Following the war, Inada became a jazz musician, a bassist, following the work of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday, to whom he would later write tributes in his works. Inada cites jazz and his time in the internment camps as his chief influences as a poet. He studied writing at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Oregon, and the University of Iowa.
He began teaching poetry at Southern Oregon University in 1966.
In 1994, Inada's Legends from Camp won an American Book Award, and he has received several poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He also won the 1997 Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry.
In 2006 Inada was named Oregon's fifth poet laureate, the first person to fill the position since William Stafford in 1989. He was succeeded by Paulann Petersen in 2010.