Saturday, November 20, 2010

An appreciation: Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010

I received an email tonight announcing the death of my former mentor, Chalmers Johnson. According to his wife Sheila, he died this afternoon after several months of care from the local hospice.

Chal was larger than life, an unforgettable character who made an impression on most people he met. He could alternately be serious or playful, inviting or argumentative. Most importantly, he is the reason I became a college professor.

After obtaining his PhD from Berkeley in 1961, Chal taught in the political science department from 1962-1988 and was department chairman during some of its most influential years. He was lured to UCSD in 1988 by the promise of a new Asian Studies school called IR/PS, but then retired as part of the Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program, a UC-wide budget-cutting measure intended to get expensive senior faculty off the payroll.

Chal continued to teach part-time after his 1992 retirement, but soon had a falling out with the dominant IR/PS faculty faction and fully retired in the spring of 1994. As an open university student, I was there for his final IR/PS class along with a loyal cadre of Japan-focused master’s students.

I actually met Chal during his two semesters as a visiting professor at Cal State San Marcos (1993-1994). My mom saw in the paper that this famous guy was teaching a night class course on China/Japan/Korea at CSUSM — only 15 freeway miles from my work and home. For most of two semesters, I was the only student at his office hours as I made a point of visiting him whenever I could.

At a time when our Mac software business was slowly dying off — along with Apple Computer — Chal offered a window onto another career possibility: the life of a college professor. I decided to major in business — not poli sci or computer sci, two other options I considered — but it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have become a professor without his influence during this period. (This first required enrolling in grad school, because — as Sheila reminded me — “a Ph.D. is the union card of academia.”)

MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975When I met Chal, it was during the early years of the Clinton Administration, when the elevation of Laura Tyson to head of the Council of Economic Advisors (briefly) gave Chal hope that his trade policy proscriptions might be become US policy.

Chal was the academic heavyweight among the Japan revisionists (or “gang of four”) — that also included three other book authors: Clyde Prestowitz, Karel van Wolferen and James Fallows. Chal’s contribution was the once-famous MITI and the Japanese Miracle. Although I read all their books, I never followed the other three as closely as Chal. But to summarize his points at the time:
  • Japan is different from the US, an economic powerhouse, and needs to be studied on its own terms
  • assumptions that it follows Anglo-American norms are foolishly na├»ve if not a form of egocentric nationalism
  • Japan’s postwar economic boom was due to a form of managed trade
  • if the US wanted to correct its trade deficit with Japan, it would have to match Japan’s jobs- and firm-oriented neomercantalism rather than its consumer-oriented open markets
As he predicted at the time, Korea and China saw that Japan’s policies enabled exports to the US market while protecting domestic firms from meaningful competition, and so (successfully) followed Japan’s playbook.

I played a small role in helping him set up the Japan Policy Research Institute, a virtual thinktank that Chal founded that was originally run by Chal and Sheila out of their San Diego-area home. (JPRI working paper #7 marked the first “publication” of my new career.) I also helped him switch to a Mac, and was his tech support person for many years until I moved away from San Diego.

Over the years, we drifted apart — almost entirely my fault. After my daughter was born, I had less time to spend hanging out with adult friends. But more than that, we drifted apart philosophically after “W” was elected, as Chal spent his final years raging not at America’s enemies or rivals, but at a US foreign policy that he repeatedly attacked as a form of imperial overreach.

Meanwhile, after I arrived at SJSU in 2002 and found several colleagues with far better Japanese language skills than I had, I turned my attention to (in a Ricardian sense) where I had both relative and absolute competitive advantage among the SJSU faculty: studying the technology strategies of Silicon Valley IT firms.

While he had been in declining health for many years, his death is a painful reminder to me that everyone’s time on this earth is finite, and that anyone may pass on without prior notice. It’s also nudge to take a more active role in maintaining friendships, beyond an occasional email and the annual family Christmas letter.

Photo credit: Chalmers Johnson, from a 2007 interview with UCSD TV.

Update Nov. 21: Dates of UC service updated per feedback from former IR/PS student Dr. Jason Dedrick.
Update Nov. 24: I’ve posted links to the best obituaries by reporters and Chal’s friends.

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