It is with deep sadness that we announce that Professor Tetsuo Najita, the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College; former Chair of the History Department; and former Director of the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS), passed away in his home in Kamuela, Hawaii on Monday, January 11, 2021. He was 84 years old. Professor Najita was a towering figure in the field and distinguished himself through his scholarship, teaching, mentoring of graduate students, and service. He worked tirelessly to fundraise to support Japanese Studies at UChicago, creating endowments for CEAS that continue to support research, teaching, and graduate education at the University of Chicago today.
Professor Amanda Woodward, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, shared her thoughts with colleagues about Professor Najita's long and illustrious career at the University of Chicago:
"Professor Najita joined the Department of History of the University of Chicago in 1969 and was a member of the faculty until his retirement in 2002. His work as an historian sought to recoup and to explore the agency of ordinary people, commoner-intellectuals in Osaka, or farmers in the modern period as they negotiated social and political forces of their time. His many publications on Japan’s early modern and modern intellectual history include Hara Kei and the Politics of Compromise (1967), which was awarded the John King Fairbank Prize in East Asian History, and Visions of Virtue: The Kaitokudô Merchant Academy of Osaka (1987), which won the Yamagata Bantō Prize. After his retirement, he continued his work. In 2008, he published a new work in Japanese on the topic of “doing intellectual history,” and in 2009 the University of California Press published his work, Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1759-1950. Professor Najita also edited numerous volumes and some of these select papers are available on the CEAS website.
Professor Najita also dedicated much energy to supporting the Japan Studies program and the Center for East Asian Studies. As Center director from 1974-1980, he played a leading role in building up Japanese Studies endowments. He also was an important figure in the History Department and the Social Sciences Division. He was Master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division from 1984-1987 and Chair of the History Department from 1994-1997 and in Spring 2001. In 2007, the Japan Committee of the Center for East Asian Studies created the Tetsuo Najita Distinguished Lecture Series in Japanese Studies to commemorate his many achievements."
Professor Najita's legacy is survived by his beloved wife, Elinor, their doting children and grandchildren, and extended family and friends.
As the University of Chicago community, we remember with fondness the dedication, academic rigor, and care that Professor Najita provided as a mentor, professor, and friend. The Association for Asian Studies has published a tribute as well.
TRIBUTES FROM FORMER STUDENTS,
COLLEAGUES, AND FRIENDS
It is sad to lose him, and we will miss him, but I think of his life as a life well lived. For some reason, from time to time I think about his anecdote about his QE committee opening the session with simply "Tell us everything you know about Japan." How strong he was to thrive there!
- Noriko Aso, Associate Professor in East Asian Studies, History of Art/Visual Culture, Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz
I was so saddened to hear of Tets' passing and send my sympathy to Elinor and family. I first met him when I was a graduate student at Cornell in the early 1990s and he traveled to Ithaca for a conference. I remember him patiently hearing me out on a crackpot grad student theory I had about Ando Shoeki and Marx's theory of the division of labor and how he offered some generous advice. Tets had already retired by the time I arrived at the University of Chicago in 2007, but his and Elinor's annual returns to campus for the Najita Distinguished Lecture series were always a highlight of the year. I remember with special fondness the 2010 lecture by Oe Kenzaburo, in which he described the decisive impact that Tets's scholarship and friendship had on his own writings. The lasting influence of Tets' brilliant scholarship is certain; we will all continue to learn from him in the decades to come. I only wish that I and the rest of us here in Hyde Park had had more time to share with him. When I was appointed to the Robert S. Ingersoll Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, the greatest part of the honor for me was to learn that my two predecessors in the chair were Tetsuo Najita and Norma Field. At the University of Chicago we will always cherish Tets's memory and hold him in the highest regards as a model for how to be a scholar, teacher, and friend.
