Discover Nikkei

Gratitude for Art Hansen—“A Gifted Mentor and Inspiration”

The author (left) at the JANM conference in 2008 with Eric Muller, Art Hansen, and Tetsuden Kashima. Photo courtesy of Greg Robinson.

Among specialists in Japanese American history, few have made such an enduring contribution as Arthur Hansen. While his work as a longtime scholar and activist is well known in the Nikkei community, I want to pay tribute to him in his role as a gifted mentor and inspiration, to me and so many others. (Some of this column is taken from my essay in a volume produced 15 years ago, on the occasion of Art’s retirement.)

It is hard for me to believe now, but it is 25 years since I first met Art. Our first encounter was in a men’s room in Salem, Oregon. Before anyone is shocked by this revelation, let me explain quickly that we were both attending a conference on Japanese Americans held at Willamette University in summer 1998, and happened to need a break at the same time. Once we each completed our urgent business, we started chatting as we washed our hands.

At the time, I was just starting to write a dissertation on Franklin Roosevelt and Executive Order 9066. I had come across the volumes from the Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project that he directed at California State University, Fullerton, so the name Arthur Hansen was already familiar to me.

From the beginning, Art quizzed me with friendly curiosity about my presentation. (He was also tickled that I was speaking in collaboration with my mother). Art was utterly unpretentious, and I was immediately struck, not only by his store of knowledge, but by his kindness and his genuine interest in helping mentor young scholars.

I soon came into contact with people who had studied or worked with Art. They confirmed my impression of him. The journalist Martha Nakagawa told me that people in the community admired and adored Art. As a non-Asian entering Asian American studies, I certainly did look to him as a model of how to create a place for myself within the field.

I gladly accepted Art’s offer to keep up contact, and I began to read his writings, which were quite useful for my work — notably his classic essay on the 1942 “Manzanar riot” (which has now been republished in Art’s new book Manzanar Mosaic: Essays and Oral Histories from America’s First World War II Japanese American Concentration Camp). I next saw Art two years later.

After finishing my dissertation, I traveled to Shanghai for a summer teaching stint. Art invited me to stop by when I passed through Southern California on my way back home, and stay over at his house in Orange County. In thinking back, I am once again struck by his generosity toward a young scholar with no reputation, someone whom he hardly knew and whose work he had not even read. I took the train down from Los Angeles to Fullerton.

We had one of those classic episodes of crossed signals. I had remembered Art as looking (in the words of a friend) like Santa Claus, not realizing that he had slimmed down in the interim. Art thought that I was on a different train. Thus, we stared at each other without recognition for about an hour before I had the presence of mind to page him.

Despite that less than auspicious beginning, we got on wonderfully, and talked shop and other things. Art kindly gave me access to some unpublished material he had put together, and gifted me copies of Scene, the 1950s Nisei photo-magazine, that he had been offered by its last editor, businessman Togo Tanaka. I also got to meet Art’s wife Debbie Hansen, whose company I enjoyed mightily.

It was not long after my stayover with Art that I experienced something amazing about him. Not without trepidation, I sent him a copy of my completed dissertation, which I had transformed into a book manuscript, and awaited his judgment. I have somehow lost the note he sent me, but I will never forget his words as I nervously read them — he said he had started the text and was reading it, “with great interest and growing admiration,” and added a few incisive comments.

At that moment I discovered a key aspect of Art’s character: His praise is generous, but his kindness covers such astute judgments that one values it just as much as that of people who are more stinting in their praise.

That said, Art is not all soft; I have seen him be tough on occasion. I remember well one time when he was moderating a panel on Nisei draft resisters at the Organization of American Historians in Boston, and was faced with an abusive heckler — Art shut the man up and restored order with calm forcefulness. He is equally rigorous in his devotion to his work.

Some years ago, I interviewed the late Nisei writer and activist Dr. Kenji Murase at his home in San Francisco. After our interview was finished, Dr. Murase plunked down the transcript of the interview that Art had done with him a few years previously. It was a humbling experience for me to read the text of their discussion, and to see how much more skillfully Art framed questions and elicited follow-up responses. Ever since I read the transcript, I have tried to learn from it and emulate Art’s oral history technique.

A central element of Art’s gift to the community is the impressive amount of time he invests in bringing people together and fostering relationships. Because he knows so many people, he is an impressive intellectual matchmaker. I can give two special examples. 

First, it was Art (plus Yuji Ichioka) who put me in touch with Guyo Tajiri, the widow and collaborator of the great journalist Larry Tajiri. Our meeting led to a warm friendship, and to Guyo introducing me to a whole string of Bay Area Nisei she knew. It later inspired me to write Pacific Citizens, my edited anthology of writings by the Tajiris.

Indeed, once I finished the book, it was Art who suggested that I approach Harry Honda to contribute a foreword. Honda, Larry Tajiri’s successor as longtime editor of The Pacific Citizen, was by then in his 90s. It was a brilliant idea. Not only did Harry’s voice testify to the major contributions of the Tajiris, but his own presence in my book linked it symbolically to the long history of Nisei journalism that he embodied.

Equally important, it was through Art that I met Eric Muller. Art had befriended each of us and championed our work, and thought it would be a fine thing to put us in touch. Not too long after I first contacted Eric, the right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin brought out a book that accused Japanese Americans of spying for Japan and justified their mass removal during World War II.

Eric and I had the same first reflex: to turn to Art and ask what to do about it. It was Art who proposed that we join forces, and work together as public intellectuals to rebut Malkin’s charges.

The result was our set of rapid-fire blog posts, and ultimately an organization which other scholars joined, the Historians’ Committee for Fairness. We not only made some dent in Malkin’s juggernaut, but our efforts solidified both Eric’s and my connections with Japanese American communities outside of academia. Indeed, it was the Malkin affair that led me to an entire second career as a columnist in the Nikkei press.

Over time, Art has helped in so many different ways to push me and my career, with publishers, with the Japanese American National Museum, and with the people he speaks to. He may not be aware, but it gets back to me every time he good-mouths me behind my back! He has published laudatory reviews of books to which I contributed. He has also, in turn, helped nurture scholars and writers whom I have sent to him.

I was speaking to Art recently about the late historian Roger Daniels, whom we both admired. I joked that if Roger was the dean of scholars of Japanese Americans, Art was certainly the principal — but that unlike in elementary school, his students enjoyed their trips to the principal’s office! Seriously, I hope that I have learned something from his example of how to contribute to building community and passing on the historical legacy of Japanese Americans.


*This article was originally published in Nichi Bei News on July 20, 2023.


© 2023 Greg Robinson, Nichi Bei News

Arthur A. Hansen historians life interviews oral histories scholars
About the Authors

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

The Nichi Bei News rose out of the ashes of the historic Nichi Bei Times (1942-2009) and Nichi Bei Shimbun (1899-1942) legacy to launch the first nonprofit ethnic community newspaper of its kind in the U.S. in September 2009. From community issues and events taking place in the historic Japantowns and beyond, to entertainment profiles, food, film and book reviews, politics, hard news and commentaries, the Nichi Bei News has you covered. Published by the innovative nonprofit Nichi Bei Foundation, it proudly follows the rich tradition of some 125 years of community leadership through quality media.

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