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Thomas C. Smith

Ford Professor of History, Emeritus




Thomas C. Smith, Ford Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, died in his sleep on April 3, 2004 in Danville, California. He was 87 years old.


Smith was a distinguished historian of early modern and modern Japan; indeed, writes Kenneth B. Pyle of the University of Washington, a former student of Smith, “the Western world has produced no finer historian of Japan.” In four major books, Political Change and Industrial Development: Government Enterprise, 1868-1880 (1955), The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan (1959), Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in a Japanese Village, 1717-1830 (1977), and Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920 (1988), Smith changed our understanding of the trajectory of Japanese economic development and social change in the early modern and modern eras. His conclusions were often quite striking, as he argued against what had become the accepted wisdom. In The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan, for example, he ascribed a major role in the shaping of Japan’s modernization to the gradual evolution of the Tokugawa agrarian economy (1600-1868), the change in the village from subsistence production to production for the market, and the transformation of family farming. As Kenneth Pyle observes: “his research and writing are critical to our understanding of how it was that the Japanese became the first non-Western people to achieve an industrial society.” What was often crucial to Smith’s historiography was his willingness to write as a comparative historian; often, in fact, his explorations in Japanese history suggested the necessity of reexamining the assumed universality of the western mode of industrialization. Yet at the same time, Smith’s work could confirm such universality, but one more broadly conceived. Thus it was, as Smith’s colleague Irwin Scheiner recalls, that the Princeton University historian Arno Mayer used to assign Smith’s Agrarian Origins to his classes in European history in order to explain best the transition to modernity.


Smith’s books and articles ranged over a wide area of Japanese history, from the 17th through the 20th centuries, and his analytical contributions spanned an extraordinarily diverse set of problems in Japan’s social and economic history: they included a micro-study of the techniques of population limitation and sex-selective infanticide in a single village in the Tokugawa period, an examination of the seeming paradox in which the samurai aristocratic caste led a revolution to oust itself from power, and the apparent historical anomaly in which early modern economic development in Japan took place in the countryside rather than in urban areas (the assumed site of development in most studies of the western historical experience). As Osamu Saito of Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, notes, in addressing this broad range of issues, Smith marshalled an “amazingly wide range of methodologies,” and with singular effectiveness “brought the covert structure of the past to light.”


Smith’s skills as a historical craftsman are legendary, and attested by generations of former students, colleagues, and scholars. Mary Elizabeth Berry, another of Smith’s Berkeley colleagues, describes his published work as “unrivalled in our field and as close to immortal as scholarship gets. The hallmarks of his style are economy, diamond-cutting words in otherwise quiet sentences, and a magisterial union of evidence and argument.” Mario Oshima, an economic historian of Japan and translator of Smith’s Native Sources, captures well Smith’s distinctiveness as a historian when he notes “the coexistence in his work of quantitative, highly statistical analysis with a warm eye for ordinary people.”


Born in Windsor, Colorado, Thomas Smith was raised in Santa Barbara, California from the age of 12. He graduated from Santa Barbara State College and received his master’s degree in French history from UC Berkeley. He began pursuing a doctoral degree in French history at Berkeley, but when World War II broke out, he enrolled in the U.S. Navy language school in Boulder, Colorado.


After a year at the language school he was assigned to serve as a Japanese language officer with the Fourth Marine Division. He, with a dozen or so other graduates of the school, interviewed prisoners, translated maps and enemy documents and collected the code books Japanese troops had left behind.


With the end of the war Smith refused an immediate return to the U.S. and lobbied for an assignment in the occupation. He later would write that his curiosity about Japan, his “generally humane view of the enemy, as compared to most of the rest of the population at the time,” was partly because of his yearlong study of Japanese. “Successful study of a foreign language,” he wrote, “requires some sympathy for the people and culture it represents.” An additional factor entered into his decision to seek an opportunity to go to Japan. “After some months at Boulder it occurred to me that I might improve my postwar employment chances, as well as my qualifications as an historian by taking up the comparative historical study of a problem linking Japan and either France or the United States. I had no concrete idea of what I would compare and slight appreciation of the intellectual problems I would encounter.”


Ultimately, he wrote, “I had the incredible good luck to be assigned to the headquarters of the Sixth Army in Kyoto.” His duties were minimal and with the permission of his commanding officer, he had the opportunity for the next several months to wander the streets, visiting shrines, temples and gardens, taking in the sights of Kyoto and talking to Japanese. “I was wonderfully happy and imagined that I might stay in Kyoto permanently.”


“Then,” he wrote, “things changed unexpectedly.” Smith was asked to be an interpreter for two officers from the Navy Department in Washington who had arrived to oversee the dismantling of the cyclotron at Kyoto University, and (however inadvertently) aided in the confiscation of Professor of Physics Arakatsu Bunsaku’s notes on the use of the cyclotron. This invasion of the scholarly activities of Arakatsu so disturbed Smith that his joy in remaining in Kyoto dimmed. Several months later he requested a return to the United States where he was quickly demobilized from Marine service.


Returning from Japan with a determination to study Japanese history, Smith transferred his studies from UC Berkeley to Harvard University, which offered a Japanese history doctorate. Upon completion of his doctoral thesis in 1947, he accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at Stanford University where he remained until his appointment at Berkeley as Ford Professor of History in 1970. He retired in 1986.


Thomas C. Smith received, among other grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ford, Fulbright and Japan Foundation Fellowships and was honored with election to the American Academy of Arts and Science. He also was one of the few Westerners to be selected for membership in the Japan Academy.


His wife, the poet Jeanne Melville Smith, died in February 2006. He is survived by two children, Zachary Smith of Loomis, California and Rachel Smith of San Diego, California, and four grandchildren. 



              Irwin Scheiner

              Andrew E. Barshay

              Mary Elizabeth Berry