In Memoriam: Barbara Sato (1942-2021)

Barbara Sato (née Wool) came to Asian Studies with little or no Asia in her personal background. However, as a high school student she was chosen to go to Japan under the auspices of the American Field Service, perhaps one of the last cohorts to actually make the journey by ship across the Pacific. This experience would eventually lead to her distinguished career as a historian of Japan.

Barbara graduated from the University of Vermont and spent time in Japan before returning to the United States and entering the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. After receiving her M.A. degree in 1976 and her M.Phil. in 1977, she went to Japan to do dissertation research, and she did not leave her beloved Tokyo until her final illness precipitated a move for treatment in 2020.

Barbara received her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1994, but had already begun her teaching career at Temple University in Tokyo. She then taught for two decades at Seikei University, also in Tokyo. Barbara’s scholarly publications laid an essential foundation for all subsequent study of women in prewar Japan. It is difficult to find any later research that does not cite her groundbreaking book, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan (Duke University Press, 2003).  In this work and later articles in Japanese and English, Barbara used popular women’s magazines as primary sources, affording her insight into the lives of non-elite Japanese women in modernizing Japan. Her original choice of dissertation topic, the “modern girl” (moga) in interwar Japan, was groundbreaking. In that era, however, some considered her theme and approach somehow lightweight. Nevertheless, she persevered, and is now recognized as a pioneer in Japanese socio-cultural history and praised for her innovations in theme and research methods.

Barbara was a pioneer in another way, as well: she became a full professor at Seikei when it was still unusual for non-Japanese to receive regular appointments at Japanese universities. Her professional life could be challenging, but she handled her university assignments with grace. As a “famous professor” on campus she had many fans among the students, who appreciated her encouragement to speak up in class, as well as her empathy and friendliness.

Barbara was unfailingly generous with colleagues on both sides of the Pacific, sharing sources, connections, and advice. She bridged different scholarly worlds through active participation in the Association for Asian Studies and the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, where her research on Japanese women became part of transnational dialogue. In Japan, her connections with the University of Tokyo, where she completed course work for the Ph.D., and her role as a Research Fellow with the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto (1995-2013) were especially meaningful.

In addition to all of her professional accomplishments, Barbara’s friends remember her for her shining spirit, generosity to friends and colleagues, wonderful gift for friendship, and the resilience and realism with which she approached life.   

Barbara is survived by her husband, Sato Kazuki, son, Sho, daughter-in-law, Jade, and grandson, Noah. 

— Submitted by Ellen Hammond

Memories of Barbara Sato

Josh Fogel

Like many of us who grew up in the immediate postwar years, Barbara’s connections to her Jewishness were strong in identity, less so in practice. Her wonderful son Sho had his bar mitzvah at the synagogue in Tokyo, which my wife and I promised years before we would be sure to attend, and Barbara used the Jewish Community Center there for her primary form of exercise: swimming. Nonetheless, all (both Jewish and Gentile) would surely agree that the ruach ha-kodesh (divine spirit) ran through her soul. Her joyous personality was utterly infectious. In addition to her husband Satō Kazuki (Kazie) and son, she leaves many friends all extremely sad but equally enriched for having known her. Baruch dayan ha-emet.

Sometime circa 1974 or ‘75, Barbara and I found ourselves studying in [Columbia University’s] Kent Hall library, and as we ended up leaving together, we began walking toward our respective homes down Broadway deep in conversation. It was a rare day of lovely weather, so we just kept walking past my block at 100th St and then past hers somewhere in the West 70s. We ended up walking all the way to Chinatown (around seven miles, about 2 hours). I don’t even know if it’s still there, but a restaurant called 4-5-6 was then my go-to place; we had dinner and then walked back as far as Barbara’s block. I promptly hopped in the subway, even though I was only about 1.5 miles from my apartment. I’ve never done anything like that again, as an adult. Many years later, Kazie, Barbara, and Sho took me and my wife to the sister restaurant in Yokohama, also called 4-5-6.

Jeff Hanes

First, I recall a couple of wonderful lunches in Boston with Barbara and Kazie while she was undergoing treatment at Dana Farber. You would never have known that Barbara was as ill as she was: she exuded positivity and the same sweetness and empathy that we all know so well. One thing I that I always appreciated about Barbara was her interest in her friends’ lives. She was terrifically generous as a friend, even when her own life was in jeopardy. 

Second, as a scholar, I continue to recall that story I told (with Ron Toby as the source) of Barbara’s advisor(s?) at Columbia pitying her for electing to study something as frivolous as moga (modern girls). What she proved herself to be, instead, is a pioneer of modern Japanese social-cultural history.

Third, Barbara and I engaged in lively, sophisticated discussions, over a period of years, concerning the changing face of “popular culture” (taishū bunka) in the interwar period (then later the postwar period). Often our dinners in Tokyo included Yoshimi Shunya. I look back on those evening as some of the most intellectual stimulating moments of my entire career—being introduced to new sources, new points of view, new concepts, etc. I truly miss those occasions.

Carol Morley

When I think of Barbara I am immediately drawn back into the past and the wonderful gift Barbara had for making you feel as if you were the one person in the world whom she wanted to be with at that moment. If you ran into her by accident, she made you feel that it was serendipitous because there was something she just had to tell you. Maybe it was that she ate an entire jar of peanut butter while working on the verb conjugations for Japanese class, or maybe she’d confess that she just couldn’t remember anything and had stayed up all night working for nothing. And there you’d be in the middle of the sidewalk outside the entrance to the campus at 116th Street, laughing and commiserating. How she could lift your day! 

