Don Nakanishi In Memoriam


Don Nakanishi, director emeritus of the Asian American Studies Center, and professor emeritus in Asian American Studies and Education at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), passed away in Los Angeles unexpectedly on March 21, 2016. He was 66.

Don was a pioneer in the study of Asian American politics, and his career exemplified the role of the scholar-citizen. Many political scientists on U.S. racial and ethnic politics owe a huge debt to Don for the trails he blazed. He was a pioneer in helping to establish the intellectual grounds of Asian American politics as the community has taken shape politically, from the 1970s  to the present.  He was one of the nation’s first Asian American politics scholars to be a member of the American Political Science Association.

Don was born to Japanese American immigrant parents who were interned during World War II.  Growing up in the predominantly Mexican American, working-class neighborhood of City Terrace in East Los Angeles, he was the first student from Roosevelt High School to attend Yale. During his senior year at Roosevelt, Don was chosen the “Boy Mayor” of Los Angeles and was elected as Student Body President, which would facilitate his lifelong interest in politics.  During his first term in New Haven his intellectual interest in examining the intersection of race and politics for Asian Americans was sparked by an unfortunate but pivotal interaction with his classmates. On December 7th, 1967, classmates came to his dorm room chanting “Bomb Pearl Harbor!” and began throwing water balloons at him (a ritual practiced at campuses around the country in that era). Don, uncertain what to make of the incident, went to the library to get Prejudice, War, and the Constitution (ten Broek, Barnhart, and Matson’s classic work), and began to educate himself on the history of Japanese Americans, and Asian America more broadly.

A faculty member at UCLA for 35 years, Don Nakanishi served as the director of the Asian American Studies Center from 1990-2010. Courtesy UCLA.
A faculty member at UCLA for 35 years, Don Nakanishi served as the director of the Asian American Studies Center from 1990-2010. Courtesy UCLA.

A lifetime of scholarship and activism was to follow. While at Yale, Don helped to establish a chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano Aztlan (MEChA) with Mexican American students.  As Don recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 2010 after his retirement, reflecting on having grown up in East Los Angeles during the student walkouts of the 1960s: “What makes me into an Asian American was getting an identity as a Chicano first.” In 1969, Don and Glen Omatsu helped to organize Asian American students and gather support for the repeal of the Emergency Detention Act (Title II) of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950. Don also participated in efforts to support the grape boycott in 1970.

In 1971, toward the end of his Yale career, Don and Lowell Chun-Hoon founded Amerasia Journal, which would become the nation’s first major scholarly journal of Asian American studies. Shortly thereafter, Don, Lowell, and the journal moved to UCLA, although Don would return to the east coast for a short while, to earn a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard.

Don’s formal association with UCLA began in 1974, when he began working part-time for the Asian American Studies Center. He was appointed an acting assistant professor in political science at UCLA, and in 1982 received an appointment as an assistant professor in Education and Asian American studies. When he came up for tenure four years later, he became embroiled in an intense, high-profile three-year battle with ramifications far beyond his own career.

Don was denied in his initial application for tenure. From the beginning, it was clear that the review was marked by irregularities. As evidence of racial and other bias mounted, Don enlisted the aid of attorney Dale Minami, who recently helped lead a team of pro bono attorneys to successfully overturn the wartime convictions of Japanese Americans. As evidence from the case mounted, it became clear that one issue was the very legitimacy of Asian American studies. Undergraduate and graduate students rallied in support of Don, as did Asian American community groups and individuals outside of the university community. These groups would eventually garner the support of key members of the California State Legislature who withheld state funding from UCLA in support of Nakanishi’s tenure. Finally, in 1989, after a final strong positive vote from the Graduate School of Education, he was granted tenure.  His tenure allowed him to establish the fields of Asian American Studies and Asian American Politics. And Don made all of his days as a tenured faculty member count, by building and creating a sense of intellectual and scholarly community in these fields.  Today, four generations of teachers, professors, and community leaders who have taught tens of thousands of young people about the racialization and politicization of Asian Americans in the U.S. can be traced to Don Nakanishi’s original vision and the classes he and his students started at Yale, UCLA, and across the country.

Don’s scholarship was pathbreaking and visionary. He published over a hundred articles, edited books, and reports. He is widely credited as being the first to show that Asian American registration and voting rates were low, despite relatively high overall socioeconomic status. He also was one of the first to emphasize the need to consider what is today called transnationalism in the study of Asian Americans, observing that linkages between country of origin and country of residence could be important in shaping political behavior and attitudes.  For example, in a groundbreaking essay titled “Minorities and International Politics,” published in 1976, Nakanishi argued that a distinct politics was developing among Asian immigrant communities in the United States, one informed by their experiences with discrimination and legal exclusion in the U.S., as well as by international politics. In 2001, he co-edited with Andrew Aoki a PS symposium on Asian Pacific American politics, the first such work to appear in a political science journal.

Throughout his career, Don was the model of scholar as active citizen. In 1976, he started collecting information on Asian Pacific Americans serving in elected and appointed positions nationwide. In 1995, with the assistance of James Lai, it became the series known as the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, which has become an invaluable resource for citizens, scholars, practitioners, and the media. President Clinton appointed him to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, and he served on many other boards, including those of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, Japanese American National Museum, and Asian American Justice Center.

Don took on many other important leadership roles. He served as president of the Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) from 1983-1985. From 1990 to 2010, he was director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC), the most prominent such center in the country.  During this period, under his leadership, the national and international profile of the AASC gained greater prominence through his fund-raising, recruitment and subsequent tenure of AASC faculty members, and creation of endowed chairs. In 1995, he was one of the founding members of the APSA organized section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, and received its lifetime achievement award upon his retirement in 2009.

Don received numerous other awards for his scholarly achievements and public service, including the National Community Leadership Award from the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies in 2007, the Yale Medal from Yale University in 2008, and the inaugural Engaged Scholar Award from the AAAS in 2009.

Don’s passing was a grave loss for the general study of U.S. racial and ethnic politics, and specifically for the field of Asian American politics.  He was a key supporter of junior scholars in his field, known for his generous approach to mentorship. Over the past 40 years, many in the field of Asian American politics have been touched by the special combination of intellectual leadership and personal kindness he embodied. He regularly communicated with and encouraged a large and ever-growing cadre of young scholars, he co-authored with junior faculty, and he wrote thousands of letters for students and faculty at every stage of their careers.  Adding to his remarkable support of individual scholars, he nurtured and grew a new field. And because of his trailblazing scholarship, those of us who study Asian American politics have never been intellectually alone or isolated. We always had Don Nakanishi, and we still have the community that he made possible. While his presence will be greatly missed, his legacy that inspired a countless number of scholars continues to live on.

Andrew L. Aoki, Augsburg College
James S. Lai, Santa Clara University
Pei-te Lien, University of California Santa Barbara
Janelle S. Wong, University of Maryland