Courtesy of Mary Lui

Throughout his career, Gary Okihiro invested in the people around him. Across all his interactions, Okihiro’s students, colleagues and friends remember his warmth, humor, kindness and generosity. 

Daniel HoSang, professor of American studies and ethnicity, race and migration, recalled his first encounter with Okihiro at Cornell University when HoSang was just 19 years old. He remembers the unique character and teaching approach that set Okihiro apart. 

“His sense was that knowledge is everywhere … among the students, their lives, experience and ideas” said HoSang. 

Okihiro, a visiting professor of American studies and ethnicity, race and migration, died on Monday, May 20, in New Haven. He was 78 years old. 

Throughout his academic career, Okihiro authored 12 books and dozens of articles on ethnic studies and Asian American studies. For his work, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies.  

Okihiro’s work centered on themes of intersectionality, decolonization and the creation of Asian American Studies as an academic field.

Born on Oct. 14, 1945, Okihiro grew up on a sugar plantation on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Okihiro stated that he lived on the Japanese camp at this plantation, working alongside his father and grandfather. As an alternative to military service in Vietnam, Okihiro served in the Peace Corps for three years in Botswana. 

In an interview with Binghamton State University of New York, Okihiro highlighted the tensions of growing up as a Japanese American following Japanese Internment camps during World War II. 

Okihiro received his bachelor’s degree in history from Pacific Union College and later his doctorate in African history from UCLA.  He was also later awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of the Ryūkyūs, Okinawa.

From 1985 to 1987, Okihiro served as the president of the Association for Asian American Studies. In the 1990s, he led efforts to create the Journal of Asian American Studies. 

Prior to joining Yale’s faculty as a visiting professor, Okihiro taught at several universities including Humboldt State University, Santa Clara, Cornell University, and Columbia University. At Columbia, Okihiro served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. 

By the time Okihiro joined Yale in 2017, he had already left a strong mark in the fields of third world studies and comparative ethnic studies. 

Okihiro’s book “Third World Studies,” released in 2016, covered the intellectual history of the idea of third world studies. According to a description by the Duke University Press, the book provides the tools to understand power in a strive towards ending oppression. The Duke University Press is set to publish a second edition of “Third World Studies” in the fall, in which the book will expand to include discussion on eugenics, feminist epistemologies and religion.  

Okihiro described third world studies as a continuation of the work proposed by San Francisco State College students in 1968, in which those students advocated for the study of the global struggle for decolonization and self-determination. Since then, third world studies has related closely to ethnic studies, which draws attention to marginalized groups within the United States. 

In 2019, Okihiro was involved in the withdraw of thirteen professors from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program at Yale on the grounds of insufficient support. These thirteen ER&M faculty members wrote an open letter protesting the lack of attention from the University to the program.

Professor Okihiro, center, amidst the Ethnicity, Race and Migration faculty withdrawal in 2019. This photograph was taken by the late Corky Lee and was provided by the Head of Timothy Dwight College Mary Lui.

In addition to his vast academic contributions, Okihiro’s colleagues remember him for his welcoming personality. 

Former Head of Timothy Dwight College Mary Lui told the News that Okihiro saw his students as “whole people,” investing in them fully. Lui said she first met Okihiro as a graduate student at Cornell University, where she was one of Okihiro’s first two graduate students where he advised Lui’s dissertation. Lui highlighted how she will miss his “warmth” and “generosity.” 

Lisa Lowe, Samuel Knight Professor of American Studies and professor of ethnicity, race and migration, described Okihiro as a “trailblazer, inspiring mentor, and a generous friend and colleague.” 

Lowe added that Okihiro always remained “curious, tireless, and intellectually open.” 

Joliana Yee, dean of the Asian American Cultural Center, said that, above all, Okihiro was a “welcoming presence.” She highlighted how he made “everyone feel seen, heard, and that what they had to say mattered.” 

The AACC holds many books in the field of Asian American Studies. Yee told the News that in 2015, Okihiro donated over 2,000 books from his personal collection to the AACC. Lui reflected on the dedication ceremony to this library, highlighting how students picked their favorite book and shared how that book was meaningful to them. 

