Histoty/sociology professor Herbert Box, seen here giving a lecture in November, is retiring after 13 years at Binghamton University.
Herbert Bix reflects on academic career
December 17, 2012Tweet
Binghamton University is the final teaching post for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herbert P. Bix. The professor of history and sociology, 74, will retire at the end of the fall 2012 semester, following a remarkable career studying 19th- and 20th-century Japan, and Japan-U.S. relations.
Bix’s career accomplishments include winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001; receiving the United States-Japan Educational Commission Research award – a Fulbright grant – to conduct research in Japan from December 1992 through July 1993; and winning the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2001 for his book “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.”
His interest in Japan and East Asian history began early in life, well before the longtime professor began his undergraduate work.
“Before I left for college at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I had read a book in my local school library about Japanese soldiers and Chinese comfort women that was of great interest to me,” he says. “Also, I think a person born in 1938, growing up in a working class community, would naturally be interested in World War II and Japan.”
After attending the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Bix joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and served a tour of duty aboard ships stationed in Japan. He then attended Harvard University at the height of the Vietnam War.
“I remember the summer of 1965 at Columbia, taking part in anti-war demonstrations where we were pelted with things,” Bix says. “Later in Fall 1966 we got on the busses and headed off to Washington for the protests. I remember going with a friend to the airport in Washington to greet a famous Japanese writer, and we were so surprised because he got off the plane carrying a gas mask, so he knew what was about to happen!”
While in graduate school, Bix became a founding member of The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS)—which was created by a group of graduate students and younger faculty opposed to the American war in Vietnam. During this time he was influenced by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
“Both men lent us direct support. Zinn’s words at teach-ins and as the keynote speaker at the AAS (Association for Asian Studies) Convention in Boston in 1969 stayed with me, and Noam Chomsky gave me and many others encouragement in the summer of 1968 when we stood up against the Vietnam War,” Bix says. “The summer of 1968 was also when a graduate student, who later had a distinguished career in the BU Sociology Department, came to Harvard and helped organize our own CCAS seminar on imperialism.”
Bix notes that Zinn and Chomsky spoke to large audiences at CCAS meetings held the same time as the AAS Convention in Boston in 1969. The ferment of that period shaped his entire academic career. Yet even with his involved studies and activism at home, Bix still attributes truly becoming a scholar of Japanese history to his extensive travels in the region.
“During my longest period in Japan, I traveled to many prefectures and met many local historians, and I think that experience is when I really became a Japan scholar,” Bix says. “It was the experience of visiting the sites of peasant uprisings that lasted over a span of nearly three centuries, and going to different parts of the country and seeing the statues erected to their memories.”
Bix wrote “Peasant Protest in Japan, 1590-1884,” on just this subject, examining Japan’s rural and urban uprisings during the country’s transition from a late feudal to an early capitalist society. Many academic journals praised the work as one of the best books ever written on the subject of peasant rebellion in a pre-modern society.
His most notable work came in August 2000, when he published “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. A biography of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, the book was received by the academic community as groundbreaking, and the most complete account of the controversial leader and his 63-year reign to date.
“Because he died in 1989, and I was working on the book over the course of the next decade, all this material was being published by people who worked with him and knew him,” Bix says. “I had that advantage because it was dangerous, before his death, to write about the emperor. I was concerned with war responsibility, human agency, institutions and structures so in the book I set out to clarify Hirohito’s role.”
Though Bix knew he was in a unique position to publish a book on Hirohito that offered more clarity and depth than had ever been done, he was still surprised by the enthusiasm the biography produced.
“I was very surprised by how it was received; I never imagined that it would generate so much attention,” he says. “Here was a book that was going to overturn the old stereotypes and offer a full explanation and reinterpretation of key moments in the war, including a reinterpretation of the dropping of the atomic bomb, so I think that’s why it garnered attention right from the beginning.”
“Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” and its author earned praise from scholars, glowing editorials such as the one featured in the LA Times and a successful book tour following its release. However, Bix was caught completely off-guard when he first heard he was to receive the Pulitzer Prize.
“I was in my house in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and I had a bad cold. I was making lentil soup when I got a call from an Associated Press journalist who wanted my comments on winning the Pulitzer Prize,” he says. “The media attention doesn’t last, but while it does, every venue opens up to you – you can speak, you can write, you become globalized.”
Bix first arrived on the Binghamton campus in 1988 as a visiting associate professor in the History Department. After this year-long engagement ended, Bix wouldn’t return until 2001, when he became a permanent faculty member. It was here that he hoped to find a progressive university center with students working as activists on large issues. And while he would always like to see more involvement, Bix says he has worked with many great Binghamton students in his 13 years here.
“There were student groups on campus that raised important political questions, and I tried to work with them,” Bix says. “Students are good. Each generation finds its own way to express a humanitarian concern – a desire to improve the world, no question about that.”
He has taught Japanese history at American and Japanese universities, including the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, and he’s traveled the world, spending time in places like Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, but Bix ultimately chose Binghamton to be the final destination of his academic career.
“He is a public intellectual, not simply a resident in the “Ivory Tower” of academia,” says Nancy Appelbaum, associate professor and chair of Binghamton’s History Department. “His prominence has helped the University build its growing reputation in East Asian history and in Asian studies more generally.”
Sitting in his office in the library tower, Bix finds himself surrounded by piles of books, soon to be donated to Binghamton’s library. When he moves back to the Boston area – near his hometown of Winthrop – in January, he will redirect his energies to a new book project about empire building in America and Japan and the breakdown of constitutional order; many chapters are already written. Bix’s mood, by all appearances, seems to be nothing but enthusiastic as he anticipates what’s next.
“I’ll be living in Cambridge; I’ll be close to the Harvard libraries and the Japan Institute where I have associate status, so I’ll be working on my project, taking walks and spending time with many friends.”