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Bridge between US and Japan, Irene Hirano Inouye dies at 71

NEW YORK — Irene Hirano Inouye, the founder and president of the U.S.-Japan Council and widow of late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, died on Tuesday, following an extended illness, the organization said. She was 71.


She had informed the organization of her decision to retire in January and was advising the board of directors in its search for a chief executive officer to succeed her, the council said.


Headquartered in Washington with staff in California, Hawaii and Japan, the council is a non-profit educational organization that connects leaders on both sides to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship.


Soft-spoken and friendly to all, Hirano Inouye was widely respected in Japanese political and diplomatic circles. She was depended upon as a trustworthy bridge between the two countries.


The organization she co-founded in 2008 has almost 700 members in the U.S. and Japan.


“Irene was a singular figure in U.S.-Japan relations, respected by leaders on both sides of the Pacific as she carried out the mission of USJC,” said the board’s chair Phyllis Campbell. “Since the founding of the council, she infused the organization with her wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit, kept her pulse on every aspect of USJC while keeping her eye on the strategic vision, and managed to approach every challenge with fearlessness and determination.”


In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in December 2016, just days before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a historic visit to Pearl Harbor, Hirano Inouye said her husband would have been “extremely pleased” that the prime minister was making the trip.


Shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans.


It was a traumatic event that left lifelong scars in the hearts of Japanese Americans.


Daniel Inouye enlisted and volunteered to be part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was made up of second-generation Japanese Americans, many of them from Hawaii, like himself. He lost his right arm to a grenade wound.


“My late husband… used to always talk about that experience, of being born in the U.S. but having his own American government labeling him as an enemy alien after Dec. 7,” Hirano Inouye said in the interview.


“It is important,” she said, “that we can bring to a close this chapter of our history and continue to move forward.”


Hirano Inouye was a third-generation Japanese American, whose grandfather was interned with his seven children and his property confiscated. She was president and founding CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles before marrying Sen. Inouye in 2008. She co-founded U.S.-Japan Council with her husband and other Japanese American leaders.


She is survived by her daughter, Jennifer; stepson, Ken Inouye; sister, Patti Yasutake; and brother-in-law, Michael Uno, according to the Pacific Citizen newspaper.

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