I knew Barbara best during our days at Columbia when almost our entire class would meet before Classical Japanese and pore over our notes and translations before we headed over to Kent Hall to Keene Sensei’s class. I loved that class. I loved the comradery, and looking back, can see so clearly how central Barbara was to the ease with which we shared our work, our successes, and most importantly, our failures. I had no idea how rare that is in life. 

Over the years, I saw Barbara in Japan from time to time and she was always still Barbara. Still elusive and yet, still looking as if every encounter with you was a miracle, a delight. I wondered at times about her elusiveness. But as I look back, I find myself accepting that this was Barbara’s way of being in the world. And it was a fine way of being, a wonderful gift to all those whom she encountered. At least so it was for me.

Kate Wildman Nakai

Barbara and I first met at the end of May 1959. We were part of a contingent of American high school students being dispatched to Japan on the American Field Service summer program. Ours was the third group to be sent to Japan, and since going by air was not yet the norm for people traveling between the United States and Japan, we had gathered in Seattle to board the Hikawa Maru for the close to two-week voyage across the Pacific. Barbara and I happened to be assigned to the same cabin deep in the ship’s third-class quarters, and we immediately established a bond. (The Hikawa Maru was retired from active service not long after our crossings on it and today is anchored permanently in Yokohama harbor.) After reaching Japan the group spent a couple of days in Tokyo and made an overnight excursion to Nikkō, where Barbara and I wandered off on our own to explore the area around the main shrines. It then dispersed to the localities where we were to stay for the next two months. Barbara went to Hamamatsu, and I to Matsusaka.

For both of us that short summer stay in between our second and third years of high school was a life-changing experience. Like so many before and after we fell under Japan’s thrall and returned to the U.S. determined to find a way to come back as quickly as we could. The founding in 1961 of the Stanford Center in Tokyo (now the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama) provided an opportunity to do so. It also made it possible for Barbara and me to reunite. I began study at the Center in spring 1962, and Barbara joined that fall (along with Henry Smith, Bill Sibley, and others). The Center at that time was located at Wakeijuku (next to Chinzansō, on property held by the Hosokawa house), and undergraduate women, per Stanford policy at the time, lived in one of the dormitories of Nihon Joshi Daigaku, a ten-minute walk away.

Somewhat over a decade ago, Barbara, Henry, Shirley Sun (another member of the class that came to the Center in fall 1962), my husband, and I got together to visit Wakeijuku and the area around it in memory of Bill. As the last stop of the day, we went to see the Joshidai dormitory compound. The dorm where we had stayed was located at the very back of the compound, and Barbara, Shirley, and I got the guard at the gate to let us in to go look at it. At the time it had been the only modern, concrete, multistory building; the other dorms had been one-story Japanese-style buildings. Now all the dorms were concrete and multistory, but the compound as a whole and “our” dorm still had an air of familiarity.

Embarrassing to recall, the Stanford authorities felt that a Japanese student diet wouldn’t provide sufficient nutrition for American college students and so provided us with an extra food allowance. For a while the Center students ate a different breakfast, separate from the other dorm residents, but at some point it was arranged for us to receive the allowance individually to use as we wanted. Barbara and I developed the habit of going weekly to Ketel’s restaurant on the Ginza and buying a whole cheesecake, which we stored in the common little refrigerator on the dorm floor. We divided it up carefully, doling ourselves out a piece each day. We engaged in other less-than-wholesome activities as well, notably spending hours in coffee shops as our favored locales for study.

On a more elevated plane, during the end-of-year holiday in 1962, we took a trip to Kyoto. Among its highlights was walking through the fields of Ōhara in the weakening late December afternoon sun to visit a deserted Jakkōin. We separately would later experience the disillusionment of visits to Jakkōin when it had become an established tourist spot, but that earlier moment remained magical for both of us.

During the following decades there were long periods when Barbara and I were not regularly in touch, but whenever we reconnected, it was as if there had been no gap whatsoever. The shared initial experiences of Japan that were so crucial to the later courses of our lives helped make it possible to pick up instantly from where we had left off. More crucial, though, was Barbara’s personality. Resilience tinged with vulnerability, an adventurous streak, and sensitivity to others fed into a warmth that spilled out of her and enveloped you in it. All who knew Barbara will remember her infectious smile and laugh and the spontaneous affection expressed through hugs and her seizing and holding your hand. Those qualities surely sustained her through the trials she had to endure in the last few years. It is no wonder that the staff at Dana Farber asked her to lead discussion groups among patients there.

I last saw Barbara at the end of January 2020, shortly before she returned to the U.S. to continue treatment. We had lunch at the restaurant at the top of the Bunkyō-ku Ward Office and afterwards walked around the observation deck on the same twenty-third floor, noting sights not so far from the Wakeijuku area familiar from almost sixty years before. Then I waited with her for her bus, we hugged, she got on the bus, and it drove away. Her subsequent messages almost always mentioned how in the midst of hospital visits and her worsening physical condition, she continued to work on her project on Tanaka Sumiko. In one of her last messages she wrote, “I’m still concentrating on the Tanaka Sumiko piece because unlike many she was optimistic, yet the gains made are nowhere close to what she imagined. I think it is of relevance to women’s history.” Barbara’s affinity for Tanaka evokes her own underlying optimism and bravery, which shone brightly and brought light to others even as she recognized and confronted difficult realities.

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