- Michael Bourdaghs, Robert S. Ingersoll Professor in East Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago
Professor Najita was born on the Big Island of Hawaii, the son of a Japanese-American family. He used to have a picture of the humble home where he was raised on the wall of his Hyde Park home on Harper Avenue, and I think he never forgot his origins. He told me once of his journey to Grinnell College by train. It was the first time he had left Hawaii, and he was dazzled by the scale of the mainland U.S. and newly conscious of his status as a minority in predominately white Midwest. After his retirement, Prof. Najita chose to return to the Big Island. One of the last talks I heard him give was entitled “Jibunshi and Nihonshi,” which might be translated as “My history and Japanese history.” Jibunshi refers to a form of history writing, popularized in the 1980s, that encouraged ordinary people to write down their histories and those of their families. In this talk, he wove together the story of his family, their emigration from Hiroshima prefecture to Hawaii and their work on the sugar plantations there, with the story of modern Japan and the social, cultural, and political forces that propelled people like his grandparents to move to a new land. It was, I think, emblematic of Professor Najita’s work as an historian, which sought to recoup and to explore the agency of ordinary people, commoner-intellectuals in Osaka or farmers in the modern period as they negotiated social and political forces of their time.
I was one of Prof. Najita’s many graduate students and I am proud, if still somewhat intimidated, to occupy his former office in the Social Science Building, the room where I consulted with him many times as a timid and insecure graduate student thirty years ago. As a mentor, he offered an exemplary combination of kindness and rigor. One of most treasured memories I have of him came after I finished my Ph.D. I was an untenured assistant professor at a big state university, newly divorced, and raising a then toddler daughter on my own, when he invited me to present my work at a graduate student workshop. It was, I felt than and now, his way of encouraging me to rise above my recent struggles and recollect the satisfaction that came from research and writing.
Prof. Najita and his wife Elinor delighted in welcoming graduate students and visitors to their home to enjoy wine, jazz, food, and most of all conversation. I recollect delightful Thanksgiving dinners, as well as the opportunity to meet with renowned Japanese scholars and public intellectuals, among them Oe Kenzaburo, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
- Susan Burns, Professor of Japanese History, Director of Center for East Asian Studies, University of Chicago
Professor Najita’s scholarship is equaled by his gift as a teacher. He taught how to ask questions, and the range of inquiry today among his students shows the importance of weathering his challenges to our work–sometimes an impish eyebrow raised; sometimes a blistering red question mark; or, sometimes the death knell: “Are you sure?
Above all, however, Professor Najita was supremely human. He and Elinor returned to Hawaii during the summer of 1994, and they loaned me their grey Mitsubishi to get to my first job. Najita said, “It’s a little beaten up, but it’s got a great engine,” failing to mention that the windows didn't open and there was no air conditioning, or that you had to climb into the driver’s seat from the back. Why would that matter? It got me to Naperville. I also had the singular privilege of being Professor Najita’s only on-campus graduate student when email was invented. He was determined to master it, which in practical terms meant that he would send repeated one-line notes — “Are you getting this?” “Is this coming through?” — yet call me while sending the email to ask whether it had come through. I can still hear the “whirrrr-rrrrring-bzzzzzzz” of this splendid month-long experiment.
Tetsuo Najita was a great teacher and reflective of a line he often quoted from one of his central thinker’s Ogyu Sorai’s depiction of the ancient kings: a man who loved 茗荷 (myouga). Professor Najita was fallible, and he had flavors and tastes he preferred, not all of which were to everyone’s liking but were his own.
- Alexis Dudden, Professor of History, University of Connecticut
I have many vivid visual memories of Tets, perhaps the most vivid (traumatic?) was during my qualifying exam (or whatever we called it back then in EALC) when he pushed me to the point of panic. I flailed, but somehow didn’t fail. And I’m ever grateful for that “tough love” experience. It epitomizes the intellectual integrity and humanistic caring that Tets embodied and ceaselessly enacted. But beyond this very specific and visual memory, I think what stays with me most closely (besides the shamoji he gave me as a wedding gift about twenty-five years ago and that I still use on a nearly daily basis, thinking of him each time I grasp it), is his voice. Even now as I write this I can hear and feel it—not any particular words, but rather his particular timbre and cadence. Modestly deep, always patient. And warm, even if he was taking you to task in an exam….
