Robert Erickson was born in New Jersey in 1943. The following year, his father was fighting in the Pacific War. “He came into Japan with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and was stationed at the U.S. Army Air Force Base in Atsugi,” Erickson said. “He used to send me small Japanese gifts, wrapped in rice paper, in wooden boxes.”
His family were immigrants in the New York area. At the turn of the 20th century, one set of grandparents arrived from Sweden, the other from Russia and the Ukraine. Along with the mixed nationalities came different religions, customs, food. “I was the only Christian,” Erickson said. “I am used to being an outsider.” Erickson sees the diversity of his childhood, though, as “a wonderful cultural affirmation. How lucky I was to experience that style of life,” he said. All the grandparents, however, wanted him to be completely American.
His father returned home when Erickson was 5 and accustomed to being the little man of the house. Within a short time his father, a reservist, was called up to go to Korea. “When he came home again, suddenly there was a stranger once more I had to get used to,” Erickson said. “It took me years to tolerate him.”
Erickson came through his early years, with all the tugs at him from different directions, as a remarkably stable young man. He entered a premed course at Rutgens University in New Jersey. “I was too young to make a decision between a dental or medical career,” he said. “I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to India, to work in public health and education. . . . India became the most startling, the best experience of my life.”
He went to a primary health center in a small village in Maharashtra where there was no running water and no electricity. He said, “As I worked in a hospital, I learned I didn’t like blood, and that ruled out a medical career. I had never thought of teaching, but once I began I found I enjoyed it very much. The Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to find out what I really wanted to do. It got me into the classroom and opened a whole new career to me, one that I have never regretted.”
On his return to the U.S., Erickson was offered a Defense Department contract, giving him exemption from the draft for Vietnam. He was sent to Saudi Arabia where Bedouins were employed in the production of missiles. Erickson’s task was to ensure that the Bedouins understood the instructions that were fired at them in colloquial English. Faced with formidable language difficulties, Erickson said, “I really learned methods for teaching English. We developed books on the direct method of teaching. Saudi Arabia confirmed for me that I really enjoyed teaching.”
At age 26, a great reader, Erickson was working in the U.S. for a company which was bought by American Express. American Express had decided to go into competition with Berlitz and open its own language schools. “I was sent to head a language school and develop material such as we had already done in Saudi Arabia. Akio Morita, cofounder of Sony Corp, was just beginning a language laboratory, and Sony made the offer: Please come to Japan and help us.” I came, and stayed for five years. It was a very exciting time. There were not so many language schools then. We were a close knit community and the friends I made then are still my friends today.”
Erickson had “experience, confidence, everything but the degree,” he said. “At that time there was no ESL program.” He went on a two-year assistantship to Illinois where he took a double major for his qualification in English linguistics.
“I wanted to come back to Japan,” he said. Instead, under a Fulbright program he went as professor in the philology department to a university in Romania.
Erickson returned to Japan to stay in 1979. Eventually, as a full-time employee of Kanagawa International Association, among other duties he helped put out a prefectural guide book. “I became an official public servant when I joined the Kanagawa Prefectural College of Foreign Studies about 10 years ago. I was also able to continue teaching once a week at Keio University,” he said. “I plan to stay until I retire to Oregon. I enjoy my work. The more I think now about retiring, the scarier it becomes. However, I’ll have more time for reading.”