Obituary: Michael Cooper, 1930-2018

David Wittner's picture

From: Beatrice Bodart-Bailey


Crosspost from PMJS 


There was one person whom many colleagues of my generation would invariably call upon when arriving in Tokyo. That was Michael Cooper, the editor of Monumenta Nipponica.


I first met Michael in 1976 when during a brief stay in Tokyo I had a chance of attending one of his lectures at International House and had asked to see him afterwards. He had been the examiner of my ANU MA thesis on the political significance of Sen no Rikyū and afterwards had written to me suggesting that parts of my thesis could possibly be turned into an MN article. I was keen to discuss with him the shape of the article, but also apprehensive to meet a member of the Society of Jesus, a scholar who had been by examiner and now was going to decide whether my first academic article would be published in his well-respected journal. I need not have worried. At that time Michael was still wearing the little gold cross on his lapel that set him apart from the rest of the community, but he had a knack of putting people at ease by making them feel that he was truly interested in what they said, and this first meeting became the beginning of a long friendship terminated only by his death on March 31st of this year.

              Michael was born on 25.4.1930 in London. He rarely talked about his family – except when referring to occasional trips to England to see his mother and older sister – but once mentioned that his father had been an editor and had died early, overworking himself. Michael was educated at Beaumont College, one of three public schools maintained by the English Province of the Jesuits, situated not far from London in Old Windsor, Berkshire, sometimes referred to as"Catholic Eton". The school had large grounds and held a number of sporting distinctions. Michael once mentioned his love of and success in team sports earlier in life, and this early enjoyment of outdoor exercise was perhaps the basis for his love of hiking later in life. One of his favorite week-end occupations was showing visitors the temples in the hills of Kamakura. (His notes on the temples he published in hisExploring Kamakura: A Guide for the Curious Traveler, Weatherhill, 1979.) He also accompanied me on many a hike when I was tracing the footsteps of Engelbert Kaempfer on his journey to Edo for my translation of Kaempfer’s work on Japan. In Tokyo, too, Michael preferred walking to public transport, and would set out on foot from his office at Sophia for his many breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with scholars and students staying at International House.

              On graduating from Beaumont College in 1948, Michael entered the Society of Jesus and studied philosophy and theology at Jesuit centers in Spain and England. He first arrived in Japan in 1954, learning Japanese for two years in Yokohama and then spent a further two years at Sophia teaching. In 1956, the year Michael arrived at Sophia, Pedro Arrupe was appointed as first Jesuit provincial for Japan. The provincial  –  Michael told Kate Nakai-Wildman – singled him out early to be MN’s future editor and sent him off to Oxford to do a doctorate in anthropology in preparation for the task. It appears that even in his mid-twenties, Michael displayed all the qualities Arrupe considered necessary for the task of editor of Monumenta Nipponica.

              “Rodrigues would doubtless give a sardonic grin to observe the extent of my travels to dig up further information for his biography” Michael wrote in the preface of hisRodrigues, the Interpreter: An Early Jesuit in Japan and China and explained that “the trail led through Oxford, London, Rome, Madrid, Seville, Lisbon, Macao, Tokyo and Nagasaki.”  We have no information as to when he did these travels, but around 1965, on the publication of his They Came to Japan: an Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 , we find him at Campion Hall, the Jesuit College at Oxford. Publishing this, his first book, Michael most probably did not imagine that there would be 49 editions between 1965 and 1996 in three languages. At the time of writing the volume is held by 1,163 WorldCat member libraries worldwide, quite a record.

          Michael wrote his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Charles Boxer. Later, when Boxer was encouraging one of our colleagues to call on Michael when in Tokyo, he assured him that Michael was much more jovial than other members of the order. According to British Library records, Michael’s doctorate was officially awarded in 1970. In that same year he is listed as being on the advisory board of MN under Ed Skrzypczak who had become the editor the previous year. But already the next year, in volume 27, 1971, Michael appears as the editor, with Skrzypczak as associate editor.

          In his essay “Sixty Monumental Years” Michael noted that he became MN’s first full-time editor. The journal had been founded by Johannes B. Kraus in 1938 with the intention of publishing four issues per year, but this had never been realized. In the second year of his editorship, Michael finally fulfilled the founder’s dream of bringing out the journal as a quarterly. Modestly Michael wrote: “Since that year MN has appeared punctually (well, fairly punctually) four times a year. As nobody else sensibly seemed to covet the post, the editor remained on the job for twenty-six years, overseeing the journal from volume 27 to the spring issue of volume 52 (1997).” (

          Michael was not a person who would adopt a highbrow attitude on account of being the editor of a much respected journal where acceptance of an article might tip the scale to obtain employment, promotion or tenure. It was perhaps to counter the image his powerful position might conjure up in the minds of others that with his editorship begun what he aptly refers to as “the Snoopy jidai of MN's history”. He explained that “owing to the editor's strange predilection for that amiable beagle … the MN nengajô often featured that winsome dog, the office rug bore his portrait, and favored subscribers found their MN envelopes decorated with his logo.” He forgot to mention that Snoopy also appeared on the top of MN proofs and featured on the editor’s many postcards sent out on various auspicious occasions.

