Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Fully Human: Remembering Jerry K. Fisher

Posted in Change is Bad,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 24th, 2014

(Professor Jerry K. Fisher of Macalester College passed away on May 7. He was not only my undergraduate adviser, but also the person who first introduced me to Japan and in many other ways acted as my role model. Below is an edited version of remarks I made at a June 22 memorial service at Macalester’s Weyerhauser Chapel.)


I’m honored to speak today as one of the hundreds of students who studied with Jerry over the years. I have a theory that there are three kinds of professors: those who make their mark through their scholarship, those who make their mark as administrators, and those who make their mark through the students they teach—we know them through their students. (Of course, there’s a fourth category, too: professors who never make any mark whatsoever. That’s the category I’ve set my own eyes on). I think Jerry was very much a member of the third category, the kind of professor who devotes himself to his students.

Jerry was a Macalester alum, class of 1958. He then returned to Macalester to teach in 1969, teaching first in the History Department and later in Media and Cultural Studies as well. He earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia in 1975 with a dissertation on the Meirokusha group. Jerry also earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in 1964. His Christian faith was an important component of his make-up as a scholar and teacher.

I first studied with Jerry in 1979, my freshman year at Mac. To be honest, he wasn’t always the most spell-binding of classroom lecturers, but he was remarkably able at engaging students in dialogue. This in part represented the influence of the Japanese philosopher and educator Hayashi Takeji (林竹二, 1906-1985), who was one of Jerry’s intellectual mentors. Hayashi was the first president of Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, where Jerry spent time as a visiting professor. Hayashi was famous for engaging students of all ages in Socratic dialogue. Like nearly every Japanese university in the late 1960s, Miyagi University of Education was occupied by its students, who barricaded and shut down the campus to protest government policies. But unlike virtually every other Japanese university president, Hayashi did not call in the riot police to clear the students out by force. Instead, he went behind the barricades and personally engaged the students in a dialogue that extended for days. As a result, the protest reached a peaceful conclusion. The lesson was not lost on Jerry.

hayashi takeji

Jerry’s greatest impact as a teacher came from the personal mentoring he did outside the classroom. He made a practice of intervening in students’ lives, pointing them down roads that they hadn’t even known existed. Jerry practically adopted some of his students. I have a friend who never studied with Jerry but who knows personally several of these students who Jerry seemingly adopted: my friend calls this group “Jerry’s kids.” With apologies to Andy and Cynthia, Jerry’s real kids, and to Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, let me tell you what it was like to be one of Jerry’s kids.

During my first year and a half at Mac, I took a couple of classes with Jerry. Then I dropped out of school for a few years. When I returned to Mac in 1983 I found myself in his classroom again. I still didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with myself. That’s when Jerry made his first intervention in my life. In late 1983, he phoned me to inform me that I was going to spend the 1984-85 academic year as an exchange student in Japan. Macalester had an exchange agreement with Miyagi University of Education. It included one fellowship for a Mac student to come to Sendai every year, and that year no one had applied for it. So Jerry told me to apply for it, and having no better ideas myself, I did. Before that it never would have occurred to me to go to Japan. In fact, my real interest was in China, and the main reason I accepted the idea of going to Japan was that it was close to China. I figured if Jerry could get me 6,000 miles across the Pacific to Japan, I ought to be able to manage the remaining few hundred miles and get to China on my own.

I started my year in Sendai in September 1984 and somehow I got stuck in Japan, the way I think Jerry knew I would. I never made it to China—in fact, it took thirty more years before I finally managed to get to China. I spent that year in Sendai and had the amazing experience that Jerry knew I would have. One of the things that happened that year was that I met Hinata Yasushi (日向康, 1925-2006). Hinata was a novelist and scholar, another disciple of Hayashi Takeji, and Jerry’s best friend in the world. Hinata would become one of my own intellectual mentors. Another thing that happened that year was that I met Ogura Satoko, who a few years later would become my wife.


In other words, thanks to Jerry’s intervention that year, I acquired not only my lifelong interest in Japanese culture and history, but also the most important parts of my personal life. But Jerry wasn’t done with me yet.

His second intervention in my life came in late 1986. After I graduated from Mac, I was working at a store that specialized in making gourmet popcorn in dozens of different flavors. That should give you some idea of the career I was bound for if left to my own devices. Jerry called me up and told me I was going to Japan again. His work as a consultant on Asian business for Hubbard Broadcasting had reached a level where he needed a full-time assistant based in Tokyo to serve as a liaison with Hubbard’s Japanese business partners. He wanted me to do it. It certainly beat making popcorn for a living.

