Remembering Don Nakanishi

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

We’ve lost one of the pioneering figures in Asian American studies with the passing of Don Nakanishi yesterday at age 66. A friend and mentor to me and to dozens if not hundreds of others in his thirty or so years as a professor at UCLA, he will be remembered in history for his activism at the very beginning of the Asian American Studies movement, for his tenure battle at UCLA that changed the course of the field and the university, and for his twenty-year directorship of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center that saw it become the center of the Asian American studies universe. But I will remember him for his kindness, wisdom, and generosity, qualities that remarkably remained in place and even increased as his fame and power grew.

Like many who entered the Asian American studies fray, Don came from humble and somewhat dissident roots. His parents were Kibei and working class. Initially incarcerated at Poston, they answered “no-no” to the loyalty questionnaire and ended up imprisoned at Tule Lake. Don was raised in Boyle Heights, a multi-ethnic—though increasingly Latino—neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. He attended Roosevelt High School, played sports in Japanese American leagues, and was one of the few Sansei who attended Japanese language school through high school.

Influenced by the urban unrest of the 1960s, Yale University began recruiting in “underprivileged” area, and Don was one of the first to benefit from this, becoming a student there in 1967. He became radicalized there, influenced in part by racial harassment he suffered on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. Inspired to learn more about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, he became a student activist at Yale. By the time he graduated, he had helped found pioneering Mexican American and Asian American student organizations there, co-organized the first Asian American studies class at Yale, and co-founded the first Asian American academic journal, Amerasia Journal, in 1971.

(Don and fellow Yale student activist Glenn Omatsu contributed pieces to the Asian American Movement newspaper Gidra in 1969–70 on the situation for Asian American students back east and their activities at Yale. You can view these in the Densho archives.)

Graduating in 1971 with a degree in political science, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard in 1978 and landed a faculty position at UCLA in the Department of Education shortly thereafter.

I first met Don when I entered UCLA as a graduate student in Asian American Studies in 1985. All of us grad students at that time took the methods class that Don always taught, and he quickly became a mentor and member of my thesis committee. It was remarkable that he always seemed to have time to talk his students and others who wanted to see him, as if he didn’t have anything else to do. In all the years and visits with him, this characteristic never seemed to change, even as his duties grew.

Two years later, we were shocked to learn that Don had been denied tenure at UCLA. A group of his students in Asian American Studies and in Education banded together to protest this decision. A three-year battle ensued that brought together various Asian American community members in the academic world and that spread to the political world as well. When he won the battle and gained tenure at UCLA—and assumed the directorship of the Asian American Studies Center (AASC)—it was a great moment for the field and a turning point at UCLA.

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Like a movie superhero who had survived numerous attempts on his life, Don now wielded great power at UCLA. He used it to build the AACS, dramatically increasing the number of faculty and broadening the scope of its activity and influence. While many would be bitter about the fight and seek vengeance, Don instead reached out to his former adversaries to work with them, bringing many over to his side.

Though his primary research interests were elsewhere (he is probably best known for his work on Asian American political representation and Asian American college admissions), he has made important contributions to the study of the wartime incarceration and its aftermath. His doctoral dissertation looked at Jewish American and Japanese American political leaders and the impact the Holocaust and wartime incarceration had on them. He published other articles on the impact of incarceration and its 1980s resurrection on the JA community. In 1992, he oversaw a series of events at UCLA commemorating the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 and edited a special issue of Amerasia Journal on that anniversary.

In his contribution to that issue, titled “Surviving Democracy’s ‘Mistake’: Japanese Americans & the Enduring Legacy of Executive Order 9066,” he wrote that as Japanese Americans, “we must share and apply the lessons, the insights, and indeed the memories of the Internment more broadly and for other individuals and groups of our society and the world,” and that “we must continue to bear witness to this society when civil liberties are being trampled, and when others are being invidiously and violently scapegoated during periods of war, economic difficulties, and profound social change.” This is a sentiment that is sadly more true today than ever.

After twenty years at the helm of the AACS, Don retired in 2010, remaining an emeritus professor in the Graduate School of Education and in the Asian American Studies Department. He traveled, continued with his research, and remained active in the community.

I last saw him about six months ago at a 45th anniversary event for Amerasia Journal. Looking ever youthful (Don was one of those people who looked old when he was young and young when was older, thus appearing never to change), he seemed to be enjoying retirement with his wife Marcia and was proud of his son Tom, who had followed in his footsteps at Yale. It is sad that those retirement years turned out to be so short.

Though he didn’t do all that he had hoped to, he did much. His list of academic work is impressive and his work on Asian American politics and education will long be cited. He was proud in particular that his National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac—a roster of APA elected officials—grew from a stapled fifteen-page publication in 1979 to a bound 260 page volume by 2012, reflecting the growing political influence of Asian Pacific Americans, something Don himself played a role in.

But I think his greatest legacy is going to end up being the hundreds of former students who will carry forward his message and teachings in their own work and lives. And I think that’s just the way he would have wanted it.

Thanks for everything, Don. Rest in peace.

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