              Michael’s editorship began in what from a technologically point of view might be described as the Dark Ages when there were no computers, no internet, no mobile phones and of course no pmjs. For him this meant that he would copy articles on his manual typewriter, editing the text in the process. Even when Sophia eventually supplied him with a computer, it took a long time until he agreed to use it, arguing that editing articles while copying them was the most expedient way. The characters in the footnotes of articles would be inserted by his Japanese secretary using a Japanese typewriter, the type one only finds in museums today with their endless boxes of characters to be inserted one by one into the machine as necessary.

              For us as researchers working on Japan, the technological Dark Ages meant that we could not quiz our colleagues on, for instance, what had been written about a lesser known medieval monk, or how to translate a line of a poem. Neither could one search for reasonable accommodation before arriving in Tokyo or tap into other people’s experience on how to open a bank account in Japan, share a flat, or where and how to extend one’s visa.

          Michael was the one person who could answer most of these questions, or at least suggest someone who might be able to help. He provided invaluable assistance at a time when, for instance, obtaining a telephone required a major outlay to purchase a line, plus the good fortune of finding someone who was leaving the country and wanted to sell their line. Michael knew who was in town or about to arrive or leave, and also who might be interested in joining a conference panel, contribute a chapter to a book, or was about to embark on research close to one’s own.

              When Michael accepted my first article, he explained: the journal does not pay for articles, but has a good entertainment budget and makes up for it. And indeed, that was the case: others have already written about the many meals Michael invited them to, especially appreciated when the high Yen strained one’s budget.

There was no amazon nor other internet sites to order books to be delivered back home, and I remember arriving at his office with a pile of books acquired at second-hand bookstores in Kanda, wondering aloud how I would manage to fit them into my luggage. With a smile Michael pointed to a corner of his desk saying: “just leave them here.” Expertly packed they were mailed to Australia. Nothing would faze the editor: not even someone arriving at his office with a toddler in tow. I vividly remember my daughter riding on Michael’s shoulders on the way to a restaurant some 40 years ago.

          Michael was keenly aware that he was leading a privileged life in Tokyo where all his needs were provided for by the order and he was full of consideration for the problems we as visiting researchers, many without a permanent job, were encountering. Colleagues have already shared their stories of Michael’s thoughtfulness and kindness on pmjs. If all were recorded, it would most probably fill a volume. Had one questioned Michael about his hobbies, the answer might well have been “helping others.” I consider myself particularly fortunate in having had Michael’s assistance not only with my publications far beyond articles in MN, but also receiving his unwavering moral support when the going was rough.

          Michael left Tokyo for a sabbatical in Hawai’i in 1999 and decided to remain there. During his retirement he annotated and edited João Rodrigues’s Account of Sixteenth-Century Japan for the Hakluyt Society (2001) and completedThe Japanese Mission to Europe 1582-1590 (Global Oriental, 2005). For his scholarly contributions he was awarded the British MBE decoration and also the Ordem de Mérito from the Portuguese government.

          Michael’s last email reached me on December 11, 2017. Although soon to turn 88, he was still looking after others. The subject line was “bananas”, with him explaining that he was taking bananas, a friend’s favorite fruit, to the assisted living facility she recently moved to. After wishing me a happy Christmas he continued: “I thought of you recently as I spent several hours re-reading about Engelbert and his travels. What a man!” Towards the end he wrote: “As for the old Editor of MN, we muddle along. As regards my recent medical exam, the results were a bit negative, but not to worry.”

          The last time I spoke to him was on Christmas day, when he had no complaints about his health. Receiving no further mail from him, I planned to phone him on Easter Sunday, but somehow failed to do so. It would have been too late anyway, for he peacefully passed away on Easter Saturday.

          It was his wish to have his ashes scattered at sea. There will be no gravestone in his memory, but his memory will live on as MN’s editor of twenty-six years, author of many significant publications and, perhaps most important, as a very generous and considerate human being who made a difference in the life of many people. I believe a formal obituary is scheduled for the next issue of Monumenta Nipponica.



Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey

Professor emeritus Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo

Honorary Professor, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU