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In Memoriam Yasumaru Yoshio, 1934-2016

2016/04/21

In Memoriam
Yasumaru Yoshio, 1934-2016



Yasumaru Yoshio, Hitotsubashi University professor emeritus in social history and widely acknowledged as one of the most important and innovative scholars of postwar Japanese historical science, passed away in Tokyo on 4 April 2016 at the age of 81.

Throughout his career, Professor Yasumaru consistently distinguished himself at the vanguard of Japanese historical studies, beginning with his Nihon no kindaika to minshu shiso (Japan’s modernization and popular thought), which has been esteemed since its publication in 1974 as a seminal academic study of Japanese popular intellectual history and an introspective interpretation of popular religious expression.

Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1934, Prof. Yasumaru entered the Kyoto University Department of Japanese History in 1953 and upon completion of his graduate studies there, joined the faculty of Meijo University from 1962 to 1970. He was then appointed professor of Japanese social history in the Hitotsubashi University Faculty of Social Sciences, where he taught until his formal retirement in 1998. He was granted emeritus status the following year. He also served as visiting professor at Waseda University from 1997 to 2005.

Every one of the nine books which Prof. Yasumaru authored has fascinated both general readers and academic communities within and outside of Japan as a “must-read” treatise. For example, the long-awaited Bunmeika no keiken: kindai tenkanki no Nihon (The experience of civilization: Japan during an era of transition to modernity), published in 2007, focuses on the intellectual history of the common people during the one hundred years of radical transformation experienced by Japanese society during the last decades of the Tokugawa Bakufu and the Meiji Restoration era, characterized by the process of “bunmeika” (civilization). The work drew enormous response from many corners of the academic world, including the history and religious studies communities. Bunmeika no keiken would become the topic of many conferences, to which Prof. Yasumaru was invited as guest lecturer.

As evidenced by the six-volume collection of his research published in 2013, Prof. Yasumaru was a prolific scholar, tackling a wide range of subjects from the history of Japanese popular thought, popular movements and popular religion during the transition from late premodern to modern Japan, to the intellectual history of the state and religion, including the Japanese “Tenno system” and contemporary thought.

One of Prof. Yasumaru’s greatest contributions to historical studies was his formation of the history of popular thought into an entirely new field of academic study. In his internationally acclaimed and epoch-making Japan’s modernization and popular thought, Prof. Yasumaru explored the popular ethos which laid the foundation of Japan’s modernization as a “popular morality” (tsuzoku dotoku), the notion with which he examines both the possibilities and limitations of popular ideas during Japan’s transition to modernity (i.e., civilization). Another important work, Deguchi Nao, has been acknowledged as a masterpiece of biography which carefully elaborates the process through which a carpenter’s widow developed her ideas as an advocate of popular morality up to the time of her founding of the Omotokyo sect, one of the new indigenous religions in modern Japan.

While exploring the trajectory of popular thought and ideals, Prof. Yasumaru never failed to address the state-level issues of Japanese modernization faced by common people endeavoring to establish political agency, in such works as Nihon nationalism no zenya (On the eve of Japanese nationalism), Kamigami no meiji ishin (The Meiji Restoration of the gods) and Kindai Tenno-zo no keisei (The formation of the modern image of the Tenno), all of which describe the reality of popular thought, popular movements and popular religion being eventually absorbed by a powerful nation-state and its authoritarian Tenno system. These observations now constitute one prevailing approach to the study of Japanese history.

Prof. Yasumaru also introduced the aspects of popular thought as a way to construct methodology in the study of intellectual history in his Hoho to shite no shiso-shi (Intellectual history as methodology), which became a standard introduction to the history of ideas.

In addition to his own writing, Prof. Yasumaru was engaged in compiling and publishing source materials basic to historical research. He was responsible for such volumes as Minshu-undo no shiso (Thought in popular movements) and Minshu-shukyo no shiso (Thought in popular religion) in the series Nihon shiso taikei (Compendium of Japanese thought), and Shukyo to kokka (Religion and the state) and Minshu-undo (Popular movements) in the series Nihon kindai shiso taikei (Compendium of modern Japanese thought), projects enhanced by Prof. Yasumaru’s rich commentary, which was instrumental in exponentially advancing each field of study, while impressing the next generation of scholars. His contributions to the research series Iwanami koza Nihon tsushi (Iwanami lectures on the general history of Japan) and Tenno to oken wo kangaeru (On the Tenno in relation to kingship) also demonstrated Prof. Yasumaru’s breadth of vision in heading both editorial committees charged with bringing together the most learned scholars of both Japanese and world history.

Prof. Yasumaru’s innovative approach to history was admired in his active encounters with scholars around the world, in particular among historians of Korean religion, who were very much inspired by his research. It was in October 2013, that Carol Gluck invited Prof. Yasumaru to a conference held at Columbia University to look back over his lifetime of academic achievement, featuring historians Harry D. Harootunian and Takashi Fujitani as presenters. Narita Ryuichi recalls this particular venue being packed with veteran scholars and young graduate students alike, everyone attentive to Prof. Yasumaru’s every word, although at times somewhat indiscernible due to recent surgery for lung cancer. 1

Last but not least, during his nearly three decades as an educator at Hitotsubashi University, Prof. Yasumaru’s contributions to the advancement of knowledge in social history, in general, and the growth of the Faculty of Social Sciences, in particular, transcend any mere words of gratitude, inspiring us to build on the strong foundations and scholarly tradition he has left us. Having been able to call Prof. Yasumaru a mentor have made us all feel privileged, while as his colleagues and friends, we were always treated equally with his special brand of tenderness and sincerity, on campus or at his home nearby in Kunitachi. He will be remembered as a brilliant teacher, close friend and a constant inspiration for us all.

In the late evening of February 29, during a stroll to the mailbox with postcards addressed to authors who had submitted essays to him---missives containing both keen observations and words of encouragement---Yasumaru Yoshio, aged 81, was struck by an automobile and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. Although he regained conscious and could converse with visitors at his hospital bedside, pneumonia soon set in, doing irreparable damage to a body already weakened from years of battling lung cancer. He passed away on the morning of 4 April 2016, attended by his loving wife Yayoi.

We at Hitotsubashi University join all those who mourn the untimely death of Yasumaru Yoshio in Japan and around the world, and together with all of his students, colleagues and friends will miss him immensely.

A memorial gathering, which is open to the public, will be held for Prof. Yasumaru at Kanematsu Auditorium on the Hitotsubashi University campus at 2 pm on 22 May 2016.

To those readers who wish to extend their condolences to the Yasumaru family, please send your messages to:




21 April 2016

Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of Social Sciences


Japanese version of this article



1) Narita Ryuichi, “Yasumaru Yoshio san wo itamu” (“Mourning the death of Yasumaru Yoshio”), Asahi Shimbun, April 13, 2016.