It with great sadness we report the death of our colleague, teacher, and friend, former AAS President Tetsuo Najita, who died peacefully at home on January 11, 2021 in Kamuela, Hawaii after a long illness. Known widely as “Tets,” Najita was a pre-eminent scholar of early modern and modern Japanese intellectual history, political economy, and theory. Upon completion of his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1965, he taught at Carleton College and the University of Wisconsin before joining the University of Chicago in 1969. He remained at Chicago until retirement in 2002 as the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History, East Asian Languages and Civilization, and the College. Among numerous awards and honors, in 1993 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Najita’s publications began with the 1967 Hara Kei in the Politics of Compromise, 1905-1915 and culminated in his 2009 Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1750-1950 (Tets was especially pleased with the Japanese language version of this final book). Arguably best known—and most transformative to the field—was Najita’s 1987 Visions of Virtue: The Kaitokudo Merchant Academy of Osaka, in which he argued the criticality of political economic thought to early modern and modern Japanese history among those technically barred from ordering its governance. The book won countless prizes and also the notice of many in Japan, including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Oe Kenzaburo, who in 2010 lectured at the University of Chicago on his personal “re-reading” of Najita’s seminal book.
Tets Najita was born on the Big Island of Hawaii into a large farming family and would later display a photograph of the wooden house on stilts in which he was raised. He attended Grinnell College between 1954 and 1958 on a scholarship arranged by one of his teachers in Hawaii; in 1998 the college named him a distinguished alumnus. Another object Najita would show was a copy of President Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 ordering removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. When racist students attacked his University of Chicago office in the 1980s, Najita wondered whether any of them had considered that one of his favorite brothers had fought and died for the United States as member of the famous 442nd Infantry Regiment.
Professor Tetsuo Najita is pre-deceased by his daughter and survived by his wife and best friend, Elinor, their son, Kiyoshi (Yosh), and two grandsons, all of whom he was tremendously proud.
— Alexis Dudden, University of Connecticut
Remembering Tetsuo Najita: The View from Chicago
By Prasenjit Duara, Duke University
I came to know Tets Najita as a mentor and senior East Asianist colleague in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He became the chair of the department soon after I joined it and guided me carefully through the rocky shoals of scholarly politics towards professorship. He served as the President and officer of AAS even while he was chairing the department, a double task—one which I now recognize could not have been easy at all—that he performed without the slightest complaint and with considerable cheer.
Speaking from the view of my former perch at the University of Chicago, I note how much Tets contributed to the university. As Director of the Center for East Asian Studies from 1974 to 1980, he played a leading role in building up the Japanese Studies endowment, which today funds faculty and graduate student research, contributes to the Japanese collection in the library, and has supported many conferences and events. Before he served as Chair of the History Department, he was Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division from 1984 to 1987, which was also the period during which he produced his most celebrated and prize-winning work, Visions of Virtue: The Kaitokudô Merchant Academy of Osaka. In honor of his contributions, the Center for East Asian Studies holds the annual Tetsuo Najita Lecture Series, which has featured Nobel Prize Winner Oe Kenzaburo.
Graduate students who worked with Tets now hold important university professorial positions across the United States, as well as in England, Japan, Korea, and China. We present below some reflections of admiration and gratitude, personal and intellectual, from these students.
University of Chicago
In my own personal take on the pedagogical and intellectual aspect of Tets’s work, I think part of this dynamism can be found in his early liberal arts educational experiences at Grinnell and Carleton. Professor Najita was without question a complex, brilliant, creative, path-breaking, and path-setting scholar. He was also deeply committed to the importance of ideas in the creation and formation of the structure of the self itself as well as in the impact of those ideas on society. He operated at exceptionally high levels in his theoretical work. Yet, he also insisted upon the historical integration of ideas, no matter how complex, into the fabric of practice, experience, and the everyday life of everyday people.
Visions of Virtue is a magisterial demonstration of the power of ideas as worked out in private merchant academies; Ordinary Economies extends these ideas further, as they work their way into smaller communities, towns, and villages, and eventually come to form the background to globally significant modern Japanese economic structures. It is no coincidence, for example, that one of his first works, simply titled “Japan,” with the more telling subtitle of “The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics,” uses the oppositional forces of bureaucratism and humanism to trace a history of ideas that both occurred in, and contributed directly to, the modern period. Yes, without question, ideological apparatuses produced by and integral to state formation are crucial to our consideration of the meanings of “modernity” or of “Japan”; he details these with elegant care and insight. He also explores with great consistency and care what we might call the human factor. What did it mean, in concrete terms, to think, and to act, in any given period? Especially in politically volatile times. Obviously, such thinking and such historical methodology has significant implication in any time or place.
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.
University of Connecticut
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. 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.