Irene Hirano Inouye, who led the Japanese American National Museum for 20 years and later worked to preserve the legacy of her late husband U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, died Tuesday in Los Angeles.
She was 71 and had been fighting an extended illness, according to the U.S.-Japan Council which she had been leading.
Hired as CEO and president of the Japanese American National Museum in 1988, Inouye raised tens of millions of dollars and attracted 65,000 members, according to a 2008 feature in the Honolulu Advertiser that also noted her outreach to communities beyond Asian Americans.
Under her leadership, the museum hit milestones like the 1999 opening of the 85,000 square-foot Pavilion and held popular exhibitions that examined everything from the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to the art of Giant Robot, the pop culture magazine.
It was during her tenure that she met her future husband, Hawaii’s iconic politician, Sen. Inouye, who chaired the museum’s board of governors.
When they married in 2008, she stepped down from leading the museum and began to split her time between Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Honolulu.
That year she started serving as founding president of the U.S.-Japan Council, which promoted strong ties between the two countries from its headquarters in D.C.
Only recently had Inouye begun to slow down, announcing her plans to retire this year from the council.
“Irene was a singular figure in U.S.-Japan relations, respected by leaders on both sides of the Pacific,” the council’s board chair Phyllis Campbell wrote in a letter to the membership. “She infused the organization with her wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit… and managed to approach every challenge with fearlessness and determination.”
After her husband died in 2012, Inouye stayed active in championing his pet causes such as leadership development. She also publicly butted heads with then-Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie when he opted not to appoint her husband’s protege to fill his vacant seat.
A sansei or third-generation Japanese American, Inouye attended the University of Southern California as an undergrad and later earned a master’s degree in public administration from the school.
The U.S.-Japan Council said a memorial service would be announced after the current coronavirus pandemic is over.