Intl. Studies Scholar Passes Away

Johnson was known for his revolutionary analysis of Japanese economics and, later in life, as a political firebrand and critic of U.S. foreign policy. He is survived by his wife, Sheila Johnson, who reported that his death was due to complications with his rheumatoid arthritis. He was 79.

Professor of Japanese politics and policy-making Ellis Krauss lived about a mile away from Johnson and would visit Johnson one to two times a year. He first met Johnson in 1973 at a Newport Beach conference on Japan and how the country could improve its image in the U.S. But Krauss didn’t get to know Johnson until years later, mostly at conferences.

“I will tell you that the many times I saw him at conferences, he was quite amazing,” Krauss said. “First of all, he was absolutely brilliant. He could write like a dream — he was a wonderful writer — but he could dominate with the force of his personality. He had this deep, resonant voice and very, very quick wit.”

Krauss said Johnson, who was fluent in both Chinese and Japanese, first became interested in Asian politics when he served as a naval officer in Japan in 1953.

“He was in the Navy in the Korean War [where he] was stationed in Japan,” Krauss said. “Then he studied economics and politics at Berkeley, both undergraduate and graduate school, and pursued his Asia studies that way.”

Johnson taught political science with a focus on Eastern Asia in the UC system for 30 years — first at Berkeley from 1962 to 1988, then at UCSD until 1992.

He transferred to UCSD in 1988 after an invitation from founding dean at the UCSD School of International Relations and Pacific Studies Peter Gourevitch. Gourevitch said he first contacted Johnson to help him shape the new school, as Johnson wanted a program that was more cross-disciplinary than at other schools.

Johnson also contributed to the development of UCSD’s Japanese Studies program, along with Japanese history professor John Dower and Japanese language and literature professor Masao Miyoshi.

“They formed one of the most powerful groups of Japan scholars anywhere in the world,” Krauss said. “Just their presence and the fact that they were all on the same campus put UCSD on the map in terms of Japanese studies.”

At the time he was approached by Gourevitch, Johnson was already a prominent academic in East Asian studies who had first gained national attention when he wrote the book MITI and the Japanese Miracle.

In it, he detailed his theory that Japan’s economic success following World War II was due in large part to government intervention. This was a forceful rebuke to the prevailing wisdom that governments were an obstacle to economic success.

“He really challenged the Washington consensus,” Gourevitch said. “People were seeing everything through an American prism. It doesn’t work that way.”

But Krauss said he disagreed with Johnson’s views in MITI and the Japanese Miracle.

“It was an absolutely brilliant book,” Krauss said. “He was right in his view of the Japanese bureaucracy in the early post-war period, but what happened when things started to change [during the]1980s and 90s, he clung to the view that the bureaucracy was still all-powerful in Japan. I disagreed with him that this was still the case…I think that was our main disagreement. I definitely agreed with him that Japan [had] a different form of capitalism.”

Johnson also wrote Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1937-1945, which argued that the Communist Party succeeded because China had a nationalist political view in response to the Anti-Japanese War.

“He took a view that no one else had taken before,” Krauss said. “The book on China argued that one of the great appeals of communism in China was not Marxist ideology at all, but rather that the Chinese communist represented nationalism…That, during the Cold War, was not a common view.”

In total, Johnson wrote 15 books on Japan, China and the United States.

“The thing about Chal that’s so unusual is that he wrote one of the most groundbreaking books on China and then years later wrote one of the most groundbreaking books on Japan,” Krauss said. “Not many people do that — [not many] can write extremely seminal books on both countries.”

Johnson’s attracted controversy by challenging free market ideologies. Gourevitch welcomed it.

“I was happy to have the debate come to UCSD,” Gourevitch said. “Chalmers opened up discussions on the role of government in economies.”

After four years at UCSD, Johnson retired from teaching. Krauss said this was because of the retirement packages offered by the UC system, in addition to disagreements over teaching methods.

“At that time, UC system was going through economic crisis as much as today,” Krauss said. “But unlike today, they were offering golden parachutes, [or] early retirement packages. I remember Chal or his wife telling me it was such a good offer, it didn’t pay to continue working… A lot of it was the appeal of the retirement package and a little bit was that he was beginning to disagree in approach in political science and in the school.”

Johnson was notorious for his sharp wit that he often used to cut through government jargon. In an essay published in The Nation, Johnson defined collateral damage as “another of those hateful euphemisms invented by our military to prettify its killing of the defenseless.”

“He was devastating when he could disagree with you both because of his fast intelligence and the way he could respond in a very funny way,” Krauss said. “But he could really destroy people he had arguments with.”

Johnson once explained that his politics came from a deep desire to help restore stability to America.

“My purpose is to mobilize inattentive Americans to what they are about to lose, namely the freedoms associated with the American republic, and to understand that once they lose it, they’ll never get it back,” Johnson said.

Readers can contact Justin Kauker and Regina Ip at [email protected].

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