From The Nishi Family, News Obituary: Civil Rights Advocate and Distinguished Race Relations Scholar Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi dies at 91

- An extraordinary human being remembered as a shining light for all -

Dec 13, 2012, 09:30 ET from Nishi Legacy Foundation

TAPPAN, N.Y., Dec. 13, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Dr. Setsuko "Suki" Matsunaga Nishi, Ph.D.,  professor emerita of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, died of an aortic dissection on November 18, 2012 at her seasonal residence in Mabou, Nova Scotia, Canada.  She was 91 years old.


Dr. Nishi was a distinguished scholar in the field of American race relations, particularly on institutionalized discrimination in complex social systems.  Her career combined sociological research and teaching in academia with social policy applications in professional consultancies, both public and private, and in volunteer community leadership. Dr. Nishi was the founding board president of the Asian American Federation, Inc. and a past chair of the New York Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  She was a pioneering scholar, a lifelong civil rights advocate, and a guiding light to generations of researchers and community leaders.

Setsuko, born in Los Angeles, California, was a trained classical pianist who was often accompanied by her sister Helen, a violinist. With the onset of WWII, music was a career she could not pursue. When President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, she was a record-holding honor student at the University of Southern California, which arranged for a special ceremony for her induction into the Phi Beta Kappa Society prior to her being incarcerated[i] at the Santa Anita Assembly Center.  In 1942, without regard for constitutional protections for American citizens, Setsuko, her family, and over 110,000 Japanese Americans were banished from their homes and then relocated and interned by the U.S. government in incarceration camps solely on the basis of ancestry.

After five months of internment, Setsuko, a gifted student, was granted special leave to enroll at Washington University, St. Louis, where she received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in sociology in 1944.  She reported on local "resettlement" for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study.  She delivered more than three hundred and fifty speeches in the Midwest to help prepare public receptivity to the resettlement into their communities of Japanese Americans from the incarceration camps.

Following graduation, Setsuko moved to Chicago, where her parents had settled.  She was employed at Parkway Community House, a settlement house directed by the celebrated African American sociologist Horace R. Cayton, who became a longtime friend and collaborator.  There she organized community forums and became both a bridge between the African American and ethnic Japanese communities and a visible activist in favor of racial equality.  With Cayton's guidance, and along with her father, Tahei Matsunaga, she was instrumental in founding the Chicago Resettlers Committee, a social service agency now known as the Japanese American Service Committee.  For the American Council on Race Relations, Setsuko wrote the classic pamphlet, "Facts about Japanese Americans" (1946).  She and anthropologist William Caudill launched the interdisciplinary Japanese American Personality and Acculturation Study.  Meanwhile, she studied at the University of Chicago, where she would ultimately receive her doctorate in sociology in 1963. 

From 1965 until her retirement in 1999, Dr. Nishi served as a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York.  She taught the first courses on Asian American Studies there and has been noted for her devotion to merging scholarly engagement with community involvement.  As a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, the renowned think tank of the civil rights movement led by Drs. Kenneth B. Clark and Hylan Lewis, Dr. Nishi collaborated in many studies, including methods and strategies for achieving school integration, minority drug use and abuse, institutionalized discrimination in foster care, and inequities in performance evaluation in corporate employment. 

Dr. Nishi served for three decades on the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, including six years as its chair.  She had also been a longtime member of the Japanese American Citizens League.  From 1987, Dr. Nishi served on the National Advisory Council of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.  From 1988, Dr. Nishi served on the board of directors of United Way of New York City until 1995 and continuously as a member of several of its committees.  In 1989, she co-founded the Asian American Federation, served as its first board president until 1995, and remained an engaged and active board member through the years.  Since the late 1980s, she also contributed towards developing the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles as a member of the National Scholarly Advisory Council and of the New York Advisory Council.  Since 1998, she was the principal investigator of the Japanese American Life Course Study, a large-scale investigation into the long-term effects on Japanese Americans of their wartime incarceration.             

Professor Nishi received many awards for her work and leadership.  Among others, she was honored by the American Association of University Women (1991), Asian American Higher Education Council (1993), Asian Pacific American Women's Leadership Institute (late 1990s), and Asian American Federation (2000).  She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Asian American Studies in 2007. In June 2009, Professor Nishi was conferred one of Japan's highest decorations, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon in recognition of her lifelong contributions to the promotion of civil rights, the field of sociology, and the well-being of Japanese Americans and others. 

At the time of her death, Dr. Nishi was preparing for the publication of a national study, "Recovery and Hidden Injuries: Wartime Incarceration and the Life Course of Japanese Americans," which compares the long-term outcomes of those who left camp to go to the Army, to college, to segregation at Tule Lake, and to work during wartime.  

Setsuko was the eldest daughter of Hatsu Nishi Matsunaga and Tahei Matsunaga who immigrated to Los Angeles from Kumamoto, Japan.  Her first generation "Issei" parents early socialized her in cultural orientations that inevitably were more Japanese than Western.  One guiding principle defined Setsuko's life: that more encompassing social units such as the nation, community, or family were more important than were individual selves.  She was a selfless and devoted mother, and for 57 years, she was married to the love of her life, the late Ken Nishi, painter and sculptor.  Setsuko Nishi is survived by her five children—Geoffrey Nishi; Lisa Nishi and her partner David Mullendore; Paula Nishi and her fraternal twins Mia and Bela Gyorfi; Stefani Nishi Chisholm, her spouse Meagher Chisholm and their children Emiko and Lian Chisholm; and Mia Nishi Rankin, her spouse Jimmy Rankin and their two children James and Chloe Rankin; and Setsuko's brother, Ernest Michio Matsunaga.

A memorial research fund has been established to complete the publication of her national study and work.   In lieu of flowers, donations should be made payable to:

Nishi Legacy Foundation
c/o Gary S. Moriwaki, Executor
Fox Rothschild LLP
100 Park Avenue
New York, New York 10016

A full biography and photo of Setsuko Nishi can be downloaded from the following website:

The Nishi family will hold a memorial service in Tappan, NY on January 1, 2013.

[i] The "incarceration camps," described by the late Setsuko Nishi, are also referred to and known as the Japanese-American "internment camps" or "concentration camps".

Contact: Julie Huang, Kaimen Company for the Nishi Family, (888) 989-8808 ext. 703 or

SOURCE Nishi Legacy Foundation