Lillian Kimura, the first woman to be elected National President of the Japanese American Citizens League, has died at the age of 91.
According to her niece, Margaret Golden, Kimura’s death on April 23 was the result of COVID-19. She was living in New Jersey at the time of her death.
“I am deeply saddened upon hearing the news about Lillian’s passing. Lillian struck me as an extremely kind and generous person from the day we met at the EDC/MDC Bi-District Council meeting in 2007,” said David Lin, JACL National President 2012-2016
“She encouraged me to serve and she mentored and coached me when I was on the National Board. And above all, she inspired me to dedicate my service to the JACL just as she had.”
Throughout her career, Kimura was a tireless advocate for civil rights through all of her work at the YWCA where she rose to the position of Associate Executive Director.
The year of her election to the JACL leadership opened the door for resolutions condemning sexual harassment, supporting family leave, and supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion. Over the next two years, JACL increasingly supported gay rights including the right to serve in the military, culminating in a 1994 resolution supporting gay marriage.
“Lillian was a force of nature. She became JACL National President at a time when few women had broken through the glass ceiling to lead national civil rights organizations,” said Karen Narasaki, former President and Executive Director of AAJC. Narasaki worked for JACL in the Washington office during Kimura’s reign.
“I learned a lot about leadership from watching her. She was one of the women executives at the YWCA that ensured that issues at the intersection of race and gender were a priority and that Asian American girls were included at the table,” Narasaki recounted.
“She had an inclusive vision of a multicultural democracy and a strong sense of the role JACL could and should play in helping to build it. Under her leadership, JACL became the first major national civil rights group of color to endorse marriage equality, long before the issue got to the Supreme Court. The nation has lost another woman warrior for equality.”
At the age of 13, Kimura and her family were incarcerated at the Manzanar WRA Center in California. Afterward her family moved to Chicago, where her long association with the YWCA began.
Kimura attended the University of Illinois, where she earned a degree in social work and eventually moved to New York to work for the YWCA at the national level.
Kimura’s passing comes in quick succession to the loss of Helen Kawagoe, JACL’s only other female National President, and Irene Hirano Inouye, founding President/CEO for the Japanese American National Museum and the US-Japan Council.
Carol Kawamoto, who served on the National Board with Kimura as the Pacific Southwest District Governor, praised Kimura along with Kawagoe and Hirano Inouye, “It has been very sad to lose three very strong women, Irene Hirano Inouye, Helen Kawagoe, and Lillian Kimura…JACL and community leaders and icons who passed away so close together.”
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