The life and work of Edgerton Herbert Norman, a Canadian diplomat and researcher of modern Japanese history who committed suicide in the 1950s amid allegations that he was a communist sympathizer, is now being spotlighted.
Norman, often referred to as “a tragic historian,” was recently honored by the Canadian Embassy, which named its library after him. And Iwanami Shoten Publishers, a major publishing house in Tokyo, recently reissued a set of four of his books. In July, Norman’s hard-to-obtain essays will also be published.
“Norman was the first foreigner who did research on modern Japan,” said Masanao Kano, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “His work on Japan’s modern history contributed to getting rid of Japan’s images as an unintelligible country.”
Kano made the comments Tuesday during a panel discussion organized by the Canadian Embassy to mark the naming of the library.
Lawrence Woods, a former president of the Japan Studies Association of Canada and the editor of the 60th anniversary edition of “Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State,” said, “I believe he will be remembered as a great communicator, teacher, thinker and scholar.”
The son of a Canadian Methodist missionary, Norman was born in Nagano in September 1909. He stayed in Japan until the age of 15, then went on to study Japanese and Chinese history at the University of Toronto, Cambridge University and Harvard University.
In 1939, he entered Canada’s Department of External Affairs and was posted at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo between 1940 and 1941. At the outbreak of World War II, he was repatriated to Canada, only to return to Japan after the war to serve as a member of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence staff.
In 1946, Norman was appointed head of the Canadian Liaison Mission in Tokyo. It was around this time, according to experts, that he became acquainted with many Japanese historians and other academics.
He returned to Canada in 1950 to head the government’s American and Far Eastern Division and Information Division.
In 1957, while serving as the ambassador to Egypt, Norman’s career came to an abrupt halt when he leaped to his death from a building to protest allegations that he was a communist. He was 47.
Shigeto Tsuru, professor emeritus and former president of Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, said of Norman at Tuesday’s library-naming ceremony, “Although his life was short, he contributed greatly to the international world.”
Tsuru, a friend of Norman’s, worked with him on books in the 1940s, including “Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State,” which is acknowledged as having contributed to the development of postwar Japanese history studies. Norman’s work is also said to have influenced MacArthur’s postwar policy toward Japan.
Kano said Norman’s legacy has a wide range of implications in contemporary Japanese society.
“Norman said he wanted the Japanese not to accept ‘democracy’ prepared for them (by the Allied forces), but to select democracy for themselves through each individual’s decision.”
Modern historians have a lot to learn from the way Norman viewed history, Kano added, citing the recent controversy over the government’s approval of a junior high school history textbook compiled by a group of rightist historians.
The text has drawn criticism for allegedly attempting to gloss over Japan’s wartime atrocities.
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