. In gratitude, Mrs. Odo named her son Franklin.

In fall 2001, Franklin kindly invited me to a meeting of a group that he and Henry Yu had put together to create a new Asian American history textbook. While that project was never realized, I was excited to work with leading scholars. One evening, I came across Franklin shooting pool with great expertise. Franklin explained that he had honed his skills at the pool table during his college years to earn extra money. I reflected on how Franklin’s Princeton experience foreshadowed his rare talent for mixing in elite circles, while remaining down-to-earth.

I had some professional exchanges with Franklin in these years. After I wrote a positive review of his book “No Sword to Bury” for a scholarly journal, Franklin thanked me for my comments and expressed graciousness over my (small) criticisms. I in turn received a favorable, if critical, report from an outside reader on a book manuscript, which led to its eventual publication. From the contents of the report, I strongly suspected that Franklin was its author, though he never said so.

I chiefly saw Franklin at the annual AAAS conferences. I discovered that Franklin was one of the few senior scholars who continued to attend every year. It was at the conference in Honolulu in 2009 that I developed a deeper friendship with him. Franklin invited me and my partner to hang out at the bar and chat. He was reveling in being back on his home turf, and he was especially warm and expansive. I made it a point thereafter of meeting him for drinks when I saw him.

During the mid-2010s, Franklin invited me to join him on two important and slightly delicate missions. Both times I was uncertain how much I could help, but I felt such gratitude and esteem for the man that I was ready to do whatever he asked. The first assignment was to serve on the advisory board for a theme study on sites of interest to Asian Americans, for the National Historic Landmarks program of the National Park Service. As previously with the textbook project, Franklin assembled a remarkable group of scholars. I joked to my new colleagues that my friends in Montreal were very impressed to learn that I was working with the NHL — until they discovered that it was not hockey!

The other assignment was serving on a scholars’ committee to advise the founders of the Topaz Museum on creating their permanent exhibition. They were at odds with community stakeholders over various issues. While our work was confidential, I was able to witness Franklin’s tremendous leadership skills, as well as his flair for diplomacy.

The last time I saw Franklin was in 2017. After taking up the McCloy chair, he put together a mini-conference at Amherst on Asian Americans in World War II, and asked me to speak. I was honored to be invited. That evening, he invited the speakers home to dinner. I was pleased to see Franklin’s fond interaction with his wife Enid.

In 2021, I gave a Webinar through Densho to publicize my new book “The Unsung Great.” I was delighted when Franklin signed on. He e-mailed me afterward to praise my book, and as always pressed me to open up new directions in my research. I took the opportunity to write him about how much he had meant to me and how I admired him.

After Franklin died, I was speaking of him with my friend Robert Hayashi. Robert had taken a leading role in bringing Franklin to Amherst as the McCloy chair, and was devastated by his passing. I comforted Robert by reminding him that Franklin, like my beloved mother, passed away just before the Jewish High Holy Days. I mentioned a Jewish legend that only the greatest and most holy people die then, because their slate is clear of sins and they don’t need to atone for them by fasting on Yom Kippur. Franklin was an inspiration, and I am proud to have known him.

Nichi Bei News columnist Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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