October 24, 1938 ~ June 21, 2020

Born in: Hyōgo, Japan
Resided in: Denver, Colorado

Hiroko Johnson, PhD, 81, unexpectedly passed away on June 21, 2020.  She was born and raised in Hyogo, Japan. She was loved by all her teachers due to her intelligence, charm, independence and athleticism, especially in basketball.  Japan was too small for her ambitions, so she ventured to the University of Hawaii for her undergraduate degree, far before any Japanese women went to the United States for college. When she returned to Japan, she married James Johnson and had two children, Kathy and Jim.  They soon moved back to the United States to give their children a better opportunity.  Her husband died when her children were young.  She never remarried and dedicated her life to her family.  She raised her two children providing them the best opportunities possible and cared for her own mother until she died at the age of 96.

Hiroko was always passionate about art.  Once her family commitments were in order, she went back to school herself and obtained a PhD in Art History from USC at the age of 56.  Her dissertation examined the Western Influence on Japanese Art: Akita Ranga, which is now a highly accepted academic theory. She then went to graduate school at the University of Tokyo, and ten years later returned for a Postdoctoral Fellowship under the guidance of Dr. Tsuji Sensei, Dr. Kono Sensei, and Dr. Osana Sensei, where she was adored.  She was an Adjunct Professor teaching Asian and Japanese Culture at Pepperdine University and later taught Japanese Art History as an Adjunct Professor at Cal State Long Beach and Occidental College for many years.  She found her home at San Diego State University where she became a tenured Professor of Japanese & Asian Art History. She was truly loved by her students.  Her art classes were perennially among the most popular at San Diego State.  She was chosen as the Outstanding Faculty Member multiple times. She led trips regularly for groups of her students to Japan (over 100 students went over time), where they were able to experience first-hand the art and culture, she was teaching through a class she created called Study Tour of Japan. She also established a semester-long exchange program with the renowned Osaka University of Art, for those of her students truly dedicated to art history.

Hiroko never sat still. Authoring two books and over 20 articles, co-curating Dreams and Diversion at San Diego Museum of Art and organizing the traveling exhibition commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Commodore Perry’s visit to Japan are only a few examples of her constant drive to discover, learn, and share her wisdom and passion with others.

Her love outside of teaching and family was the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego, where she sat on the Board of Directors and curated multiple art exhibits. She was recognized by The Japan Society of San Diego for outstanding community service. Her vast knowledge of Japanese art history made her highly sought after by private art collectors.  She assisted in cataloging and organizing the Joe Price Collection at the LA County Museum and Japanese Artisan Bamboo Basket Collection of Cotsen.

After she retired as Professor Emeritus from SDSU, she moved to Denver, where her son Jim resides with his family. She continued to pursue her passion of educating students at Denver University, Colorado University and Oster Lifelong Learning Institute, an adult education program, all simply for the joy of helping others and without pay. She then turned the table and became a student of the arts attending classes for pottery, painting, piano, gardening, photography, philosophy, sketching, writing and math.

She loved baking cookies and banana bread, listening to opera and classical music, bright colors and cheering for her Broncos while wearing her Payton Manning shirt. Most of all, she loved her dog, Precious, who is now 16 years old. They were inseparable, from going grocery shopping, to bird watching and their daily trike rides through Wash Park. She truly appreciated the simplicity and beauty of nature and value of all that lived, even flies.

She was the strongest, proudest person we knew, silently overcoming many obstacles throughout her life, never giving up, and always presenting herself with the biggest smile.

Hiroko is remembered not only for her sophisticated beauty, but as a tireless worker, model of integrity and grace, never-ending unique optimism and infectious laughter that affected all that she encountered. She was easily identified by her colorful scarves and bold necklaces. She was loving, selfless and always put others first.   She is survived by her sister Hisako (Kunimitsu), daughter Kathy (Greg), son Jim (Shannon), 7 grandchildren, 1 great grandchild and Precious. She will be greatly missed by all.

A service celebrating her life will be held on Saturday, June 27th at 2pm at the Horan & McConaty Chapel located at 5303 E. County Line Rd., Centennial, CO 80122. An additional service will be held at the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, charitable donations can be made in her name to the following organizations that were near and dear to her heart:

Japanese Friendship Garden
Please write “In honor of Hiroko Johnson” in the available comment box.

Denver Audubon Society
Please write “In honor of Hiroko Johnson” in the available comment box.

Memories Timeline


    • Hi Kathy,
      Thank you so much for your expression of kindness for my mom. You were a good neighbor and friend to my mom. I have donated to the Japanese Friendship Garden in the memory of my mom on your behalf. We will be planting a tree and placing a bench to remember her greatness. Thanks again!
      Kathy Pantele, (Daughter of Hiroko Johnson)


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