JACL Mourns Passing of Helen Kawagoe

April 15, 2020

For Immediate Release

David Inoue, Executive Director dinoue@jacl.org, 202-223-1240
Sarah Baker, VP Public Affairs sbaker@jacl.org

JACL is saddened to hear of the passing of Helen Kawagoe. The second woman to be elected as JACL National President, she ran unopposed at the San Jose Convention and served two terms from 1996-2000. Upon entering her presidency, she wanted to focus on re-engineering JACL. She accomplished this perhaps best through the influence she had on many younger JACLers who have now moved up to positions of leadership in the organization including future chapter presidents and national presidents.

JACL’s immediate past president Gary Mayeda, who also served as VP of Planning and Development during Helen’s term, stated, “Those 4 years taught me to see every day as a fun adventure. Making light of things didn’t mean you didn’t take it seriously. It just meant that you saw things in a positive way. She tasked me with working on the Japanese Latin American (JLA) redress effort. We worked with Bill Lann Lee, US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, paving the way for the JLAs to receive their long-deserved apology and redress in 1998. It was the best 4 years of my JACL career to serve under her leadership.”

Kenneth Inouye (JACL National President, 2004-2006) noted Helen’s ability to draw in new leaders to JACL, “Helen Kawagoe was an inspiration to many people within the JACL. She always maintained a positive attitude and she encouraged many young people to become/stay involved with JACL. Her mentorship of young PSWD youth such as the late Hiromi  Ueha (past PSWD Governor) and Nicole Inouye (past National Youth Rep and Mike Masaoka fellow) along with many others helped to create a new generation of dedicated JACLers. Helen will be missed but her memory will remain with all of us who had the privilege of working with her.”

Also from JACL’s PSW district, David Kawamoto (JACL President, 2010-2012) offered further praise for her leadership through service, “Helen Kawagoe was a true icon of the JACL and the PSW District as a Chapter President, PSW District Governor and National President. I’m deeply saddened by the loss of this wonder lady. I was fortunate to have her as a friend and really miss her consistent presence at JACL events, contagious smile, and wonderful sense of humor. I always appreciated her energetic and enthusiastic support. One time, working on the PSW’s annual banquet, I asked her to contact some of her friends for donations to the event, which she did, but also got additional donations, including centerpieces for the banquet tables. It was so typical of her to go above and beyond. We will all miss her greatly.”

Though she was the second woman to the JACL Presidency (after Lillian Kimura), she had already been the first Japanese American woman in the continental United States to hold a municipal office when elected City Clerk to Carson City in 1974, a position she would hold until 2011 when she retired due to declining health. Shortly after retiring, the Carson City Council Chambers were named for her.

Floyd Mori who succeeded Helen as JACL President and later served as President and CEO for the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) noted, “Helen Kawagoe was an inspiration to many as she was an early Asian American public official for the City of Carson, California. Her tenure as National President was the beginning of engaging a broader universe of funding for the JACL. She was a leader with compassion and empathy and influenced me to seek further involvement on the National Board. Her caring personality will be missed by many.”

Nicole Inouye, who also served on the national board with Helen as National Youth / Student Representative, offered an especially personal tribute, “Helen truly exemplified the strong nisei woman.  She had the ability to navigate being a self-identified “bulldog”, exhibiting tenacity and strong sense of what was right, while creating a sense of family on the Board as “Mama” Helen, exuding care and compassion for everyone.”  She was “a beloved member of the community and my JACL Mom.”

We mourn the loss of this strong and exemplary female leader and thank her for her dedication to our community. While she may no longer be with us, her legacy lives on in the JACLers who she made an impact on, and on the people whose lives she changed through her tireless advocacy. 

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The Japanese American Citizens League is a national organization whose ongoing mission is to secure and maintain the civil rights of Japanese Americans and all others who are victimized by injustice and bigotry. The leaders and members of the JACL also work to promote cultural, educational and social values and preserve the heritage and legacy of the Japanese American community.


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