Manzanar Committee Statement On The Passing of UCLA Professor Don T. Nakanishi

LOS ANGELES — The Manzanar Committee wishes to express its deepest sympathies to the family of Professor Emeritus of Education and former Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC), Don T. Nakanishi, 66, who died on March 21.

Nakanishi was born and raised in East Los Angeles where he attended Roosevelt High School. He did his undergraduate work at Yale University, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1971 before attending Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in Political Science in 1978.

At UCLA, Nakanishi’s distinguished career spanned 35 years, the last twenty as the AASC Director. Along the way, his record of achievement for his path breaking, pioneering research, along with over 100 books, articles and reports on Asian American communities that helped open doors for Asian Americans in politics, education, and many other institutions, earned him countless awards and accolades.

Nakanishi, who co-founded Amerasia Journal, the leading academic journal in the field of Asian American Studies in 1971, is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of Asian American Studies. He taught and mentored hundreds of students, many of whom have become faculty at colleges and universities around the world, writers, scholars, teachers, community leaders and even elected officials.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton, Nakanishi served on the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, which administered the national public education and research program established under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that provided a national apology and reparations for the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.

In 1987, Nakanishi began a three-year fight against UCLA, which initially denied him tenure (permanent faculty appointment), with his tenure review committee stating that his research on Asian American communities was “irrelevant,” making him “not qualified” for tenure.

Nakanishi went on to engage the University on all fronts—legally, politically, and in the social justice arena, eventually becoming the focal point of a movement that became a national cause celebre for justice and equal access.

“Don Nakanishi wasn’t just fighting for himself,” said Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee, who, as a UCLA undergraduate and student activist, was deeply involved in the movement. “Don understood that our entire community had much, much more at stake than his tenure. After all, the racism in his tenure review was pretty obvious—they stacked his tenure review committee with those who weren’t qualified to evaluate research related to Asian Americans.”

“We knew that if Don Nakanishi, our best and brightest, could not get tenure at that time, that door would slam shut for many more years, maybe decades,” added Matsuda. “We knew that we had to make sure that door was pushed wide open, and for good, and so did Don. It was why he fought, and it was why we all fought. We were all inspired by Don.”

Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey praised Nakanishi’s commitment to community-based research.

“Don Nakanishi had an immeasurable impact on Asian American Studies in particular, and higher education in general,” said Embrey. “Don Nakanishi was a rare breed who could weld theory with practice. Whether through Amerasia Journal, through his teaching and mentoring of students, through his work in the struggle for redress and reparations, and during his fight for tenure, he blazed new trails and left an impressive legacy that few can match.”

“This is a terrible loss for our community,” added Embrey. “On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to extend our condolences and best wishes to his wife, Marsha, his son, Tom, along with all of his family and friends.”

Details on a celebration of Nakanishi’s life, hosted by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, are pending.

The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger. A non-profit organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site. For more information, check out our blog at, call us at (323) 662-5102, and e-mail us at You can also follow the Manzanar Commitee on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube.


LEAD PHOTO: Professor Don T. Nakanishi. Photo courtesy UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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