- Gerald Figal, Professor of History, Professor of Asian Studies; Director, Asian Studies, Vanderbilt University
My respect for him as a teacher, researcher, and human being is enormous. He shaped many of us in ways he probably didn't imagine. His openness to ideas and discussion is something I try to emulate to this day.
- Maki Fukuoka, Associate Professor in Art History, University of Leeds
Earning a PhD takes a long time and the relationship between advisor and advisee is fraught with peril. Given that we differed in gender, life experience, personality, and work-style, Tets Najita and I got along remarkably well. As I prepare to retire, having had some graduate students of my own, however, I appreciate even more the ways in which he supported my progress. One of my first glimpses of the faculty mentor experience from the other side of the desk came on the Purdue campus. A graduate student, who had included me as a committee member for her dissertation defense, was walking across campus. I could tell that she had seen me; she instantly changed direction so as not to encounter me directly. I easily understood the pattern of projecting onto the faculty member all the guilt one feels for prose not yet written.
As the faculty member, I can now see that many things that I took for granted were the product of faculty effort—advice on taking the social science history seminar, university affiliation and funding for dissertation research in Japan, a tutor for reading Japanese academic prose, part-time work when I was writing my dissertation. I am also appreciative of the way Tets encouraged his students in academic camaraderie—beer at Jimmy’s, meals and parties at his home. Tets agreed to serve as the discussant for the panel on which I gave one of my first academic papers. Later, some of his students recruited me to be the discussant on their first panels.
I think I speak for many when I express appreciation for the freedom Tets gave his graduate students to follow our own interests. That freedom was apparent in the wide variety of topics that were presented at the Conference on Methods and Metaphors in Japanese Studies held at the University of Chicago in 2004. Of course, we learned small, practical lessons as well. At the 2004 conference, one former student mentioned learning that a paper is not ready for submission until it has a title; I was once told that a staple was part of a completed paper. The single most valuable lesson I learned as Tets’s teaching assistant was how to write a syllabus—make a plan, with the intention of following it. This epiphany came to me after two years of secondary teaching, where lesson plans were required but I never had any.
Once Tets and I discussed the weather and other hazards of the place where we grew up. I confessed that I had always been happy to be from Massachusetts, a place where the most dangerous creatures, so I had been told, were the rattle snake (rare) and the snapping turtle (stay away). It had only recently occurred to me that cold could be a danger to human beings. He was properly amused at my naivete about frigid weather and then waxed eloquent on the pleasures of Hawaii. I am so glad that he and Elinor were able to retire there.
- Sally A. Hastings, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University
Tets inspired us and touched our lives. I often find myself reaching for the wisdom that he dropped quietly. My Chicago years were richer for the community grounding he and Elinor gifted at their mid-century Harper Avenue condo.
- Patti Kameya, Independent Researcher and Writer
I would not say I knew Professor Najita well (and I assume he hardly knew me) as he was already retired when I came to U of C in 2006, but his name is so giant to our school, our department, as well as CEAS, I have been having this very fondness as well as admiration for his tremendous influence. He built such strong foundation for us, and his contribution encourages me to work harder today. Everyone speaks about him with warm respect — so much loss to the university community, and to us.
When Professor Najita and Mrs. Najita were preparing to move to Hawaii, I joined a group of graduate students then, such as Mika Endo and Nick Albertson, who used to house-sit for the Najitas time to time. They were helping them to organize, pack and clean the house on 57th st. I loved mid-century furniture and decor they had, and Mrs. Najita generously gave me a small piece of furniture because they could not take everything to Hawaii with them. I still have it in my living room, and I will cherish it for a long, long time.
- Yoko Katagiri, Instructional Professor in Japanese Language, University of Chicago
Tets inspired me not just with his provocative scholarship, but also with his politics and compassion. At Chicago, not being a Japan studies person myself, I was very grateful that Tets opened the intellectual world of Tokugawa Japan (and his home with Elinor) to me. He once told us stories of him growing up in an internment camp while his brother lost his life serving the US military, and that there was a racist vandalization of his office on campus. Those stories have touched me deeply; they remind me that we need to work even harder to secure a different kind of future.
