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Irene Hirano Inouye, widow of Daniel Inouye, was a top leader in U.S.-Japan relations

  • BRUCE ASATO / 2017
                                U.S.-Japan Council President Irene Hirano Inouye attended the 2017 dedication ceremony for the naming of the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

    BRUCE ASATO / 2017

    U.S.-Japan Council President Irene Hirano Inouye attended the 2017 dedication ceremony for the naming of the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Irene Hirano Inouye, the widow of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, died Tuesday in Los Angeles after an extended illness, according to the U.S.-Japan Council. She was 71.

Born in 1948, Hirano Inouye was the president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 2008, as well as president and founding CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles for 20 years. The council did not disclose her illness.

Inouye and the longtime U.S. senator representing Hawaii were married in a small, private ceremony in Los Angeles in 2008, according to a Honolulu Advertiser article. She was 59 at the time and he was 83. He died on Dec. 17, 2012.

>> Photo Gallery: Irene Inouye: 1948-2020

“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 U.S.-Japan Council board chairwoman Phyllis Campbell in a letter to members. “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.”

Hirano Inouye in January had announced plans to retire from her post later this year, the council said.

Norman Mineta, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Japanese American National Museum, expressed condolences to Hirano Inouye’s family.

She was, he said, a “caring, passionate person with unquestioned integrity.” Under her guidance, the museum grew from its humble beginnings in an old warehouse near Little Tokyo to the world-class affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution that it is today.

Hirano Inouye earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration at the University of Southern California in the early 1970s, and went on to serve in numerous leadership positions at prestigious institutions.

She also had served as chairwoman and trustee of the Ford and Kresge foundations, and chairwoman of the Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Center, among many other positions.

Honolulu’s community leaders expressed sadness at the news of Inouye’s death, remembering her as a strong and dedicated leader.

“My thoughts go out to the Yasutake and Inouye ohana today as we mourn the passing of Irene Hirano Inouye,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono in a statement. “Irene’s passion for serving her community on the local, national and international levels was profoundly evident in her life’s work.”

In the years following the senator’s death, she established the Daniel K. Inouye Institute to preserve the senator’s legacy. Hirono recalled joining Hirano Inouye last June for the christening of the USS Daniel K. Inouye in Maine.

“Like so many others, I will miss her friendship, determination and spirit, but I and others will continue to build upon the strong foundations that she laid,” she said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he was deeply saddened to learn of Hirano Inouye’s passing.

“In her own right, Irene was a leader who brought people together to recognize the contributions of the Japanese American community, and to support their efforts,” said Caldwell in a statement. “Later in life, Irene won our hearts by being a strong and loving partner to our senior Senator. She was a person of integrity, accomplishment and grace. Her passing is a great loss to many communities around the world.”

Jacce Mikulanec, president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, recalls first meeting Hirano Inouye at a convention in Denver in 2008, along with Sen. Inouye, and called her as a very generous and incredible leader who was very supportive of the center.

Hirano Inouye is survived by her mother, Jean Yasutake; daughter, Jennifer Hirano; sisters Linda (Mike) Hayashi and Patricia Yasutake; brother Steven (Marla) Yasutake;  stepson, Kenny (Jessica) Inouye; and granddaughter, Maggie Inouye.

The U.S.-Japan Council said plans for a memorial service will be made after the COVID-19 crisis has ended. Hirano Inouye’s family has requested that donations be made in her name to the U.S.-Japan Council in lieu of cards or flowers.

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Correction: This story has been updated with a more complete list of survivors.

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