HoSang said that the collection includes media beyond the 2,000 books, drawing attention to a separate archive room that includes activist pamphlets and other accounts of Asian American student movements. 

Sylvia Ryerson GRD ’25, a doctoral student in American studies, noted her fond memories and appreciation of the chance to be a teaching fellow in Okihiro’s third world studies class last fall. 

“I was always struck by what an incredibly clear teacher he was. His primary concern was really with the students in the class understanding the core concepts,” said Ryerson, adding her appreciation for the humor that Okihiro brought to class every day. 

Ryerson further emphasized how Okihiro would engage students, going beyond just understanding the readings. She noted that Okihiro’s goal was to connect each student to the theory, as he understood third world studies as “a conversation about liberation.” 

Ryerson also explained how he pushed for every student to understand the impact they could have in changing this “social formation.” 

“He was just an amazing model of being a teacher to me and something I will always aspire to,” Ryerson told the News. “He didn’t take himself too seriously and he always was incredibly kind and curious.” 

Students from his classes throughout the years also reflected on how Okihiro inspired them. 

Hana Karanja ’24, a student of Okihiro’s Third World Studies class in fall 2023, noted how Okihiro “eschewed institutional norms” as he pursued “humility” and “honest connection” with his students. 

Jaleyna Lawes ’26 emphasized the significance of the questions inspired by Okihiro

“When tasked with approaching the question of how to exist in what Professor Okihiro once acknowledged as the belly of the beast, he inspired me — pose contradictions, become difficult to digest. Perhaps this is what made Professor Okihiro and the spaces he cultivated so special,” Lawes wrote to the News. 

Lawes added that Okihiro’s teaching and guidance arose in many places, from lectures to little conversations while walking around campus. She wrote that one way she will honor Okihiro’s legacy is through engaging in the continual push for more “decolonial futures.” 

Mark Chung ’25, a student in Okihiro’s Third World Studies class in the fall 2023, mentioned short encouraging emails from Okihiro as evidence of his immense care. Chung also highlighted the power of Okihiro’s smile while walking into class. 

Sabrina Ali ’27, another student who took the class, mentioned the importance of Okihiro’s pre-class anecdotes. One such story focused on the importance of bees to the world. 

“Professor Okihiro’s class taught me how infinitely intertwined everything is … whether he was talking about a bee or structuralism, he possessed the unique ability to connect the truth to our world” Ali wrote to the News. 

Another student in the class, Xin Lu ’26, added that his legacy is marked by the people he inspired from all backgrounds. Lu highlighted his impact on first-generation, low-income and working-class students. 

Ngọc-Lynn Huynh ’25 explained how Okihiro introduced her to a new worldview. 

He taught me a new voice and language to speak,” Huynh wrote to the News. “His passion for teaching, and his students especially, will never be forgotten to me.” 

Rebeka Cabrera ’24, who had Okihiro as an advisor, underlined Okihiro’s “kindness” and commitment to the field of third world studies, describing the three years they spent studying under Okihiro as a “gift.” 

Cabrera added that we can honor Okihiro’s legacy by continuing to strive for “liberation for all.” 

Okihiro was scheduled to teach his popular “Third World Studies” course, along with a course entitled “Fruits of Empire,” this coming fall semester. HoSang said that the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration department along with the American Studies department will both work to teach a version of Third World Studies that honors Okihiro’s memory.

Moreover, Lui told the News that there are plans for a symposium on Okihiro’s legacy as a mentor, scholar and friend. Lui says that this symposium will be a collaboration between the many places where Okihiro has had a tremendous impact and that it will take place later in the coming fall semester.  

“All of us both want to honor his teaching, and ensure that a new generation and cohort of students gets to think with him about all of these important questions,” HoSang said. 

Okihiro first taught a third world studies course at Yale in fall 2016.

Correction, May 26: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Okihiro was 79 rather than 78 when he died. The News apologizes for this error. 

Chris is an associate beat reporter for Student Life. He is a freshman in Morse studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics.