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Revered Asian American community leader, educator Franklin Odo dies

Franklin Odo 101122.png
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
Franklin Odo

Franklin Odo, who helped found the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s ethnic studies program and served as its first permanent director, died last month due to complications from cancer. He was 83.

A Kaimukī High School graduate, Odo was also a founding board member of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Honolulu chapter. He and others from the JACL fought to get restitution for the thousands of Japanese in Hawaiʻi who were forcibly evacuated and incarcerated during World War II.

A sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, Odo inspired his students to fight for social justice, said Bill Kaneko, one of his students and teaching assistants in the 1980s.

Kaneko, who is also sansei, said he didn’t learn about the Japanese incarceration and the role that Japanese American soldiers played during and after World War II until he took Odo’s ethnic studies course at UH.

“He’s really touched the lives of thousands of individuals who now have a better understanding of who we are, our role in history, the importance of cultural understanding,” Kaneko said. “But more so, how do we continue to be contributors to the community and society. And I think that’s why Franklin will be missed. But also there’s a whole group of folks who want to continue his value base and his way of teaching.”

Kaneko also served as JACL Honolulu president during the 1980s and worked with Odo during the restitution efforts. Odo was editing a book co-authored by Kaneko about it.

Odo also served as the founding director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in Washington, D.C. He taught and held professorships at several colleges across the country, including his alma mater, Princeton University.

Kaneko described Odo as a kind and generous man and admired his abilities as a quiet leader with strong convictions. He said Odo was a lifelong mentor to him.

“What he did was brought history and made it alive. In his classes, we did more than just read a textbook,” Kaneko said. “We went on field trips and visited places like the Sand Island internment camp. He brought in guest speakers. And that had such a great impact on me in terms of how I viewed not only Japanese Americans but how I viewed myself and the roles that we all play and continue to play in Hawaiʻi’s history.”

A private service is being planned. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Franklin S. Odo Fund through the University of Hawaiʻi Foundation. For more information, click here.

Jayna Omaye is the culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at
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