And so in January 1987 I headed back to Japan and worked there for two-and-a-half years, with Jerry as my boss. I lived in an apartment in the western suburbs of Tokyo, a ten-minute walk away from the house Jerry and Aiko owned there. It was an amazing time for me. I learned what it was like to be a salaryman in Tokyo. I also got to meet more of Jerry’s intellectual colleagues: the journalists, scholars, and activists that formed his personal network in Japan. The financial stability of the job also allowed me in 1988 to get married to Satoko, right here in Weyerhauser Chapel, with Jerry and Aiko in attendance.

The third major intervention Jerry made in my life came in 1989. I did my best working for Hubbard Broadcasting, but I think it was clear to all that I wasn’t meant for the business world. Jerry told me it was time for me to go to graduate school. I asked him where I should apply, and he told me Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Minnesota. I applied to the Japanese literature program at all three schools. Jerry wrote letters of recommendation for me, of course, but I later learned that he also personally contacted professors he knew at all three schools and lobbied them not only to accept me, but also to offer me a major fellowship. The outcome was that I received fellowship offers from all three schools. I ended up going to Cornell. In 1996 I finished my Ph.D. there and became an assistant professor at UCLA. In 2007, I moved to the University of Chicago, where today I am Professor of Japanese Literature.

So you see, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I owe my life to Jerry. My wife, my children, my career, my interest in Japanese culture: none of it would exist had he not intervened on several occasions to set me on the right path. This is what it was like to be one of Jerry’s kids. I think there are dozens of other people, former students of Jerry’s, who could tell you similar tales. In his devotion to his students, Jerry was exceptional. Once, when I asked him how I could possibly repay him for all he had done for me, Jerry said I could do so by helping my own students in turn. I try to do that, but Jerry set the bar awfully high.

The last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of helping Jerry’s family go through his personal library, to try to find good homes for the many books he accumulated over the years. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to retrace the trajectory of Jerry’s intellectual life. And I’ve been reminded of some of the key principles that motivated him as a scholar and teacher.

Jerry specialized in the intellectual history of modern Japan, and later in the new field of global media studies. But I think he was particularly concerned with what we might call the ethics of scholarship, the way our classroom teaching and book knowledge intersect with the real world, with how scholars can contribute to the cause of social justice and help produce a better world. Among his publications, I think he was proudest of those that appeared in venues like the Asahi Journal, aimed at a general readership in Japan.

To be a scholar of Asian Studies in the 1960s meant confronting directly the role that scholarship played in supporting the Vietnam War. Like others of his generation, including his good friend John Dower, Jerry wasn’t afraid to confront famous scholars at Ivy League powerhouses when they spoke dishonestly or disingenuously about Asian culture and history in order to legitimate what Jerry thought were indefensible policies. Even as a vulnerable graduate student, Jerry publicly took on Edwin Reischauer, Harvard University Professor and at the time U.S. Ambassador to Japan.

In part, this was driven by the training Jerry received at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied the thought of theologian Reinhold Niehbur. Jerry was especially attracted to Niehbur’s 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, with its argument that we can never expect institutions to act in accord with a sense of morality, that only individual humans can act morally.


Another way Jerry practiced this ethics of scholarship was in his engagement with Japanese intellectuals. Japan Studies scholars from North America during the 1960s and 70s too often tended to look down on or ignore their counterparts in Japan. But from the start, Jerry was unusual in this regard: he actively sought out opportunities to engage with Japanese scholars like Hayashi Takeji or Hinata Yasushi, meeting them on their own ground by speaking, reading, and writing in Japanese. Jerry also insisted that his own students do likewise.

Let me conclude by quoting a passage from a 1986 article that Jerry published the year after Hayashi Takeji died. The piece is titled “Hayashi Takeji and Tanaka Shōzō.” It explores Hayashi’s role in the 1960s rediscovery of Tanaka Shōzō (田中正造, 1841-1913), an early 20th century environmental activist and philosopher. This is what Jerry wrote:

Hayashi believed that contemporary Japanese had much to learn from Tanaka Shōzō. For one, membership in an intimate group which is just and caring is of central value to humans. Secondly, other larger structures and institutions are of only relative importance. Indeed, their value and importance is measured in relation to their support of the primary group. Finally, an individual has a cosmic imperative to act upon what he knows to be morally right. Only then is he or she human. (Waseda Journal of Asian Studies, 8 [1986], 1-13)

Jerry Fisher was fully and gloriously human. My sympathy and condolences to Aiko, Andy, Cynthia, and their families.

One Response to 'Fully Human: Remembering Jerry K. Fisher'

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  1. Bill Zimniewicz said,

    on June 25th, 2014 at 6:58 pm


    Thanks for a perfect tribute to a great person. Jerry taught me a lot. I sought his help and counsel over the years. Thanks for writing this.

    This is the first and only time I’ve contributed something on Facebook.