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John Whitney Hall (September 13, 1916 – October 21, 1997)[1], the Tokyo-born son of missionaries in Japan, grew up to become a pioneer in the field of Japanese studies and one of the most respected historians of Japan of his generation. His life work was recognized by the Japanese government. When he was honored with Japan's Order of the Sacred Treasure, he was one of only a very small number of Americans to be singled out in this way.[2]

John Whitney Hall became an authority on pre-modern Japan; and he helped transform the way Western scholars view the period immediately preceding Japan's modernization as well as the thousand years before that. Professor Jeffrey Mass, a one-time student and later colleague of Hall's on the Yale faculty, described him as a quiet, self-contained man—and a master punster. Hall was a great admirer of Japanese culture and he amassed a large collection of prints, folk art and pottery; but in addition to being a dedicated academic, he was also an experienced mountain climber who had climbed extensively in the Japanese Alps.[2]


Early years

The only son of Congregational missionaries, Professor Hall was born in Kyoto in 1916 and lived in Japan until he was a teenager. According to his wife Robin, he visited the United States with his parents as a child and he had been appalled by how little Americans knew about Japan. After her husband's death, Mrs. Hall explained, "Being brought up in Japan and by missionaries, he was a very straight-arrow kind of person. There is this kind of missionary feeling, that you must make something of this [life], not just throw it away."[2]

He prepared for college by attending Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. At Amherst College, he majored in American studies, comparing the United States to Japan. After receiving a A.B. degree in 1939, he returned to Japan an instructor in English at Doshisha University in Kyoto until 1941.[2]

During the war, he served with United States Naval Intelligence, leaving the service with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.[3]

Hall earned his Ph.D. in East Asian languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1950. At Harvard, he became one of the first graduate students to study under Edwin O. Reischauer, who was another missionary's son and a pioneering Japan scholar.[2]

Academic entrepreneur

Hall's obituary in the New York Times described him as "something of an academic entrepreneur" because he was so central in the work of building up the fledgling field of Japanese studies in the years after World War II. In his lifetime, he served as a stalwart bridge linking historians in Japan with historians in the West. Harry Harootunian, a professor of history at New York University and a former student of Professor Hall's, summarizes this view succinctly: "What I think guys like Hall tried to do was de-exoticize the study of Japan. To de-exoticize anything is to bring it closer to us, to eliminate the distance that we imagine exists between ourselves and the object of our study."[2]

Hall himself explained: "My own fascination with Japanese history lies primarily with the manner in which Japan's political and social institutions have changed and diversified over time and how this fundamentally 'Eastern' culture gave rise to a modern world power."[4]

In 1948, Professor Hall began teaching at the University of Michigan, one of the few American universities that had a significant program in his field. He would become director of the Center for Japanese Studies (1957–1960) and a founder of the first American research venture in post-war Japan. Through that program, a field research station in Okayama, Professor Hall spent a year in Japan in 1952 and became the first person to begin examining the voluminous records of one of the daimyo families that had ruled Japan during the early modern period between 1600 and 1868. He became an expert in that period, identifying the seeds of Japan's subsequent industrialization and modernization—findings which challenged the traditional Western view that that period had been nothing more than Japan's rather backward, final feudal age.[2]

His earliest book was Tanuma Okitsugu, 1718-1787. The work was published in 1955 as part of the Harvard-Yenching monograph series.

He joined the Yale University faculty in 1961 as the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History, a position he held until his retirement in 1983. Five years after arriving at Yale, Hall published his most famous book, Government and Local Power in Japan, 500 to 1700, which traced the development of Okayama during that period and, some say, opened up the first thousand years of Japanese history to the English-speaking world. Although scholarly books rarely have a shelf life of more than a generation, some colleagues assert that Hall's book is in a category all its own.[2]

While at Yale, Hall served as Chairman of the History Department from 1973 through 1976. He was also Chairman of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department from 1971 through 1974. In 1983, he retired from the faculty. Yale University's John W. Hall Lecture Series in Japanese Studies was established in his memory.[1]

During the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Hall became a leader in many of the organizations that were working to build up the field of Japanese studies. These groups were attempting to represent the interests of the field in order to get support from universities, foundations and the Japanese government. Professor Hall's activities included

  • Chairman, the Japan-United States Friendship Commission
  • Chairman, the United States-Japan Conference on Educational and Cultural Interchange
  • Chairman, the Social Science Research Council/Joint Committee on Japanese Studies.

