NEW YORK — Herbert Passin, whom I had the honor of knowing, died on Feb. 26. Like kabuki expert Faubion Bowers, whom I also knew, Passin was a top graduate of the Military Intelligence Service Language School, which was established in 1941 in preparation for the coming war with Japan. Both did wonderful things under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, or SCAP, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and went on to do more. Both were decorated by the Japanese government. But they were so self-effacing that you wouldn’t have had an inkling of such things in their presence.
My first encounter with Passin was startlingly memorable. Sometime in the late 1970s, a very unassuming gentleman appeared in the library of the trade agency where I worked. After examining statistical and other books, he wondered if I could get some information from Tokyo, especially from a professor friend of his. He was giving a talk to the Tanners Association the following week, in Florida, and he needed certain information on Japan’s “untouchables.” The Japanese professor was the greatest authority on the matter.
At the time, one big trade “friction” between Japan and the United States was Japan’s import of quantities of leather from the U.S. but few leather products. It exported shoes and handbags, instead. If an American could clarify the whys and wherefores of that lopsided situation to an important American trade group, that would be more than a Japanese trade agency could hope for. So I was more than happy to oblige. I asked him to leave his name and address so I might get in touch with him as soon as I had responses to his list of questions. His name was Herbert Passin, and he was a professor at Columbia University.
The moment I reported to work the next morning I was summoned to the executive officer’s room and grilled. Our Tokyo headquarters was in an uproar.
Why had I sent a message without clearing it through him? Sir, you were away on a business trip, I replied. Well, then, why did I use a term that didn’t exist? I was stumped. A term that didn’t exist? In any case, said the executive officer, the designated authority on the question disavowed any knowledge of the matter.
The mistake lay entirely in my inept and impolitic approach. I should have submitted the Columbia professor’s inquiry, itself a supremely legitimate one, through an unofficial route.
Many years later I became friends with a trade consultant, Scott Latham. As someone in the business of consultancy, he soon proved unusual. He refused to submit himself to the usual practice of creating a “them against us” dichotomy. For example, he took exception to characterizing the Japanese as “conformists.”
One sticking point with Latham in that regard was the oft-quoted (and, I might add, mostly misunderstood) proverb, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” If you are to cite it as indicative of the conformist society that is supposed to be Japan, Latham pointed out, how about expressions such as “Keep your head down,” “Cover your ass,” and “Don’t make waves” in America? Are they indicative of Americans’ vaunted individualism, rugged or otherwise?
I admired Latham for his stance. I had long harbored doubts about facile differentiations of societies and peoples, but in trade disputes people willfully resort to them. The reason is simple. It’s easier to accuse someone of doing certain things if you ignore that you do the same things. Latham refused that easy recourse.
So I wasn’t surprised when Latham told me Passin was his stepfather. As he later wrote in a magazine, since he was a young man, he’d been meeting and talking to Japanese academics, politicians, businessmen and artists who came to visit the great sociologist and international counselor. Latham may not have learned the error of social and cultural stereotyping entirely from Passin, but I’d venture that Passin’s genial, knowledgeable presence helped.
As he recounts in his short autobiography, “Encounter with Japan” (Kodansha, 1982), even before going to the military language school, Passin had had firsthand experience with “the prejudice of minority groups toward each other.” Working for the War Relocation Authority in Detroit, a city in great racial and ethnic turmoil in 1943, he saw black and Polish workers turning their anger toward re-relocated Japanese-Americans, who, in turn, expressed contempt for “dirty Jews.” Passin was a son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, and his job was to find employment for those Japanese-Americans let out of the relocation camps in the West.
Assigned to Fukuoka after the war ended, Passin witnessed another type of racial strife. Fukuoka was an important port for Japanese repatriates from former colonies and battlegrounds, and for the majority of Koreans brought to Japan for forced labor during the war and now returning to their homeland. Gangs of Koreans and Japanese fought each other. Fukuoka also had a sizable concentration of U.S. military, and the segregated black soldiers’ anger against their white counterparts was always ready to erupt and often did.
Among the Military Intelligence Service Language School graduates, Faubion Bowers received “the most glamorous assignment,” as Passin put it: MacArthur’s personal interpreter and aide-de-camp. Bowers then did something unusual. He resigned the military commission to take on the theater censor’s job to “de-censor” kabuki. Later he was called its “savior.”
Passin’s assignment after Fukuoka, at the Tokyo General Headquarters, wasn’t that glamorous, but it was a dream come true. He headed SCAP’s Public Opinion and Sociological Research Division, the sociological research part of it added at his own suggestion. Before the war with Japan started, he, a fledgling anthropologist, had done a year’s field work with the Tarahumara Indian tribe in Mexico.
“In my wildest dreams, I could never have concocted a better job for myself at that particular stage of my life,” he wrote. He was 30 years old. His career as a great sociologist lay ahead.
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