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John Dower, Japan expert, retires from MIT

May 17, 2010

Professor John W. Dower, renowned historian of post-war Japan, retired today after twenty years of research and teaching at MIT. Professor Dower has spent a lifetime studying contemporary Japan and is the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII and War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Dower had been specifically recruited to MIT in 1991 as an endowed Professor of History from UCSD where he had spent the previous five years and before that the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He began his career as an English language instructor and admirer of Japanese visual design and later literary agent for a publishing firm in Tokyo in the early 1960s where he met his wife before returning to Harvard for graduate school in Japanese studies. His storied academic life was celebrated today in a series of seminars by former colleagues and students which featured some of the leading academics in the field of contemporary Japanese studies. Herbert Bix of Binghamton University (author of another Pulitzer-prize winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan) began the ceremonies with a brief summary of the enormous contributions of his colleague (who together graduated in 1971 from Harvard’s hallowed History department in the teeming intellectual environment molded by the towering figures of Edwin O. Reischauer (US ambassador to Japan in the 1960s) and John K. Fairbank). Both Dower and Bix took up scholarly research of post-war Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s spurred by the intense civil unrest in American society that had been unsettled by the bloody war being waged in Vietnam which lead many scholars on university campuses to fundamentally question the conventional wisdom driving US foreign policy. The prevailing views of the time enunciated as modernization theory, Bix explained, was for America to act as global hegemon by dominating and forcefully remaking these under-developed, uncivilized Asian societies first through conquest, and later by colonial subjugation to fashion them as capitalist bulwarks against rising Communist aggression. Bix traced the emergence of an academic counter-culture in east Asian studies to the singular contributions of Canadian diplomat E.H. Norman who in 1940 published a provocative book, Japan’s emergence as a Modern State, that harshly criticized the over-simplified, monolithic, label-driven approach of the West to understand Japanese statehood. Norman sowed the seeds of profound change in his profession by espousing a serious study of Japanese culture with a level of refinement and inquiry that had hitherto been considered heretical (Norman tragically committed suicide in 1957 after suffering from the severe psychological duress of McCarthyism) though his bold efforts to confront dogma were repeatedly heralded today. Professor Andrew Gordon of Harvard spoke next and nostalgically recalled reading Dower’s landmark 1975 book Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman as an undergraduate at Harvard, a pivotal work of scholarship that for the first time revisited the work of Norman and proposed various new directions of research based on its premises. Dower’s instrumental 1975 survey signaled the start of a major turning point in Japanese studies by spurring researchers to probe the nuances of Japanese culture, distill its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, do away with mere generalities, and to fully appreciate the enormous complexity befitting such an advanced civilization. Peter Perdue, former MIT professor now currently at Yale, rounded out the morning session with glowing praise for his former mentor (Dower had been a recitation instructor to him while a graduate student at Harvard) and colleague by lauding Dower’s “jargon-free, eloquent prose and nuanced scholarship.” He observed that Dower’s career trajectory had been evident from the very beginning as he “stood out as at odds with establishment views in east Asian studies” even during the early years. John Dower was the final speaker of his own retirement proceedings and with his cherished friends, distinguished colleagues and family members in attendance ruminated eloquently on his career. He invoked a beautiful metaphor from Edward H. Carr’s masterpiece What is History? of the historian as a fisherman in an expansive ocean who catches fish (in this case historical facts) depending on where the fish are (the analogy with fishing is an appropriate one as Dower grew up in Rhode Island). To be an effective historian, Dower argued, one must “do history by first doing history of your own field,” in other words he claimed, “study the historian before you study the facts.” It was precisely this approach that spurred Dower to embark upon in his own career when very early on he became disillusioned with the stagnation of his field and spent the remainder of his vaunted career in pursuit of his own version of the truth. He offered some sage advice for younger researchers: 1) the boundaries of acceptable debate are narrow, yet one ought to take a critical stance without losing one’s temperament, 2) write clearly but don’t write down to your audience and 3) people will listen and eventually you will have an impact. Dower was educated in a time when modernization theory was “presented as empirical but not ideological” with little rigorous underpinnings espoused by those of the older generation who had spent little time in Asia and were badly misinformed of its culture. (E.H. Norman, on the other hand, was born in Japan to Canadian missionary parents and spent the better part of his childhood there mastering the language and absorbing the culture.) The elder statesmen in east Asian studies at the time of the late 1960s and prior obstinately refused to appreciate the intricacies of their subject matter with tragic consequences (perhaps because they had spent their entire careers proposing and refining their own theories, inadequate as they were, and were thus hostile to criticism or rethinking). Professor Dower boldly challenged the entrenched establishment of his profession and faced tremendous resistance claiming that “we had to work it out ourselves” as the new generation of scholars in Japanese studies forged their own unique identity while resoundingly breaking with the methods and conclusions of the past. He even pioneered an innovative approach to studying Asian culture through Visualizing Cultures that leveraged the power of the internet to disseminate information through visual imagery akin to a virtual museum. Yet and more importantly, he and other like-minded individuals were able to unmask a far more accurate rendering of Japanese culture that has gone a long way towards eliminating the widespread ignorance and prejudice that had existed in the past. Humanity is better off for it. You will be missed, Professor Dower.

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From → history, MIT, news

2 Comments
  1. rafPedgrodo permalink

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian, iwspo.net

  2. Anonymous permalink

    what is his email?

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