Edwin O. Reischauer

Commemorated with both an Institute and Professorship in his name, Edwin Oldfather Reischauer (1910-1990) was, together with John Fairbank, one of the two professors to most profoundly and evidently leave their mark on the development of East Asian studies at Harvard. The son of American missionaries stationed in Japan , Reischauer was born in Tokyo on October 15, 1910. He was educated at the American School in Tokyo, learned to speak Japanese at a young age, and survived the great Kanto quake of 1923. He returned to the United States to receive his college education, graduating from Oberlin College in 1931.

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Having decided to pursue a career in the professional study of East Asia, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard, where he took an A.M. in Japanese history in 1932 and then became one of Serge Elisséeff’s first Ph.D. students. Already proficient in Japanese, Reischauer studied Chinese during his years in graduate school, both at Harvard and in China . During a stay in Korea in the summer of 1937, he and George McCune also devised what came to be known as the McCune-Reischauer system for Korean Romanization, which continues to be used to this day.

By the time Reischauer completed his Ph.D. in 1939, he was already teaching courses in the newly established Department of Far Eastern Languages. Together with John Fairbank, he developed a survey course on the history of East Asia, the content of which became the basis for the influential Traditions and Transformations textbook series. At the same time, he and Elisséeff developed Harvard’s Japanese language program from a handful of classes into a full-fledged, multi-year curriculum. Reischauer’s efforts as a teacher of Japanese were given extra urgency by the outbreak of World War II. After initiating an oversubscribed intensive Japanese course at Harvard in the spring of 1942, he relocated to Washington, where he ran a special Japanese school to train cryptanalysts for the Army Signal Corps.

Reischauer returned to Harvard after the war, published the Japanese textbooks that he and Elisséeff had written, and authored numerous articles and books on everything from the famous monk Ennin’s journeys to Tang China to the status of U.S. – Japanese foreign relations. He also wrote several books that aimed to introduce Japanese culture and society to the broader American public. He took over Elisseeff’s administrative responsibilities upon the latter’s retirement, chairing the Department of Far Eastern Languages and running the Harvard-Yenching Institute from 1956 to 1961. He was away from Harvard again from 1961 to 1966, when he served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan . As ambassador, his sensitivity to Japanese culture and customs made him immensely popular among the Japanese citizenry. After returning to Harvard in 1966, he resumed teaching and oversaw the establishing of the Japan Institute, which was in later year renamed the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. On April 22, 1981, he gave his final undergraduate lecture to hall packed with colleagues, university officials, students, and a television crew from Japan . Though in retirement, he continued his active engagement in the field for another ten years, until his death on September 1, 1990.