Wm. Theodore de Bary
by Donald Keene, Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature, Columbia University
I first met Ted de Bary in February, 1942. The place was a building of the University of California where some thirty young men were waiting to be invited into the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School. I thought at first that I knew no one in the group, but I suddenly noticed that Ted was among them. I knew him slightly because classmates had pointed him out and told me he was the outstanding student in the college; but I had never had the courage to speak to him. This time, I found the bravery to tell him that I too was from Columbia. This unexciting statement would gradually grow into seventy-five years of unbroken friendship.
The school had been started by the Navy before the break of war with Japan. The students then were mainly sons of missionaries and others who knew Japanese, but their number was limited; it would be necessary to teach people with little or no Japanese to write, read and speak Japanese in a very short amount of time and make them into translators and interpreters. It was generally believed that Japanese could not be learned outside Japan, and for this reason the Navy had searched for students who had displayed ability in learning foreign languages.
They were told that if they graduated from the language school they would receive the rank of officers. Some men were eager to learn Japanese, but others hoped chiefly to become navy officers rather than army privates.
Ted, who had been greatly interested in Asia from undergraduate days, was an ideal candidate for the Japanese school and was at once accepted. The teachers were mainly Nisei who soon became our friends, making the many hours of study enjoyable. However, there were tests every week and students who failed to meet the goals of the school were likely to be discharged. Ted, of course, was always in the highest level.
After graduation in eleven months (instead of the eighteen originally planned) Ted and I received commissions and were sent to Hawaii. We worked in different offices, but lived in the same Honolulu house with other language officers. At times we were sent to places where the fighting was. Ted was transferred to Kiska in the northern Pacific and later to the battlefield in Okinawa.
After the war ended Ted first spent some time in Japan, but was asked to remain in the Navy for work in Washington. His rank was raised and he might have reached a very high rank, but after several months he decided to return to the study of Asia at Columbia. The Japanese language that he learned in the Navy school, along with the translations he made of Japanese texts and even the conversations with Japanese prisoners were of immense value to him even as he turned to the study of philosophy.
I studied mainly Japanese traditional literature. People sometimes were surprised that people with such different interests were such close friends, but it was important that we studied under the same teacher. Our teacher was Tsunoda Ryūsaku, a Japanese scholar who, opposing the military dictators in Japan, had remained at Columbia throughout the war. Ted had the greatest admiration for Tsunoda and learned much from him. Ted’s first book, a translation of Saikaku’s novel Kōshoku ichidai onna (Five Women who Loved Love) was based on his work in Tsunoda’s classes. It is a marvelous translation that has not been superceded by a new version.
Tsunoda’s lectures were often devoted to the Confucian thinkers of the Tokugawa period, who may have been his subject in 1948, the year that Ted took the course. If so, this would have aroused greater interest in Confucianism than in any previous course he had attended. His decision to go to Beijing in 1949, the following year, was to study Confucian thought. It was not, however, a good time for study in China. There was fighting between the Communists and the Nationalists, and Ted was among the Americans who made their way out of Beijing when the Communists surrounded the city.
He returned to Columbia where he was made a junior professor, soon becoming a professor and later the head of the Department of Chinese and Japanese. Under his guidance a new Korean section helped the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures to become one of the best in America.
The headline of the New York Times obituary on July 17, 2017 read, “Wm. Theodore de Bary, Renowned Columbia Sinologist,” followed by the statement that he was a “distinguished scholar of China”. I find it impossible to question Professor de Bary’s scholarship on China, but I believe that was it only half his work. His writing included all of Asia, most notably Japan. “Sinologist” does not do justice to his range and depth.
His death is a great loss to me and to the field of Asian studies.