- Tong Lam, Associate Professor of History, University of Toronto
As a graduate student laboring to complete my MA and Ph.D. over a seven-year period (1978-1985) in the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Civilizations (thereafter sensibly renamed Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations) at the University of Chicago, I accumulated more debts of gratitude to several mentors than I have space to recount here. Two that I recall most vividly, involving Tetsuo Najita, bookended my dissertation project, for which he served as director.
One day, while visiting Professor Najita in his office to report on my ongoing research and the thesis that I was still honing, he asked me, “So, what’s the title of your dissertation?” The question caught me completely off guard. I had always regarded the title of this magnum opus as the crowning adornment, to be crafted only after the work was complete, in order to capture its essence in a pithy turn of phrase. As I fumbled for an answer and he kept pressing me for a better one, I realized the point of this frustrating exchange was to measure my progress in transforming my growing mountain of note cards and a wastebasket full of discarded draft outlines into an original, coherent, defendable argument, and to impress upon me the importance of learning to critique one’s own work-in-progress as vigorously as we had been taught to critique our sources.
Sometime later, with dissertation successfully defended and graduation approaching, I returned to Professor Najita’s office, at his invitation, for a very different purpose. I was about to get my feet wet as a temporary instructor teaching an evening course in Japanese history at a commuter campus on the North Side of the city. The problem was that I had absolutely no previous teaching experience; at the time, teaching fellowships at the U of C were few and hard to get, and the East Asian Studies Program did not devote any resources to that facet of academic training. Knowing of my plight, Professor Najita volunteered to mentor me one last time, in how to design and teach my course. To that end, he invited me to observe one of his undergraduate classes, where he pulled out a single sheet of scribbled notes and proceeded to hold his students in rapt attention for 50 minutes, moving confidently and seamlessly from one topic to the next while fielding questions—and asking questions—along the way. Needless to say, my first outing fell far short of his example, but it is one that served as a touchstone throughout my career.
- Mark Lincicome, Associate Professor Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross
I was fortunate to be admitted into the University of Chicago History Department under the direction of James Ketelaar and Tets Najita in the fall of 1999. I was young, insecure, and perhaps still even a bit “just off the farm.” To me, UChicago scholars were giants. I shook with anxiety when I went to Tets’s office and classes. Yet, what I remember of Professor Najita was compassion and fairness. “Don’t do the sideways glance” he told me when I felt I couldn’t measure up. So, I tried to stop doing that. I remember his frustration and even anger when graduate students (sometimes myself included) launched volleys at each other. He wanted a civil society, not crude mob violence. When I was going nearly out of my mind in the month leading up to my orals exam, I remember him saying, “You need to map it out.” So, I did. My walls and floor covered with huge pieces of tag board, the intellectual history of Japan linked and charted in every color. When I didn’t get tenure in 2013, he wrote, “Keep your chin up.” So, I did. I wasn’t in touch much with him these last 5 years, but his passing is a huge hurt and a deep emptiness. I am so grateful to have been his student in his last decade at the University of Chicago and to have been touched, not only by his monumental intellect, but also his compassion, grace, dignity, and integrity.
- Tanya Maus, Director of Peace Resource Center, Wilmington College
I have often thought back to my days at Chicago and the time I spent with Tets. He had a profound impact on me, on all of his students. I remember talking with him at a reception shortly after arriving at Chicago in 1996 and I recall feeling a bit intimidated. As I got to know him through coursework, conversations in his office, and get-togethers at his home with Elinor and other students, I came to know how kind and caring he was. As an instructor and advisor, he led me to think in new ways, pointing me toward ideas and sources I hadn't considered or known about. But he was always careful to let me find my own way forward intellectually. His example shaped those of us who studied with him intellectually, of course, and I will always be grateful for that. But I also look back to him for inspiration in my teaching and in how I interact with my students. I was so sorry to hear of his passing and I will miss him a great deal.
