Saturday, July 21

Professor emeritus remembered for legacy of Asian-American scholarship


Don Nakanishi, a pioneering scholar in Asian-American studies and director emeritus of the Asian American Studies Center, died Monday of cardiorespiratory arrest. (Courtesy of David Yoo)

Don Nakanishi, a pioneering scholar in Asian-American studies and director emeritus of the Asian American Studies Center, died Monday of cardiorespiratory arrest. (Courtesy of David Yoo)


Don T. Nakanishi, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, died of cardiorespiratory arrest March 21 in Los Angeles. He was 66.

Nakanishi was a professor at UCLA for 35 years and was the director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center from 1990 to 2010.

Nakanishi was a nationwide pioneering Asian-American scholar, said David Yoo, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Nakanishi devoted his entire career to study Asian-Americans’ and Pacific Islanders’ education and political participation, Yoo said.

Nakanishi was the first scholar to demonstrate that Asian-Americans have low voter registration and turnout despite having high levels of education and income that are usually associated with active political participation, Yoo said. He wrote more than 100 books, articles and reports on the political participation of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and other ethnic and racial groups in American politics.

Yoo said Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were understudied in the United States until the Asian American movement in the late 1960s. The movement called for exploring various dimensions of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders’ life.

After Nakanishi received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1978, he applied his professional knowledge to encourage Asian-Americans to have their own voice in American politics by systematically gathering data, Yoo added.

Yoo said Nakanishi not only put much effort in his own career but was also concerned with academic accomplishments and the welfare of future generations of scholars.

In 1989, Nakanishi successfully challenged the university’s original decision to deny him tenure, said King-Kok Cheung, an English professor who was a long-time colleague of Nakanishi in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Some professors at the time said Nakanishi’s study was outside the school of education’s mainstream research and his research was below UCLA’s standards, Yoo said.

She said she asked Nakanishi why he fought so hard for his tenure at that time. Nakanishi replied he was doing it for those who came up for tenure after him.

Nakanishi was also a caring mentor for his students, Yoo said. He was often the first to advocate for his students and celebrate their accomplishments, Yoo added.

OiYan Poon, an assistant professor at Loyola University who was Nakanishi’s student, said Nakanishi was a supportive academic mentor and an inspiring life tutor.

“He is really a humble person who listens more than he talks,” Poon said. “He always comforts people and gives us power over many obstacles.”

In one instance, Nakanishi challenged her to conduct an analysis of a proposed change to the University of California admissions review policy, she said.

“I feel that was indeed a turning point in my career, and I believe (my project) helped advance ideals of community engagement and racial equity,” Poon said.

Cheung said he thinks Nakanishi was a selfless scholar. His work on Asian-Americans encompassed several groups, including not only Japanese-Americans like himself but also groups like Chinese-Americans and Filipino-Americans, she added.

“He never discriminated within Asian-Americans,” Cheung said. “All he cared about was (bringing) everyone together.”

Nakanishi’s influence extended to countries like Japan and Australia, Yoo said. Nakanishi helped local researchers in those countries conduct ethnic studies according to their respective social conditions and provided new perspectives for them, he added.

Later scholars should be encouraged to follow Nakanishi’s example and to extend ethnicity studies into wider ranges, Cheung said.

Upon Nakanishi’s retirement in 2010, the UCLA community established the Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies to financially support UCLA faculty and graduate students in Asian-American studies, who are pursuing outstanding community-based engaged research.

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center will provide information about the memorial, including a center-hosted celebration of Nakanishi’s life in Los Angeles, Yoo said.

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