When the Association for Asian American Studies pays posthumous tribute to Dr. Don Nakanishi at its annual meeting this week in Miami, conference-goers will honor an academician who was more than just a trailblazing scholar, popular professor and mentor.
Without Nakanishi, whose watershed lawsuit in the 1980s to gain tenure was closely watched by colleagues nationally, the field of Asian American studies might not exist today.
Or the discipline would have grown much slower if Nakanishi had not battled back when he was initially denied tenure at the University of California, Los Angeles, based on his pioneering research about Asian Americans in politics and education.
Nakanishi, 66, died on March 21. Since then, tributes and remembrances have poured in from colleagues and former students from around the globe, and the Association for Asian American Studies is the latest to do so.
A third-generation Japanese American, Nakanishi grew up in East Los Angeles among Chicanos and Jews and was high school student body president. As a Yale undergraduate, his pre-med intentions faded after a disturbing incident.
In December 1966, he was in his dorm room when a group of his non-Asian peers burst through the door, pelted him with water balloons and chanted, “Bomb Pearl Harbor, bomb Pearl Harbor.” One student stood before a drenched Nakanishi and recited former President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war speech.
“I didn’t know what to make of it — whether to laugh or cry,” he recounted to a UCLA interviewer many years later. He couldn’t grasp why his peers felt so strongly about world events from 25 years earlier, before any of them were born.
He scrounged up a Yale library book about Asian American studies — there were few at the time — and learned that, in response to Japan bombing Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Roosevelt issued a xenophobic executive order that singled out Americans of Japanese descent. About 120,000 Japanese Americans were herded into rudimentary incarceration camps during World War II. The Yale students were lumping Nakanishi with the overseas Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor even thought he was U.S.-born, like they were.
The subject of the incarceration camps had not been taught at his K-12 public schools, and he realized that his parents, who never spoke of their World War II difficulties, had been among those confined at the camps.
Academically, Nakanishi altered course. After earning a bachelor’s in political science at Yale, he obtained a doctorate in the same field at Harvard University.
The field of ethnic studies was born after a high-profile, months-long, student-led strike in the late 1960s at San Francisco State University, during which the students had demanded ethnic studies be incorporated into curriculum. However, like breakthroughs of racial barriers in other areas of society, progress did not come easily or quickly, so role models for Nakanishi were few and far between, and unprecedented research was tedious.
In the 1970s, for example, Nakanishi began compiling, through word of mouth, names of elected officials of Asian descent around the country and publishing them in a national almanac, a volume that he updated many times in his career.
Nakanishi was also credited as the first scholar to demonstrate that Asian Americans, despite having high levels of education and income that were usually associated with active political participation, actually had lower voter registration and turnout numbers than expected. This was one of numerous instances in which Nakanishi’s data-driven research in Asian American political participation and educational access and representation poked holes in the so-called model minority myth.
However, not everyone had high regard for Nakanishi’s research. As a young faculty member at UCLA, his superiors had specifically asked him to undertake studies in Asian American topics to try to grow the fledgling discipline. When they denied his application for tenure in the 1980s, they called his research findings weak.
Nakanishi hired a lawyer and sued UCLA, claiming racial bias. At the time, he was the only faculty member of Asian descent in what was then UCLA’s Graduate School of Education.
What followed was a protracted, grassroots battle in which Nakanishi and his allies mobilized countless students, community residents and a handful of sympathetic faculty. Frequent sit-ins and demonstrations took place on campus supporting Nakanishi. People sent op-ed pieces to newspapers and magazines complaining about the tenure decision.
The controversy bubbled up to the halls of the California State Legislature.
Although Asian American politicians were few, people of Asian descent did serve as key aides to powerful lawmakers at that time, recalled Dr. Dale Shimasaki, who was an education adviser to then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. Now a lobbyist, Shimasaki shared his recollections at the recent annual conference of the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE).
During that time, in the 1980s, it became common for some of UCLA’s budget requests for building construction and other funds to “suddenly” get stuck in gridlock or mysteriously disappear from approved measures, Shimasaki said, explaining how growing numbers of legislators believed the Nakanishi decision was absurd and were trying to pressure UCLA into a reversal.
Amid public displays of support, Nakanishi was often vilified on campus.
What made him press on, he told others after the battle ended, was his fear that failure to win his case could silence all of the scholarly research projects in Asian American studies. After all, if an Ivy League-trained scholar like Nakanishi could not gain tenure at a major public university in the state second only to Hawaii in terms of Asian American population and visibility, what hope could a scholar in the Midwest or the South possibly have for his or her Asian American research to be taken seriously?
After three years, UCLA awarded him tenure in 1989 and avoided trial.
A year later, university officials appointed Nakanishi director of its Asian American Studies Center, a position he held for 20 years. By the time he retired from the faculty in 2009 after 35 years of teaching, he was a professor in Asian American studies, social sciences and comparative education.
“Don’s many contributions were pioneering,” said Dr. David Yoo, current director of the UCLA center. “His visionary influence played an indispensable role in establishing Asian American studies as a viable and relevant field. His fight for tenure has been taught as a significant case study for multiracial, student-community mobilization.”
Nakanishi left full-time academic life to join a grassroots movement trying to aid unincorporated East Los Angeles into becoming a separate municipality. However, he continued his research, delivering lectures at UCLA and elsewhere periodically and publishing scholarly articles.
Nakanishi is survived by his wife, Dr. Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, a recently retired administrator from the California State University system, and their son, Thomas.