Obituary: Prof. Sadao Asada

John T Kuehn's picture

This was forwarded to me,  and I thought it might be of interest ot your readers:


Sadao Asada, Professor Emeritus of Doshisha University, died in Kyoto on February 4, 2019. He was 83 years old.

Professor Asada remains the finest historian of Japan’s Imperial navy, and one of his nation’s very best diplomatic historians. His corpus reveals an eye for the minutest detail, an unbridled enthusiasm for deep archival research, and an uncompromising set of scholarly standards. His legacy extends to that large number of students whom he trained and inspired.

Sadao Asada was born on January 29, 1936, in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto. He attended Doshisha’s relatively liberal schools. During his senior year at Doshisha High School, under the tutelage of Carelton College graduate Milton L. Beirman, he nightly rewrote his class notes in English. Here, then, was an early indication of the stamina and determination which he applied to his studies.

Asada was awarded a Grew Foundation scholarship in 1954 (another renowned historian, Akira Iriye, preceded him by one year and was the first Grew Foundation scholar). For the next four years, Asada attended Carelton College. History and American literature classes were among his favorites, and he wrote his senior thesis about the U.S. occupation of Japan. He graduated magnum cum laude in 1958.

Asada undertook his graduate studies at Yale. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “Japan and the United States, 1915—25” under the supervision of the doyen of U.S. diplomatic history, Samuel Flagg Bemis. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1963.

Asada returned to Japan in May 1963. He took up a position as the executive secretary of Doshisha University’s newly established Center for American Studies and proceeded to build one of the world’s finest American studies libraries. He later moved to Doshisha’s political science department, where he taught diplomatic and naval history until his retirement.

Asada is perhaps best known for his truly outstanding contributions to Japanese naval history. Across the decades, he developed and refined a thesis which locates the origins of World War II in Japanese navy officers’ reactions to the naval arms limitation conferences of the 1920s and 1930s. In this regard, readers will be familiar with his chapter-length contribution, entitled “The Japanese Navy and the United States,” to Dorothy Borg and Shumpei Okamoto, eds., Pearl Harbor as History (Columbia Univ. Press, 1973) as well as its four-volume Japanese-language counterpart edited by Chihiro Hosoya, Saitō Makoto, Imai Seiichi, and Rōyama Michio and entitled Kaisen ni itaru jūnen (Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1971). He authored numerous other essays focusing on the Washington and London conferences, and in the mid-1990s was awarded the prestigious Yoshino Sakuzō prize for his Ryōtaisenkan no nichibei kankei: kaigun to seisaku kettei katei (University of Tokyo Press, 1993). Following the turn of the century, he published his magisterial From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (Naval Institute Press, 2006).

Asada’s contributions to Japanese diplomatic and international history are also noteworthy. Of particular value to scholars is a bibliographic-historiographical volume which he edited and translated, entitled Japan and the World, 1853—1952: A Bibliographic Guide to Japanese Scholarship in Foreign Relations (Columbia Univ. Press, 1989). Reviewing this book in the Journal of Asian Studies, Edward Drea labelled it an “enormous contribution to the field of Japanese studies.” Even today, it remains a necessary starting-point for scholars embarking on a study of not only Japanese scholarship but also the Japanese archival record as it pertains to Imperial Japan’s foreign relations.

Asada also waded into the debate concerning the atomic attacks and Japanese surrender. He was, in fact, awarded the Louis Knott Koontz Memorial Award for his “Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender” (Pacific Historical Review, 1998). As the title suggests, Asada concluded that “Japan needed ‘external pressure’ in the form of the atomic bombs for its government to decide to surrender.” This conclusion called into searching question the so-called “atomic diplomacy” thesis, which held that Truman dropped the bomb not to compel Japanese surrender but instead to intimidate the Soviet Union. Asada had, in effect, challenged the robustness of a key assumption underpinning the “atomic diplomacy” thesis, namely, that Japan in August 1945 was already defeated and searching for a way out of the war. This had an electrifying impact on scholarship, and Asada’s conclusions did not go unchallenged. A discussion of the subsequent debate seems superfluous; suffice it to note that Asada’s eye for meticulous detail was such that his atomic-bomb scholarship remains a necessary reference point for anybody writing about the end of World War II in Asia and the Pacific.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to add a personal note. I recall with gratitude and fondness the many occasions on which Asada invited me to his home in the early 2000s, and showered me with most generous hospitality as we discussed and critiqued Japanese and Western scholarship concerning World War II. These were some of my most memorable moments in Kyoto, first as a graduate student (Kyoto U), then as a post-doc (Kyoto U), and latterly as a lecturer (at Ritsumeikan University).

Dr Peter Mauch
Senior Lecturer in Asian History, Western Sydney