Professor James W. Morley

Columbia University (ret.)

March 21 , 2005


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Introduction to Japan and the War Years
End of the War and Early Study of Japan
Research in Occupied Japan
An Unexpected Career Move
Columbia During the Early Post-WWII Years
Changes in the Study of Political Japan
Service in the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo
Changes in Japan's Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations
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Angel: Welcome to Japan Considered, Professor Morley. How did you first become involved with Japan?

Introduction to Japan and the War Years

Morley: December 7, 1941 when the radio blared into my college room that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Before that I had had no contact with Japan and I’m not sure I could have located it on a map.

Angel: Where were you and what year were you in college?

Morley: I was just finishing the first semester of my junior year at Harvard College; and while I had become alarmed by the trends in world politics, I was deeply immersed in the study of American history and literature and inclined toward pacifism.

Pearl Harbor changed all that. Once our country was attacked, I felt instinctively that we had to fight and that I had to get ready. I quickly piled on courses so as to graduate that summer, and in December 1942, after putting in a few months at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy—where I had the good fortune to meet my wife—I volunteered in the Navy.

Angel: What did you volunteer for?

Morley: Naval Intelligence. I was looking around to see where I might fit when a classmate, Bob Schwantes, who later became important in the Asia Foundation, told me that the Navy was recruiting people for a Japanese Language School that had been set up in Boulder, Colorado. [Webpage of U.S. Navy Japanese/Oriental Language Archive Project (JSLP)] I didn’t know anything about the Japanese language—I don’t believe that I had ever seen it written or heard it spoken—but learning something new appealed to me, so I applied, was accepted, and headed West.

Angel: What was the Navy Japanese Language School like?

Morley: 15 months of intensive study, all day and sometimes, all night. The texts were the Naganuma Readers, written originally for the instruction of missionaries. The teachers were mostly Japanese drawn from the Relocation Camps. They were a dedicated group and made up in enthusiasm for what they lacked in teaching experience. Grammar, of course, went by the boards. Why is the language constructed this way? we’d ask, and the answer was always given, “Because that’s the way we say it!”

Angel: And after graduating….

Morley: I was sent to Washington to work in the Communication Annex, where I was assigned to a section working round the clock to break the codes used in Japanese capital ship transmissions.

Angel: Can you talk about that or is it a quiet subject?

Morley: It was quiet then—top secret, but now? So much has changed. The Japanese capital ships—the carriers, battleships, and cruisers—transmitted their messages in an enciphered code. For our Navy to engage the Japanese Navy successfully, the location of the Japanese ships had to be pinpointed, and the best way to do that was to read their electronic transmissions.

The assignment of my section was to break through the numerical ciphers. We were not consistently successful, but on many occasions we were. Then, crucial messages were read, the Fleet was informed, and, when no more transmissions were picked up from that ship, we knew we had played a vital part in its sinking. For us at the Annex it was an antiseptic business…..but deadly for all that. [Return to Topics]

End of the War and Early Study of Japan

Angel: And did you go to Japan in the Occupation?

Morley: No, I could have, but I decided against it. By the end of the war I was burdened with the thought of all the deaths my country—and I—had contributed to, and the idea of participating in the Occupation when I knew so little about Japan, seemed to me absurd. What I really felt I had to do was to learn more about Japan, how we became involved in this war and how we could make sure that it would never be repeated. I had completed an MA in international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies while serving in Washington, but Japan was on my mind—and so was the USSR, which was looming up as another formidable adversary. So, thanks to the GI Bill, I headed for Columbia University in New York and entered the History Department. .

Angel: Whom did you work with at Columbia?

Morley: I had hoped to work with Hugh Borton, who had begun a course at Columbia on modern Japanese history just before the war and who was then in the State Department helping to plan and monitor the Occupation. Unfortunately, he did not return before I completed my course work. Sir George Sansom gave a rather formal reading of his lectures, but somehow in person conveyed none of the excitement I had felt when first reading his Short Cultural History. I was left primarily on my own devices on modern Japan, so I plunged into Russian studies with the guidance of Philip Mosely, and especially into Japanese cultural history, taught then and for many years after by Tsunoda Ryusaku. Tsunoda or “Sensei” as we always called him, was a Zen Buddhist, who brought the Japanese library to Columbia and for many years taught an extremely influential course on Japanese thought. He not only enriched my Columbia years, but has remained an inspiration throughout my life. I must mention also my fellow students, especially Ted deBary, Donald Keene, Ed Seidensticker, Arthur Tiedemann, and Phil Yampolsky, who provided comradeship then and later and more than enough challenge!

Angel: How did the dissertation come about? You published it later, I believe as The Japanese Thrust Into Siberia, 1918.

Morley: I wanted to do something in recent history, something that brought my two interests together, Japan and Russia. Japan’s Siberian Expedition seemed like a natural since so little was known about it. The problem, of course, was that none of my sponsors could suggest how to go about it. At that time there had been no real research in Japanese archives, and in any event, no one knew what the archives might hold.

So my first move was to go to Washington to examine the archives of the Japanese Army, which had been seized and transported to the Library of Congress. To my disappointment, they were locked up and without any guide. I was, however, permitted to have them withdrawn in sequence, and after several months, during which I compiled a guide, I did find some useful material. I then turned to Japan. [Return to Topics]

Research in Occupied Japan

The problem there was that no foreign scholars had been admitted into Japan since the Occupation began. It was not until December 1950 that the bar was lowered, and Arthur Tiedemann and I were given permission, providing we had a place to stay. A missionary friend in Japan found me an apartment in Kyoto. I packed up my family immediately and boarded the President Wilson for the ten day voyage across the Pacific.

Angel: And how did you find Japan?

Morley: At first it was frightening. What spoken Japanese I had learned at Boulder had atrophied. The universities in Kyoto could not receive foreign students; and in any event the professors I called on said they could not help me with my research. For two months I took to the streets, dropping into stores, especially tea and antique shops, and tried to practice my Japanese on the hapless store owners.

Finally, desperate to get at my research, I went up to Tokyo and took an apartment in an old fashioned Japanese house in Seijo machi, and then, learning that the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which had been shut down, was holed up in a former Mitsui Bank building in Toranomon, I knocked on the door and asked if they had any materials on the Siberian Expedition.

I can’t help thinking that the Ministry must have thought that I was an Occupation spy, except that I spoke so poorly and my story seemed so improbable, but to my great relief, I was invited in. For more than a year I was given work space, provided with the documents I sought, and helped by an extraordinary Ministry official, Kurihara Ken, a man who knew the Foreign Ministry Archives intimately, was devoted to historical truth, and became a lifelong friend, not only to me, but to many American scholars thereafter.

Of course, living in Tokyo five years after the end of the war was an experience I shall never forget—the veterans in hospital garb begging in the streets, the sidewalks laden with household goods that burned-out families were offering for sale, the tuberculosis that infected so many of the academics, and yet—I could not get over the beauty of the countryside, the fabulous, exotic richness of the culture, and most of all the sincere friendship offered by so many Japanese we came to know. I returned a Japanophile, determined to do what I could to strengthen the understanding between our two countries. that between us we would see war no more. [Return to Topics]

An Unexpected Career Move

Angel: Had you always wanted to be a teacher?

Morley: No, that was one profession I had had no interest in. I had entered the PhD program simply to learn. So when I finished my work at Columbia and the support from the GI bill and the University came to an end, I found myself broke, with a family, and no plans. At this point one of my professors called me in, told me of a teaching position at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and advised me strongly to get on the train the next day and get the job. Having no alternative, I did. The first years were hard—fifteen hours a week of European history and three of Asian history, for $2,800 and a war-surplus barracks building to live in, but I found I enjoyed working with students and valued the freedom to do my own work, so, when the invitation came in 1954 to join the faculty of the newly formed East Asian Institute at Columbia and teach graduate courses in Japanese and Chinese politics (Yes, Chinese politics too), I leapt at it. Hey, that was a challenge! [Return to Topics]

Columbia During the Early Post-WWII Years

Angel: What was it like, teaching at Columbia in those early years?

Morley: It was an exhilarating experience! In the years after the Pacific War the country was hungry for information about Asia. The universities, so long Western-centric, were eager to add Asia to their curricula, and the Foundations were rushing forward to offer support. At the same time, there were precious few scholars in the country to provide leadership and, especially in the social sciences, very little scholarly material to base the teaching on. In short, the Asian studies field, especially in the social sciences, was wide open as it had never been before.

I became absorbed in studying Japanese politics, primarily by going to Japan and observing it and by researching in collaboration with numerous American, Japanese and other Asian scholars. At the same time I threw myself into helping to build the East Asian Institute, Columbia’s inter-departmental Asian area studies base, and sharing in the work of the Association for Asian Studies and the foundations

Angel: And the students?

Morley:: Ah, they were the best part. In those early years and for many years thereafter we were inundated at Columbia with students. Among them were some of the brightest, most dedicated people I have had the good fortune to know. I fear I had little to teach them. I was, after all, a learner too. Many of them had curiosities and experiences I had never had, and some of the most dedicated were anxious to apply the theories and methods they were learning in the political science discipline. It has been one of the great satisfactions of my life to see so many of them, after graduation, moving into positions of leadership in academe and in public life. [Return to Topics]

Changes in the Study of Political Japan

Angel: I wonder how you see the Japanese political science curriculum as having changed over the years?

Morley: The questions being asked about Japan are different than they were in the early post-war years. Then we were concerned, for example, with whether the Japanese economy could ever recover even to its pre-war level, whether it would keep its new democracy and whether the US-Japan relationship would last.

Well, Japan is a different place today. It is a far more comfortable place to live, but it is hardly without problems. Its economy has at last caught up with the West, but is now plagued with recession. Its society is in far better circumstances, but now it is being shaken by the rising demands of its women for equality, its youth for more recognition, and its aged for greater support. And its political parties seem to have lost their way. And on and on.

Our political scientists, being so contemporaneously oriented, have therefore had to grapple with constantly changing problems. Fortunately, over the years faculty members have become better trained than at any previous time. And their students have come better prepared: many have had undergraduate courses on Japan, many have already acquired basic language skills, and many have lived in Japan, so that our teaching and our research have grown more sophisticated.

On the other hand, in our graduate programs particularly, an old problem still troubles us: how much attention to give to the study of Japan in all its ramifications and how much to the theoretical questions and approaches integral to the discipline.

Our first approach was to say that they were equally necessary and we built doctoral programs requiring both area study and disciplinary study, trusting our students to integrate them productively. Some students were able to do that, some were not. In any event, as the discipline has become more sophisticated, the political science theorists have pushed back, insisting on greater emphasis on the discipline.

The good effect of this has been to fold Japan more intimately into the study of comparative politics and international relations. But there also have been costs, one of which is the minimalization of the interdisciplinary study of Japanese culture that area studies provided and that, I believe is necessary if one is to understand any culture, whatever the discipline. Surely a better balance will someday be struck. [Return to Topics]

Service in the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo

Angel: If you feel comfortable talking about your experience in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, how did that assignment come about?

Morley: In the late ‘sixties a feeling was growing in the State Department that it needed better liaison with the intellectual communities in the world. In Japan this was of special concern because 1970 was looming—the first year since the great upheaval of 1960 when the US-Japan Security Treaty would be open for reconsideration, either to be allowed to run or to be rejected; and no one in Washington was quite sure whether the country would once again be thrown into turmoil.

So in 1967 when Richard Snyder, a former classmate then on the Japan Desk, called and asked if I would be interested in taking a 2-year assignment as the Ambassador’s assistant in the Embassy in Tokyo, with a principal mission of liaison with the intellectual community, I leapt at the chance. I had always believed that the best Japanese classroom was Japan itself, and my wife and I genuinely enjoyed living there.

But, in addition, I’d always felt a bit fraudulent trying to teach or write about politics without having some practical experience in the making or execution of public policy; and here was a chance, or so I thought, to finally make some practical contribution to building the US-Japan relationship that I had come to value so much.

Angel: And how did you find working at the Embassy?

Morley: I found a very talented group at the Embassy and with a number established life-long friendships, but I was surprised at the almost exclusively representational and reportorial function that the Embassy performed.

The Ambassador, U. Alexis Johnson, was one of the most senior diplomats in the service. He commanded a “taut ship” and was confident in his judgments. What he welcomed was information. Except for asking me to take on speaking engagements or meeting with protest groups, which he found burdensome (This was a time when opposition to the Vietnam War ran high), he gave me complete freedom to pursue my mission as I thought best.

I had a marvelous time—talking with old friends, and meeting many fascinating people in the universities, the arts, political parties, the government, the media, labor unions, and business, as well as specialists and visitors to China, the Soviet Union, and Korea. I arranged for those who wanted to, to come in and talk directly with the Ambassador, and I reported my observations to Washington.

I gave special attention, of course, to my mission of liaison with the intellectual community and reached over months of conversations two basic conclusions: one was that the student upheaval that was bound to come—and did come—was driven as much by the problems the students were facing in their lives in the universities as by their concern for the US-Japan Security Treaty, and that in the broader intellectual community the earlier fears that the Treaty would drag Japan into an unwanted war had eroded. Most Japanese, including most intellectuals, I felt, had come to rely on the security it provided.

What effect those reports may have had, I have no idea. The American government is so huge, has so many sources of information, and has such a top-down decision-making structure. But for all that, I would not swap those years in the Embassy. [Return to Topics]

Changes in Japan's Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations

Angel: Some non-Japanese specialists writing today, especially on the internet, suggest that Japan recently has changed fundamentally in the area of foreign policy. Do you agree?

Morley: Certainly it is facing foreign policy problems that it has not had to before, or at least have not been so severe before. What are some of them?

How in this internetted world where tastes and ideas are so rapidly exchanged, how can it integrate its culture into the evolving world culture and still protect the essence of what it is to be Japanese? How with its mature capitalist economy in prolonged recession can it find again the productive energy that drove it in the earlier post-war years? How without an increasingly more freely deployed Self-Defense Force can it meet the demands for humanitarian assistance and peace-keeping around the globe?. What is the best way to cope with the rise of China and the threatening stance of North Korea? Or, more generally, how can Japan take that larger position on the world stage that many of its young people are demanding without incurring dire consequences?

But I am not one who thinks that Japan has changed fundamentally. Unless faced by crisis, Japan seems to me not to make quick decisions. Stability is what it wants in its politics, and as a result, it moves forward incrementally. It prefers not to make decisions so much as to wait for them to evolve, waiting, that is, for a national consensus to emerge from a complex and often time-consuming process of both public and private deliberation.

I think your anonymous specialists are right in believing that the Japanese are now engaged in such a process about its foreign policy problems. But I do not think that a national consensus on any of them has yet been reached, nor can one be sure when it will be or what form it will take…. And that’s what should keep us observers on our toes.

Angel: That’s a good note on which to end this discussion.. Thank you for your time. [Return to Topics]