- Richard Reitan, Associate Professor of History, William and Marshall College
I was incredibly fortunate to have had Tetsuo Najita in my life. He was kind, generous, patient, and he pushed us hard to think – and to develop rigorous, independent scholarship. I grew, intellectually and personally, in the years of seminars, discussions in his office, and especially on walks in Hyde Park, talking about what it means to do history or just about our children and grandchildren. He was an exemplary teacher and a gifted historian. My students and I are richer for all of his work and for the things I learned from him.
- Peter Rothstein, Assistant Professor of History, Juniata College
I was deeply saddened by the news of Professor Najita’s passing. Every time I thought of him, his charming smile would appear before my eyes. In late September 2019, I received a postcard from Honolulu, Hawaii, which read: “Dear Tao-san, Many thanks for your recent book. I am most impressed with the depth of your research. I have fond memories of the days we shared in Osaka. With best wishes, Tets Najita.” What I had presented to him was my book titled, When Christianity Met the Religions of China and Japan: Cultural Interaction about Ritual Bowing, Dignity, and Belief (西教東漸と中日事情―拝礼・尊厳・信念をめぐる文化交渉, 関西大学出版部 2019), and I was sincerely awaiting his critical comments.
The first time I got to know Professor Najita was at the September 1987 International Symposium on the early modern merchant academy Kaitokudō, held at Osaka University, whose library holds the academy’s collection that had originated in the 1720s. I was then a PhD candidate at the university’s Department of Japanese History, working on my dissertation on Kaitokudō with my advisor, Professor Wakita Osamu, as well as my mentor, Professor Koyasu Nobukuni (Department of Japanology). Professor Najita and I were on the same panel at the symposium, where I presented a paper on the atheist belief of the academy’s leading scholars including Yamagataka Bantō, who based his ideas on the Zhu Xi Neo-Confucian philosophy and modern Western astronomy. Professor Najita was on sabbatical at Osaka University that year, and Professor Koyasu began a translation with his students of Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan : The Kaitokudō Merchant Academy of Osaka (which was later published as『懐徳堂―18世紀日本の「徳」の諸相』, 岩波書店1992). I therefore had many opportunities to chat with Professor Najita inside classrooms, the university guest house, and various restaurants. One day in spring 1988, I expressed my hope to learn about the Japanese studies programs at the leading universities in the United States. For although I was a graduate student at Osaka University on a Monbushō research scholarship, I retained the position as a lecturer of Japanese history at Fudan University in Shanghai, and was encouraged both by President Xie Xide (B.S., Smith College, 1949; PhD in Physics, MIT, 1951), and my master’s program advisor Professor Wu Jie (an economic historian who graduated from Kyoto Imperial University and enrolled in the Graduate School of Tokyo Imperial University in the late 1930s), to earn an advanced degree in Japan and to learn more about the world. Not long after, I received an invitation from the acting director Leo Ou-fan Lee of Chicago’s Center for Far Eastern Studies, who kindly arranged a lecture tour for me at the request of Professor Najita.
I made the trip to the United States in September 1988, giving talks about the “Current Status of Research on Japanese History in the People's Republic of China” at the University of California at Berkeley, Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cornell, Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard—a grand tour which allowed me to get to know many prominent scholars. During my time in Chicago, both Professors Najita and Lee invited me to their homes, and Najita even kindly held a big party, joined by his students and the prominent political science professor Tsou Tang 鄒讜. It was before the Tian’anmen Incident of June 1989, and I could clearly sense during my travels from the West Coast to the East Coast that American scholars were listening to my talk in the eager hope of gaining insight into what changes had occurred after the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and where the “Reforming China” under Mr. Deng Xiaoping was heading.
When Professor Najita was conferred the 1989 Yamagata Bantō Prize—a prestigious international cultural award given out by the Osaka Prefecture—I had the good luck to attend the ceremony with Professor Kimiko Miyagi of Konan University to congratulate the Najitas. During my aforementioned 1988 trip, I was fortunate enough to get to know Professor Marius Jansen, who later invited me to visit Princeton’s Department of East Asian Studies for the academic year 1990-1991, and further recommended me to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. During my research at Princeton, Professor Najita invited me again to give a talk at Chicago. In 1992, I got a position at Bridgewater State University in southeastern Massachusetts, where I taught until the end of 1995. I began working at Kansai University in the spring of 1996, and have since been teaching there for twenty-five years, with my full retirement to come in March 2022.
