Franklin S. Odo (1939-2022)

Asian Studies lost an important bridge with Asian American Studies in the recent passing of Franklin S. Odo, an internationally recognized historian, scholar, and activist. As part of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Odo emerged as a leader who galvanized a coalition of students, scholars, and activists. Although his academic training was in the field of Asian Studies, Odo’s personal commitment lay in issues of social justice. This eventually led to a role as a pioneering leader and charismatic mentor in Asian American Studies. Throughout his career, Odo exemplified deeply held values, based in no small part in his own personal bridgings of blue- and white-collar worlds, geographic and cultural divides, centers and peripheries of power, and racial crossings.  

A sansei (third-generation Japanese American) from Honolulu, Franklin Odo was the first graduate of Kaimukī High School to attend Princeton University, where he also earned his Ph.D. in 1975 in Japanese history after completing his M.A. in East Asian Regional Studies at Harvard University. During his early career, he taught at Occidental College, the University of California, Los Angeles, and California State University, Long Beach. However, when the fight to establish a permanent Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa was finally won in 1978, Odo returned to Hawai‘i to become its first director. Under his leadership, Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i became a nationally recognized, degree-granting department, training a new generation of critical thinkers and compassionate leaders engaged in issues of race and class. From 1989 to 1991, he served as the President of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), and during the 1990s, held visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College, Columbia University, and his alma mater Princeton University.

Odo’s leadership extended beyond Hawai‘i when he left to become the founding director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in 1997, retiring in 2010. The vision for that Center—“to enrich the American Story with the voices of Asian Pacific Americans”—expresses Odo’s strong political and personal commitment at the national and international levels. He also served as the first Asian Pacific American curator at the National Museum of American History.

In his post-retirement career from 2015 until his death, Odo was a beloved member of the Amherst College community, where he was the John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy, and then the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer in American Studies. No less committed or energetic than in his younger days, Odo worked tirelessly with students and colleagues to more than double the number of professors and course offerings in Asian Pacific American (APA) Studies. His presence was inspirational: the college recently announced three new tenure-track positions in APA Studies, and the recently formed Asian American Alumni Fellowship Network has announced a senior thesis prize in his name.

Odo’s numerous publications reflect his values: No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i During World War II (2004), Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i (2013), and many more. But perhaps even more impactful are the many Asian American scholars who cite his mentorship as foundational to their careers as scholars, activists, advocates, and community leaders. Odo received the President’s Award of the Japanese American Citizens League in July 2008, an award from the Organization of Chinese Americans in 2008, and the Association for Asian American Studies Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Odo was an infrequent attendee at Association for Asian Studies conferences; however he last spoke at the 2021 Presidential Roundtable on the subject of Global Asias, from the perspective of his own career as a representative of its expansive possibilities. Those possibilities include activism, advocacy, and social justice. But they also include a gentler, no less values-driven side based in culture and community. In a 1990 interview with the Center for Oral History of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Odo described the role of cultural activities in mobilizing and empowering people: “If you don’t control your own culture, and your own vision of life, and your own participation in life, then you don’t control anything. And that’s what we’re [Ethnic Studies] about. The true spirit of any kind of democracy is to have people be autonomous at the same time that they know that they’re dependent on the community around them.” Odo’s greatest advocacy lay in the dignity and respect wrought by the interdependence of individuals, cultures, and community. As someone who inhabited many bridging realms, he could speak from experience.

Odo is survived by his wife Enid, with whom he had just celebrated 59 years of marriage; his children David (Jany) of Cambridge, Mass.; Rachel (Tomaso) of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Jonathan (Christa) of Andover, Mass.; and his grandchildren Emma, Max, Benjamin, and Rebecca.

— Contributed by Christine R. Yano (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa)

There will be a private family memorial. In lieu of flowers, Franklin Odo’s family requests that friends and colleagues please consider donating to a fund in his honor, which will help carry on his legacy at the University of Hawai’i.