Alumna champions diplomacy, social activism

Irene Hirano Inouye has worked nearly five decades in non-profit work, and currently aids the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. 
(Photo courtesy Irene Hirano Inouye)

Irene Hirano Inouye, president of the U.S.-Japan Council, had always known that she wanted to pursue public service. Though she considered a career in government, Hirano Inouye, a USC alumnus, chose to pursue nonprofit work. 

“I felt that I could perhaps do more on the nonprofit side,”  Hirano Inouye said. “To work in government doesn’t give you the same opportunity to be creative, to be entrepreneurial as nonprofit organizations and I felt I could contribute to building communities, to building public service.”

The U.S.-Japan Council, along with Hirano Inouye, recently returned to Los Angeles to hold its annual conference at the Loews Hollywood Nov. 4 and 5. The conference focused on showcasing diversity and providing development opportunities for those in attendance. 

Hirano Inouye is an L.A. native and always knew she wanted to attend USC. After being offered a scholarship from the University, she decided to major in public administration. She also pursued a graduate degree in public administration at USC. 

Hirano Inouye said she faced several barriers in college, including being only one of three women in her program at the time. However, despite a “lack of diversity” within the program at the time, she described her professors and classmates as some of the most knowledgeable people she was able to meet through this opportunity. 

While studying at USC, Hirano Inouye worked at the Center for Social Action. 

“That afforded me the opportunity to look at ways to impact the social sector and ways to understand better the needs that different communities have in [L.A.],” she said.

Hirano Inouye’s experience in social activism spans nearly five decades. After finishing college, much of her early work was focused on improving access to healthcare for women and other underrepresented groups, one of the pioneering efforts on the community level at the time.

“I think that it was important that we had staff that reflected the diversity of the community as well, and I think that certainly health care … especially accessibility for women’s health care remains, today, still a major issue,” Hirano Inouye said. “At the time it was even more of a critical issue and certainly the efforts to build clinics that will be of service to the diverse communities was something that was just beginning.”

Hirano Inouye has been committed to strengthening the diplomatic ties between the United States and Japan through nonprofit work for more than 40 years. 

“The U.S.-Japan Council, which was formed to ensure strong relations between two countries … that type of the people-to-people relationship is so critical in ensuring that we have a strong foundation,” Hirano Inouye said.

The U.S.-Japan Council rose to prominence nearly 10 years ago, when a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region of northern Japan. As a result of the damage, many young adults left the region in favor of greater opportunity for work in metropolitan areas, a trend Hirano Inouye and the U.S.-Japan Council worked toward rectifying. 

“The U.S.-Japan Council is a reflection of [Hirano Inouye] … in terms of coming up with the importance of strengthening U.S.-Japan relations.” said Alan Nishio, who worked as an administrator at various universities throughout his career and has known Hirano Inouye since her days at USC roughly 51 years ago. 

Nishio commended Hirano Inouye for her efforts in bucking the trend of mass exodus of young adults from rural areas of Japan following the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, which has been vitally important to the redevelopment of the region. 

“The areas up there were typically more like old people and school-age children … the U.S.-Japan Council has done some work to try to provide opportunities for young people there to be able to stay in that community,” Nishio said. 

Nishio stressed Hirano Inouye’s devotion to her work, saying that she often takes on roles that would be unpopular because of the potentially daunting amounts of work involved, which he notes doesn’t seem to phase Hirano Inouye in the slightest.

Hirano Inouye’s activism is not limited to her work with the U.S.-Japan Council, as she worked in the administration of three different nonprofit organizations, including 13 years as executive director at the T.H.E. Center for Women, 20 years as president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum and the past decade as president of the U.S.-Japan Council.

Jim Ferris, director of USC’s Center on Philanthropy, acknowledged Hirano Inouye as someone who always supports others.

“[She’s] always enabling others and creating pathways for them to advance and succeed,” Ferris wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “I think she lives on a plane.” 

Though she spends most of her time in Washington, D.C., Hirano Inouye assists with fundraising at the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, while promoting innovative ways to encourage philanthropy and communication from those who have typically been affiliated with the University but haven’t considered donating. 

In addition, Hirano Inouye has spent significant time developing the Asian Pacific American Alumni Association, which she said has seen many individuals go on to serve on USC’s Board of Trustees. 

When he and Hirano Inouye were on the same delegation to Japan, Nishio said she was the first person at work each morning and the last one to go to sleep each night.  

“I knew at the time I could never outwork someone like her,” he said.  

Hirano Inouye spoke about her belief in the importance of understanding perspective, conveying her passion for making an effort to learn where others are coming from as an imperative aspect of promoting progress and productive discourse moving forward. 

As a nonprofit worker, she stressed the importance of “building networks” and connecting people in her efforts to achieve proper treatment and funding along many avenues of typical injustice. Nishio said he thinks Hirano Inouye deserves more recognition for her nonprofit work.

“If you were to ask her what does she do for recreation or leisure activities, I think she would have a hard time answering that,” Nishio said. “To me that’s kind of overlooked as how she has really singularly dedicated herself … the cost that’s associated with that.”