Throughout these years, Professor Hall also worked closely with the Japan Foundation, which was set up by the Japanese government in the 1970s to help American universities establish Japanese studies programs. The Japan Foundation eventually gave $1 million to 10 major universities for activities in the field.[2] Hall was honored with the Japan Foundation Award in 1976.[5]


Published work

Hall received the American Historical Association's award for scholarly distinction.[2] His published work provides ample evidence to explain that honor.

  • 1960s
    • Hall, John Whitney. Government and local power in Japan, 500 to 1700; a study based on Bizen Province. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960.
    • _____. Japanese history: new dimensions of approach and understanding. Washington: Service Center for Teachers of History, 1961.
    • _____and Richard K. Beardsley. Twelve doors to Japan. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1965.
    • _____. Japanese history; new dimensions of approach and understanding, 2nd ed. Washington, Service Center for Teachers of History, 1966.
    • _____ and Marius Jansen, eds. Studies in the institutional history of early modern Japan. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1968.
    • _____. Das Japanische Kaiserreich. Frankfurt-am-Main: Fischer Bücherei GmbH, 1968.
    • _____, Beardsley, Richard K. and Robert E. Ward. Village Japan. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1969.
  • 1970s
    • Hall, John Whitney. Japan, from prehistory to modern times. New York, Delacorte Press, 1970.
    • _____. Japan, from prehistory to modern times. New York, Dell Publ. Co., 1971.
    • _____ and Jeffrey P. Mass, eds. Medieval Japan; essays in institutional history. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1974.
    • _____. Das Japanische Kaiserreich. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschebuch Verlag, 1976.
    • _____ and Toyoda Takeshi, eds. Japan in the Muromachi age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • 1980s
    • Hall, John Whitney, Nagahara Keiji, and Kozo Yamamura, eds. Japan before Tokugawa: political consolidation and economic growth, 1500-1650. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
    • _____ ... et al., eds. The Cambridge history of Japan. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1988-____. [Incomplete contents: v. 1. Ancient Japan / edited by Delmer M. Brown—v. 3. Medieval Japan / edited by Kozo Yamamura—v. 4. Early modern Japan / edited by John Whitney Hall—v. 5. The nineteenth century / edited by Marius B Jansen—v. 6. The twentieth century / edited by Peter Duus.]

AAS NEAC John Hall Whitney Book Prize

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS) is a scholarly, non-political, non-profit professional association open to all persons interested in Asia. The society includes approximately 7,000 members worldwide. The organization's publications, meetings, and seminars are intended to facilitate contact and an exchange of information among scholars to increase their understanding of East, South, and Southeast Asia.

The AAS was founded in 1941, originally as publisher of the Far Eastern Quarterly (now the Journal of Asian Studies). It has gone through a series of reorganizations since those early days. The Northeast Asia Council (NEAC) of the AAS oversees the John Whitney Hall Book Prize, which has been awarded annually since 1994 for an outstanding English language book published on Japan or Korea.-- link to list of winners of the John Whitney Hall Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies


  1. ^ a b "John Whitney Hall papers, 1930-1999", Yale University Library
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Scott, Janny. "John W. Hall, Historian of Japan, Dies at 81" [obituary]. New York Times, October 27, 1997.
  3. ^ Hall, John. (1968). Japan, From Prehistory to Modern Times, p. 397.
  4. ^ Hall, p. xi.
  5. ^ Japan Foundation Award, 1976



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