Pioneering AAPI Studies scholar and beloved community leader Professor Emeritus Dr. Don Nakanishi passed yesterday afternoon, according to a Facebook post by his family. He was 66.
Born in East Los Angeles to former incarcerees of Japanese American concentration camps, Nakanishi earned undergraduate and doctorate degrees in political science from Yale and Harvard before dedicating his career to the study of Asian American political participation and civic engagement. Publishing over a hundred books over a storied academic career at UCLA, Nakanishi was the first to demonstrate through his research the now widely accepted conundrum of low AAPI voter registration and turnout. Prior to his retirement in 2009, Nakanishi also served for 20 years as Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the largest and most widely-renowned AAPI studies department in the country.
Nakanishi’s impact to AAPI Studies cannot be understated. In addition to his work to preserve and grow the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Nakanishi co-founded and served as publisher for Amerasia Journal — the nation’s highest-ranking academic journal for AAPI Studies — in 1971 while still an undergraduate student. Nakanishi also served as national president of the Association of Asian American Studies, and is renowned throughout the community as a professional mentor, generous collaborator, and personal friend for numerous students and scholars in the field.
Nakanishi was the recipient of numerous lifetime achievement awards over the course of his career, and upon his retirement from UCLA, his family and colleagues established a research award in his name: The Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship for Graduate & Undergradate Students, which recognizes outstanding student and faculty contributions to AAPI Studies. At Yale, Nakanishi’s undergraduate alma mater, the Nakanishi Prize was also established and is awarded to “graduating seniors who have provided exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College during their undergraduate career while maintaining high standards of academic achievement.”
With his passing, Nakanishi leaves behind his wife, Dr. Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, and son, Thomas, as well as a community in mourning. In lieu of flowers or gifts, Nakanishi’s family encourage community members to commemorate Nakanishi’s life and work today by donating to either the UCLA or Yale awards named in his honour.
As someone who has been indelibly changed by Don Nakanishi’s countless contributions to the community to formalize and highlight research around the AAPI community, I grieve today at his passing. I also redouble my commitment to the #WeNeedAAPIStudies and #WeNeedEthnicStudies fights.
Rest in power, Dr. Don Nakanishi. You will be missed.