Irene Hirano Inouye, Founding CEO Of The Japanese American National Museum, Dies At 71

Irene Hirano Inouye receives a folded flag at the memorial service for her husband Senator Daniel Inouye as then-President Obama looks on. (Jim Watson /AFP via Getty Images)

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Irene Hirano Inouye, who led the Japanese American National Museum for 20 years and later worked to preserve the legacy of her late husband U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, died Tuesday in Los Angeles.

She was 71 and had been fighting an extended illness, according to the U.S.-Japan Council, which she had been leading.

Hired as CEO and president of the Japanese American National Museum in 1988, Inouye oversaw the institution's metamorphosis from a warehouse near Little Tokyo into a world-recognized affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

"She was a genuine leader," said the actor George Takei, who chaired the board of trustees from 2000 to 2004. "She had this vision and she was able to get people to share that vision with her."

Inouye raised tens of millions of dollars and attracted 65,000 members, according to a 2008 feature in the Honolulu Advertiser.

Under her leadership, the museum hit milestones like the 1999 opening of the 85,000 square-foot Pavilion and held popular exhibitions that examined everything from the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to the art of Giant Robot, the pop culture magazine.

Norman Mineta, the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is the current chair of the museum's board of trustees.

"What [Inouye] accomplished and what she meant to all of us will not be forgotten," Mineta said.

It was during her tenure that she met her future husband, Hawaii's iconic politician, Sen. Daniel Inouye, who chaired the museum's board of governors.

Irene Hirano Inouye meets former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso in 2008, as her husband Sen. Daniel Inouye looks on. (Photo by Shizuo Kambayashi-Pool/Getty Images)

When they married in 2008, she stepped down from leading the museum and began to split her time between Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Honolulu.

That year she started serving as founding president of the U.S.-Japan Council, which promoted strong ties between the two countries from its headquarters in D.C.

Takei said after the incarceration they experienced during WWII, Japanese Americans were skittish about showing they were anything but American.

Inouye, who is sansei, or third-generation, had no such qualms, Takei said, and worked closely with the Japanese government to arrange cross-Pacific exchanges with budding leaders from both countries.

"She played a key role in connecting Japanese Americans with the Japanese heritage that we have," Takei said. "She helped bring us pride in our heritage."

Only recently had Inouye begun to slow down, announcing her plans to retire this year from the council.

"Irene was a singular figure in U.S.-Japan relations, respected by leaders on both sides of the Pacific," the council's board chair Phyllis Campbell wrote in a letter to membership. "She infused the organization with her wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit... and managed to approach every challenge with fearlessness and determination."

After her husband died in 2012, Inouye stayed active in championing his pet causes such as leadership development. She also publicly butted heads with then-Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie when he opted not to appoint her husband's protege to fill his vacant seat.

Inouye attended the University of Southern California as an undergrad and later earned a master's degree in public administration from the school.

The U.S.-Japan Council said a memorial service would be announced after the current coronavirus pandemic is over.

April 9, 2020: This story has been updated.