As an admirer of Professor Najita, I always tried to keep up with his scholarship and watched out for newspaper reports about him. In March 2008, when I was visiting UC Berkeley to deliver a talk on “Yoshida Shōin’s Encounter with Commodore Perry in the Days of Japan’s Opening,” based on my discovery from the Samuel Wells Williams Family Papers at Yale of Shōin’s petition to Perry written in the Shimoda jail after his failed stowaway attempt, I incidentally visited Professor Irwin Scheiner, who had chaired my 1988 talk at the school’s Center for Japanese Studies. During the conversation, he used his index finger to point at a pile of manuscripts on his desk, telling me that, “This is Tetsu’s latest work, although his health condition isn’t good.” Titled Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1750-1950, the book was published the following year from the University of California Press, and I became aware that Professor Scheiner was then serving as an internal reviewer for the press. Shortly after the Japanese translation of the book (相互扶助の経済―無尽講・報徳の民衆思想史, みすず書房, 2015) was published, I received a copy from Professor Emeritus Akio Igarashi of Rikkyo University, whom I got to know since summer 1994 when serving as a visiting scholar at Rikkyo on a three-month fellowship during my time at Bridgewater State University. Professor Igarashi has also been an admirer of Professor Najita. When we met at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, we would always talk about the Najitas. From his foreword as the supervisor of the translation, I learned that he had made considerable efforts to help Professor Najita’s months-long investigation in Japan on the traditional financial practices among the common people. Before sending my above-mentioned book to Professor Najita, I confirmed with him once more about the Najitas’ mailing address in Honolulu, Hawaii, because he communicated more frequently with Professor Najita than I did.
As a final word, I must confess that the reason I became an admirer of Professor Najita was not just because of his outstanding scholarship, but also because he was very down-to-earth, and his smile was so genuine and infectious that one could hardly refuse to be captivated by him.
- De-min Tao, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies, Kansai University
In 1968 I had the great good fortune to take an undergraduate course with Tets on Japanese history to 1800 during the year he taught at the University of Wisconsin. His lectures were thrilling. I still remember how excited he got in explaining the shiki system, drawing yellow line after yellow line on the blackboard to show how goods moved from the countryside to Kyoto. He made historical processes meaningful to me in ways they had never been before. Thanks to that class, when I decided to go to graduate school, I also decided to switch from my undergraduate major of Japanese language and literature to history. When I asked him where I should apply to graduate school, he wrote back, "come to Chicago." It sounds like a cliche to say that one course changed my life, but it did. For that I am profoundly grateful.
- Anne Walthall, Professor Emerita of Japanese History, University of California, Irvine
Korean newlyweds often get a pair of duck carvings. It signifies true happiness, good fortune, and prosperity. The ducks are then carried to the new home of the couple and displayed somewhere, and if the nose of the ducks is facing each other, then their relationship is good, and if the ducks are positioned tail to tail, that means, one can assume they are not a very happy couple. I always viewed Tets and Elinor as one. He once joked with me and said that Elinor is his navigator whenever they drive on Lake Shore Drive and she helps him change lanes, and this was before we had GPS! I had the fortune to get my first job in Hawaii, and a couple of days after I arrived in Honolulu, they invited me to a diner in Piikoi Street for a local plate lunch. Tets and Elinor were in town because they were scouting out a fridge at the old Sears at Ala Moana, and they were telling me how they liked staying at the Pagoda Hotel. What struck me was that Tets was wearing shorts and a pair of zori slippers! Elinor got me to order the loco moco, and she told me it’s the best way to deal with cure jet lag. I have always regarded the two as one and have fond memories of them as two loving ducks and will forever cherish the stories they shared with me about their life experiences. A Hui Hou Kākou.
- Theodore Jun Yoo, Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Yonsei University