To Stab a Historian

I have been compiling notes and comparing various narratives of modern Japanese history in preparation for my orals. It is easy to lose touch with the bigger picture when reading lots of books that focus on one issue, period, or question.

I wrote a little about the dearth of information on North Korea in the Enyclopedia of World History (somewhat clunky online version here) over at Frog in a Well – Korea. The book is something of a massive timeline for reference and I just finished going through the Japanese history entries in the work.

In the just over three pages for the postwar period there were a few items that were not included which I saw in most other narratives and timelines of the period. 1) There was no mention of Japan’s entry into the United Nations in 1956. 2) There was no mention of end of the Allied occupation in 1952 (Though there is mention of the peace treaty going into effect). 3) There was no mention of the “Nixon Shocks” of July (US abandonment of the gold standard with its resulting impact on the exchange rate with Japan) and August (Nixon announces a visit to China), 1971. Although they are not events which had Japanese actors involved, they had a strong impact on Japan and always gets at least a mention. I suspect that most Japanese also see the shocks, along with the return of Okinawa and the shock of the oil embargos, as defining moments of the early 1970s.

These were the only items that you find in most works which were missing. There was, however, one event which I had heard about but I have never seen mentioned in other timelines or in surveys of modern Japan:

1964, March 24. U.S. ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer was stabbed by an allegedly deranged young Japanese.

I wondered why this would have made the cut with such limited space? Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I think the stabbing of the US ambassador is a trivial affair. Reischauer is not only an incredibly important historian in our field but was also an important player in US-Japan relations. I am also very grateful for a generous summer fellowship the Reischauer institute awarded me last year.

I then looked at the list of editors for earlier editions and noticed that both John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer are listed. It would seem reasonable to assume Reischauer made the call to include mention of his own stabbing.

In fact, the 1964 stabbing incident must have left a particularly strong impression on Reischauer as its aftermath would continue to affect his health throughout the remainder of his life. An old biography of Reischauer has this description of the event which adds a little context:

On March 24, 1964, as he was leaving his office, Reischauer was attacked and stabbed by a mentally disturbed Japanese youth. He could have gone to a United States Army hospital, but chose instead to go to a Japanese hospital. Unfortunately, a blood transfusion he received there was tainted with hepatitis virus. He suffered irreversible liver damage and felt the ill-effects for the rest of his life. Reischauer was in Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii until July 1 rehabilitating a partially paralyzed leg and recovering from hepatitis. The incident elicited a flood of visits, mail, and gifts from Japanese well-wishers. Upon release from the hospital, he resumed full duties in the Tokyo embassy.

Not only was he stabbed, but was given a tainted blood transfusion! But there is more. In LaFeber’s The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History we find this added detail:

“…[President] Johnson wanted far more [support for U.S. policies on Vietnam and China] from Japan. [Dean] Rusk blamed Reischauer for being too pro-Japanese, for not educating Japan about the great danger, for assuming that the two nations were converging in their interests while, in reality, the Japanese were going off on their own. As Reischauer lay in serious condition after he was stabbed in 1964, neither Johnson nor Rusk sent him a personal note. In mid-1966, Reischauer was finally replaced by the hawkish U. Alexis Johnson.1

1. LaFeber, Walter The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 343.


  1. Fascinating stuff!

    I’m reminded of Tom Paxton’s intro to “Thank You, Republic Airlines”: Never mess with a songwriter; they can get even in the long run….

    If only people took that dicta more seriously with regard to historians.

  2. Can you help? I wonder if it was Reischauer who famously said “Isn’t about time the Japanese decide to join the human race?” Would you reference details for this quotation?

  3. According to a review of his book “The Japanese” on page 420 of his book he says the Japanese “must overcome their sense of separateness and, to put it bluntly, show a greater readiness to join the human race.”

    I don’t own the book though and I think it is very important to look at the context in which this statement was made. I think it would be foolish and irresponsible to try to use this quote in any way to suggest Reischauer, who was deeply passionate about Japan, the Japanese people, and US-Japan relations, had some kind of racist or discriminatory views about the Japanese.

    The Japanese
    Edwin O. Reischauer
    Review author[s]: Robert J. Smith
    Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Winter, 1978), pp. 182-186.
    Stable URL:

  4. I don’t have the book, but Reischauer was not oblivious to the Japanese tendency to think of themselves as unique and distinct, and was quite critical of it. He was also critical of the US tendency towards the same, in books like Education for the 21st Century.

    He was of the internationalist/WWII generation, and while he was a partisan of Japanese culture, he clearly had no patience with nationalism as a phenomenon.

  5. I don’t have the older editions of the Japanese but I do have the 1995 edition of The Japanese Today which is the same book with editorial changes made in 1989 by Reischauer and 1994 by Marius Jansen. In the last Reischauer chapter, “Uniqueness and Internationalism” he has a sharp but nuanced review of Japanese ideas about race and nation, and their uses and effects in the past, and cites the ’80s as a high point of internationalism. Still, problems remain

    International understanding is not just a pleasantly innocuous catchphrase for Japanese policy but has become a practical necessity. The Japanese are intellectually aware of this situation, but they find their own sense of uniqueness difficult to shake off. It is not easy for them to give up their past cozy life, safely insulated by their language barrier and thriving economy, for a more adventurous life dealing with the problems of world peace and the global economy. To put it in dramatic terms, they find it hard to join the human race. For one thing, they still have inadequate skills of communication. More seriously, they have a strong sense of separateness. (p. 409)

    He then goes on to use one of Nakasone’s gaffes about US diversity as an example, and argues in favor of Japan shedding their separateness to become a valued world leader. He concludes

    The contradictory pulls between uniqueness and internationalism that so grip the Japanese today will be resolved in favor of internationalism. (p. 412)

  6. Mr Dresner, Mr/Ms Lawson, many thanks for your valuable assistance. I have the book on order.
    As for the importance of context, how about Isshiki Beach, Hayama, in front of the ‘imperial’
    villa, just a few days ago? A Shintoist group (mostly men), clad in white cloths covering only
    their genitals and rear ends, held a sun goddess-worshipping ceremony which ended with the
    fervent singing in unison of the “Kimi ga yo” national anthem.
    Yes, I know, things have changed since Reischauer’s time, but only some things. (My wife and I have met the monarch himself on that same beach, and from what I know of that courageous man,
    he would not be amused.)

    J. Hopkins (PhD, Tokyo)

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