Tetsuo Najita, eminent scholar of Japan’s early modern and modern intellectual history, 1936-2021

Historian remembered for ‘exemplary combination of kindness and rigor’

Prof. Emeritus Tetsuo Najita, whose work as an historian sought to recoup and to explore the agency of ordinary people, commoner-intellectuals in Osaka, and farmers in the modern period as they negotiated social and political forces of their time, died Jan. 11. He was 84.

“Tets was, without question, a complex, brilliant, creative, path-breaking and path-setting scholar,” said James Ketelaar, Professor of Japanese History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Divinity School and the College. “He was deeply committed to the importance of ideas in the creation and formation of the structure of the self itself as well as in the impact of those ideas on society.”

Najita, the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College, joined the Department of History at UChicago in 1969 and was a member of the faculty until his retirement in 2002.

“As a mentor, he offered an exemplary combination of kindness and rigor,” said Susan Burns, who was one of his many graduate students and now serves as the Professor of History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College. “One of my most treasured memories of him came after I finished my doctorate. I was an untenured assistant professor at a big state university, newly divorced, and raising a then-toddler daughter on my own, and he invited me to present my work at a graduate student workshop. It was, I felt then and now, his way of encouraging me to rise above my recent struggles and recollect the satisfaction that came from research and writing.”

“I am proud,” Burns added, “if still somewhat intimidated, to occupy his former office in the Social Science Building, the room where I consulted with him many times as a graduate student 30 years ago.”

Najita dedicated much energy to supporting the Japan Studies program and the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS). As CEAS director from 1974 to 1980, he played a leading role in building the Japanese Studies endowment. In 2007, CEAS’ Japan Committee created the Najita Lecture Series to commemorate his many achievements. Series speakers have included Oe Kenzaburo, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, and acclaimed novelist Yu Miri.

Najita’s many publications on Japan’s early modern and modern intellectual history include Hara Kei and the Politics of Compromise (1967), which was awarded the John King Fairbank Prize in East Asian History, and Visions of Virtue: The Kaitokudô Merchant Academy of Osaka (1987), which won the Yamagata Bantō Prize.

Even after his retirement, he continued his scholarship. In 2008, he published a new work in Japanese on the topic of “doing intellectual history.” The next year, the University of California Press published Najita’s work, Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1759-1950

His awards and honors included a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1958; a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1959; a Fulbright Fellowship to Japan for 1961-63; a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in 1968; a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship in 1974 and again in 1980; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982; and a Japan Foundation Fellowship in 1987.

He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993, and served as vice president and president of the Association for Asian Studies from 1991 to 1993.

Najita also served as Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division from 1984-1987 and as Chair of the Department of History from 1994 to 1997 and again in Spring 2001.

Graduate students who worked with him now hold key faculty positions at institutions across the United States, as well as at universities and colleges in England, Japan, Korea and China.

“Each of these students carry with them examples of Tets’ vibrant teaching method as an active interlocutor,” said Ketelaar.

Born on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1936, Najita was the son of a Japanese-American family. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Grinnell College before studying at Harvard University, where he obtained a master’s degree in 1960 and a Ph.D. in 1965.

Before his appointment to the University of Chicago, Najita taught at Carleton College, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

At UChicago, Burns recalled, Najita and his wife, Elinor, delighted in welcoming graduate students and visitors to their home to enjoy wine, jazz, food and conversation, often with renowned Japanese scholars and public intellectuals.

After his retirement, Najita chose to return to the Big Island. He is survived by Elinor, their son and two grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter.

In keeping with his wishes, a public service will not be held. An online memorial will be created on the CEAS website. Remembrances and photos to commemorate Najita and his work as a scholar, teacher, mentor and colleague can be emailed to eastasia@uchicago.edu.

—This story was first published by the Division of the Social Sciences.