At the end of last year, to say goodbye to 1999 and welcome in 2000, The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan held “a sing-along session of songs from the good old days.” Playing the piano and leading the songs was William Currie. The Press Club billed him as “the renowned singing father from Sophia University, and the president.”
Currie says that since he became president of the university, some of his musical activities necessarily ended. These included monthly appearances he had put in for some time at a Nishi-Azabu piano pub, where he provided the accompaniment for enthusiastic sing-along sessions.
Currie, born in Philadelphia, is a Jesuit priest who has become a Tokyo institution. His first two degrees in English literature came from Fordham University. Then, he said: “I wanted to work somewhere outside the United States. From what I heard of the culture and temperament of the people here, I thought Japan could be a country I could be at home in.” He came to Japan to study at a language school for two years, on the understanding that he would eventually work in one of the Jesuit educational operations in Japan. He also taught English in a Japanese high school, describing that as “a baptism of fire.” He completed theology studies in Tokyo, and in 1967 was ordained a priest here.
“I was told it might be a good idea to prepare to teach literature at Sophia,” Currie said. “Instead of studying straight American or English literature, I thought it might be more beneficial to study comparative literature. The more I studied Japanese literature, the more fascinated I became.”
For his doctoral dissertation, Currie chose the theme of alienation as evidenced in the fiction of Kobo Abe, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. “Alienation, from other people, from society, oneself, is marked in these writers,” he said. “Alienation is a problem that probably everyone in industrialized society experiences. It is part of the atmosphere in which we live.” He never felt himself to be alienated at any time, but said he was fortunate in having good friends and work that he enjoyed doing. He received his doctorate from the University of Michigan, where for two years he also taught Japanese language and literature. His dissertation was published in Japanese in 1975.
Currie has been teaching American and Japanese literature at Sophia since 1972. From 1974 to 1977, he was dean of the graduate program in comparative culture. At that time he lived in the Japanese students’ dormitory. He fulfilled his priestly duties, of which teaching and administration were only part.
Currie became executive vice president of Sophia, and then served as assistant to the president. In 1985 he became chairman of the department of comparative culture, and two years later became the first dean of the new faculty of comparative culture when it was officially established by the Ministry of Education. He says the faculty offers the only undergraduate program in Japan where all courses are conducted in English that is fully recognized by the Ministry of Education. Currie took office as the elected president of Sophia in April 1999.
For 24 years, Currie conducted the students’ choir. This was one activity that had to make way when he became president. “One of my final appearances as choir director was at a Mass commemorating the opening of the new St. Ignatius Church in Yotsuya,” he said. “I conducted a full orchestra and a 180-voice choir in a performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass.”
Currie is proud of Sophia University, which “has served from its beginnings in 1913 as a window for intellectual discourse between Japan and the rest of the world,” he said. It has 11,500 students, from 54 nations. Its 1,000 scholars come from 23 countries. Sophia has exchange agreements with 100 universities around the world.
Currie serves as a member of the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission, the Council for University Reform, the National Institute for Educational Research and the National Institute for Academic Degrees. He keeps his regard for novelist and playwright Abe, the author of “Woman in the Dunes.” He calls him “a universal Japanese writer, one who is aware of the world outside Japan and of human problems that affect not only Japan. He marks a turning point in Japanese literature. He really came to terms with the 20th century in the world, and expressed its problems with great imagination.”