Updated: Nov 22, 2022
The first featured individual from JSB's new series “Famous in Japan: Japanese Celebrities Around the World” is Edwin O. Reischauer, a scholar of Japan and a diplomat who greatly contributed to the understanding of Japan.
Edwin O. Reischauer was born in Tokyo on October 10th, 1910 to two educational missionaries. Reischauer attended the American School in Japan (ASIJ) before moving to the US to attain his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1931. He then continued his education, earning his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1939. Throughout his lifetime, Reischauer served as one of the leading scholars on Japan and East Asia, dedicating himself to the study of Japanese history, culture and the US-Japan relationship.
In October of 1940, when a war with Japan was becoming a legitimate concern in the US, Reischauer pointed out that few Americans would be able to understand the type of Japanese used in militaristic conditions, thereby posing a roadblock to US intel. Then-Lieutenant Albert Hindmarsh concurred with Reischauer, and the US Navy Japanese Language School was established to increase written Japanese comprehension in the US Navy. In the summer of 1942, the US Navy tasked Reischauer with running a secretive Japanese language course in Virginia.
Reischauer’s service to the United States continued far beyond World War II. In January 1960, the US-Japan Security Treaty—which allowed US troops to remain on Japanese soil after Japan regained sovereignty—was signed. There was an uproar of protests in Japan in response, and this damaged US-Japan relations. However, Reischauer went to visit Japan to understand the Japanese point of view and, upon his return to the US, he voiced his opinion that sympathized with the Japanese perspective. He emphasized that the damage to the US-Japan relationship was due to a misunderstanding of Japanese sentiment and concerns. He published these opinions in the Foreign Affairs journal in an article titled “The Broken Dialogue with Japan”.
In recognition of Reischauer’s work, President John F. Kennedy appointed him as the US Ambassador to Japan. Reischauer was the first US Ambassador to Japan who actually had a unique connection with the nation and knew the language. However, Reischauer’s uniquely strong love for Japan did spur some suspicion about where his loyalty lay. In 1966, following JFK’s assassination, Reischauer stepped down as Ambassador.
Nonetheless, Reischauer continued to dedicate his life to Japan. He taught at Harvard University for over 40 years and worked with John King Fairbank, a fellow Harvard professor, to develop an undergraduate survey of East Asian history and culture. The course was the basis for two widely influential textbooks: East Asia: The Great Tradition and East Asia: The Modern Transformation. Reischauer also wrote Japan: Story of a Nation about Japanese civilization. Much of Reischauer's work with Japanese studies at Harvard is correlated with that of his Ph.D. teacher Serge Elisséeff, whom Reischauer describes as the father of Far East Asian Studies in the United States.
In 1973, he became the Founding Director of the Japan Institute at Harvard University, and when he turned 75 in 1985, it was renamed the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. In addition, John Hopkins University also opened the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute for East Asian Studies at their School of Advanced International Studies in honor of his work.
“Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Expert, Dies:” The Harvard Crimson, Harvard Crimson, 10 Sept. 1990, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1990/9/10/edwin-o-reischauer-japan-expert-dies/.
“Edwin O. Reischauer.” Edwin O. Reischauer | Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University, https://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/edwin-o-reischauer.
Johnston, Laurie, and Robert Thomas. “Notes on People; Reischauer, at Harvard, Gives Farewell Lecture.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Apr. 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/04/23/ nyregion/notes-on-people-reischauer-at-harvard-gives-farewell-lecture.html.
Packard, George R.. Edwin O. Reischauer and the American Discovery of Japan. Germany, Columbia University Press, 2010.
“Reischauer Is Feted in Capital.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Oct. 1985, https://www.nytimes.com/1985/10/16/world/reischauer-is-feted-in-capital.html.