Gerald Curtis will retire this month from Columbia University, where he has been teaching since 1968.
The 75-year-old has met every prime minister since Eisaku Sato (in office 1964-72), dines with the Emperor and is privy to insider knowledge on party politics. At a 2009 Tokyo book launch for his memoir “Seiji to Sanma: Nihon to Kurashite 45-nen,” Yasuhiro Nakasone, then 91, was one of a few former prime ministers who attended. Without notes, and none the worse for a few whiskeys, Nakasone rattled off Curtis’ accomplishments and entertained the crowd with anecdotes and detailed references to the text.
I first took a class from Curtis in 1980 where he focused on the actual politics of politics, as well as the human factor, which has been lost to subsequent generations of political scientists who work in a field dominated by quantitative analysis. Since then I have enjoyed skiing, hiking, dining and attending jazz gigs with Curtis in scenic Gunma Prefecture and Tokyo.
Anyone who follows Japanese politics knows Curtis’ books and how well connected he is. I asked a few prominent political scientists to offer some words on the man’s impact and legacy.
Oxford University’s Arthur Stockwin lauds Curtis’ understanding of the importance of koenkai (political support groups), detailed in his 1971 book “Election Campaigning Japanese Style.”
“The case study that he provided of Sato Bunsei’s koenkai was one that changed everything,” Stockwin says. “It is extraordinary to remember that before his book we (I at least) had very little knowledge of the true importance of these entities.”
Stockwin also noted Curtis’ comprehensive destruction of the rational-choice approach presented by Mark Ramseyer and Frances McCall Rosenbluth in their book “Japan’s Political Marketplace.”
“In (the 1999 book) ‘The Logic of Japanese Politics,’ Curtis writes that ‘the theory grossly underestimates bureaucratic power and exaggerates the extent to which the Liberal Democratic Party can employ control mechanisms to keep bureaucrats in line.’ And he goes on to pile argument on argument to show why they are simply wrong,” he says.
Stockwin also praised Curtis’ “healthy skepticism — to put it gently — in regards to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national identity agenda.”
The University of Michigan’s John Campbell has known Curtis for more than five decades. Curtis is an accomplished jazz pianist who, in recent years, has appeared on stage in Tokyo with famed saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, but I had no idea that his musical career in Japan was launched in 1966 at Campbell’s residence.
“He came to our son David’s first birthday party,” Campbell recalls. “We all sat around singing ‘Watermelon Man’ and playing pots and pans.”
Campbell also reveals that it helps to be short: “We Japan political scientists have always marveled at how Gerry fits himself into all political circles in Japan. It’s not just his great Japanese. I asked him about that once and he said it was because he is short. Tall guys like Ed Reischauer would be deeply respected but Japanese politicians could never feel at home with him.”
Journalist Tracy Dahlby wrote an article for National Geographic recounting a hike up Mount Fuji with Curtis, who, during the ascent, was exhausted, had a walking stick in his hand and looked dangerously cranky:
“We’re lucky,” Dahlby recalled, trying to avert a mutiny.
“Yeah, how’s that?” muttered Curtis.
“For one thing,” Dahlby said, “we don’t have altitude headaches. Turns out, as we get older, our brains shrink — so fewer headaches.”
“Is that so?” said Curtis, who then took a hit from an oxygen canister and stared at Dahlby. “My brain must have really shrunk to let you talk me into this.”
Dahlby adds, “At least he enjoyed the sunrise.”
Richard Samuels at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that Curtis motivated him to study Japanese politics and do fieldwork in Kyushu, where “honestly, the Beppu onsen were merely a collateral benefit.”
Samuels interviewed former postal minister Bunsei Sato, “though much of our conversation was made up of anecdotes Sato-sensei shared about Gerry’s night life and where, in the campaign office, he slept it off!”
“Many of the best graduate students I have worked with at MIT started their formal study of Japanese politics with Gerry at Columbia,” Samuels says, adding that in his view, “there are precious few who have provided as many public goods to the field of Japanese political studies: Whether by recruiting new scholars into the fold, by stepping out into the world of policy or in the form of useful intellectual guidance for our individual inquiries.”
One of those students is Boston University’s Thomas Berger.
“(Curtis) provided me with a panoramic vision of the secrets and wonders of the Japanese political system, vividly illustrated with a wealth of personal anecdotes and buttressed with sharp observations based on a fantastically rich storehouse of first-hand knowledge,” Berger says. “There are few studies that compare to Gerry’s (‘Election Campaigning Japanese Style’) in terms of both the richness of its empirical material and its impact on the field of Japanese studies — (Chalmers) Johnson’s ‘MITI and the Japanese Miracle’ is the only one that may have had even greater impact, and arguably Gerry’s book has stood the test of time better.”
University of California, Berkeley professor T.J. Pempel adds that he believes Curtis has been the ultimate insider in Japanese politics.
“He has known politicians high and low for more than four decades,” Pempel says. “He has treated each of them with incredible respect — even when he was skeptical of their policy choices or their motives. They in turn reciprocated with their secrets and strategies, knowing his discretion could be trusted. His retirement will narrow a valuable pathway to our understanding of Japanese politicians on their own terms.”
Another Curtis student, Patti Maclachlan at the University of Texas, says Curtis has a gift for “cutting through the noise” and capturing the essence of an issue. She recalls an International House of Japan symposium immediately after the July 1993 general elections where Curtis was the only panelist who boldly, and correctly, predicted that the LDP would be ousted from power.
Sophia University’s Koichi Nakano says Curtis stands out as “a rare provider of insightful and relevant qualitative analysis of contemporary politics, when an increasing number of the younger scholars engage in a mindless and uninformative number-crunching career game.
“He combines an incomparably deep and detailed knowledge of Japanese politicians and parties with a razor-sharp analysis of the Japanese case in the comparative context. He has continued to stand out as the leading specialist of Japanese democracy and politics, during the long period in which much of the field was dominated by a focus on Japanese political economy and its recipe for success.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Berger adds that he admires Curtis for speaking truth to power.
“Right after Columbia received a $5 million gift from the government of Japan for the study of Japanese politics, Gerry did not hesitate to criticize Shinzo Abe for his recent statement on the history issue, pointing out in a number of prominent talks and opinion pieces that Abe’s statement would satisfy neither his conservative constituents nor Japan’s critics abroad.”
We can only hope that, despite retirement, Curtis keeps sharing his insights. Thank you, sensei.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.