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Historian Notehelfer Honored for Leadership in Japanese Studies
Fred G. Notehelfer, director of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and former UCLA Director of the USC-UCLA Joint East Asian Studies Center.

Historian Notehelfer Honored for Leadership in Japanese Studies

Fred G. Notehelfer directed the UCLA Center for Japanese Studies for 16 years and co-directed an East Asian Studies consortium in Southern California for 20 years. He will continue teaching at UCLA for another year before retiring.

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The UCLA Center for Japanese Studies and other institutional manifestations of UCLA's massive commitment to East Asian Studies have for more than two decades, at least, been propelled by Fred's energy and leadership.

As a graduate student in history at Yale University, Gordon Berger came across "a remarkably erudite paper" written by Fred G. Notehelfer, a scholar of his own generation at rival Harvard.

"The paper was already addressing one of the leitmotifs of his career-long interest in examining how the universal values of western civilization have been encountered and integrated, or not, into the Japanese experience," Berger said at a May 19, 2007, symposium honoring Notehelfer's 16-year tenure as director of the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, which hosted the event at UCLA. "It is an issue that reverberates through virtually all of Fred's scholarship."

Berger and his USC colleague Jonathan Reynolds; UCLA's William Bodiford, Seiji Lippit, and Donald McCallum; and Eiichiro Azuma and Cameron Hurst, both of the University of Pennslyvania, discussed topics ranging from Japanese history, religion, art, and literature in honor of Notehelfer.

McCallum, acting director of the Terasaki Center for the past two quarters, said the symposium should be considered a celebration of Notehelfer's achievements, not a farewell.

"It is not a retirement. You don't retire from directorships," he said. "Fred in fact will continue to teach at UCLA next year, so in essence it is a celebration."

Building East Asian Studies in Southern California

In preparation for a major conference in 1967 on the modernization of Japan, Berger, Notehelfer, and three other young scholars met in New York to figure out what they would present to the leading Japanologists of the day. At the conference, the renowned scholar and diplomat Edwin O. Reischauerone of Notehelfer's academic mentors who encouraged him to study Japanese history instead of artvoiced his disapproval of the young scholars' critical views on the theory of modernization. Berger said it was a defining moment for the young Japanologists.


Gordon Berger, former USC director of the USC-UCLA Joint East Studies Center. (Photo by Vincent Lim)

The two younger scholars became closer friends after they were recruited at UCLA and USC, which, according to Berger, "couldn't find another Fred Notehelfer." They would collaborate as co-directors of the USC-UCLA Joint Center in East Asian Studies, a role Notehelfer took up during the two decades from 1975 to 1995.

The joint center, one of 18 National Resource Centers for East Asian Language and Area Studies in the United States, came about following a decision by the University of California that only the UC Berkeley campus would house an East Asian Studies Center. Notehelfer and UCLA looked to USC for help in expanding East Asian and Japanese Studies research in Southern California.

"The joint center and subsequently the UCLA Center for Japanese Studies and other institutional manifestations of UCLA's massive commitment to East Asian Studies have for more than two decades, at least, been propelled by Fred's energy and leadership, for which all of us in the region and not simply at UCLA are the beneficiaries," Berger said.

Notehelfer was also a founding member of the Southern California Japan Seminar that at one time brought together Japan scholars from as many as 30 universities in Southern California.

Notehelfer was born to German missionary parents in Japan in 1939, grew up in Tokyo, and graduated from the American School in Japan before heading off to Harvard for his undegraduate education. Berger, a practicing psychoanalyst who uses that training in his historical studies, said that Notehelfer's scholarly interests are related to his background.

"What is the meaning of the western impact and impact of western ideas in a Japanese context? [It is] a question which he's asked over and over again in his career, and which I as a psychoanalyst simply translate as the question of a seven-year-old boy in war-torn Japan: 'What am I doing here?' That I think is the question that he has been trying to answer for the last 39 years here at UCLA," Berger said.