Professor W. G. Beasley

Historian who advanced the study of Japan in British universities


William Gerald Beasley, historian: born Brackley, Northamptonshire 22 December 1919; Lecturer in Far Eastern History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London 1947-54, Professor of the History of the Far East 1954-83 (Emeritus), Head of the Japan Research Centre 1978-83; FBA 1967; CBE 1980; married 1955 Hazel Polwin (one son); died Twickenham, Middlesex 19 November 2006.

W.G. Beasley, Emeritus Professor of the History of the Far East at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University, was a pioneer in introducing Japanese history in British universities and in communicating knowledge of Japan to a wider audience.

After completing his first degree at University College London, Beasley intended conducting research in Dutch history. However, he served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, in the course of which he studied the Japanese language at the US Navy Language School at Boulder, Colorado, in 1943-44. In the final weeks of the war he interrogated Japanese prisoners on Pacific islands. Shortly after the surrender ceremony in September 1945, Bill Beasley landed at Yokohama and participated in the early phases of the occupation at the Yokosuka naval base and at the British Liaison Mission in Tokyo.

Beasley once remarked that he and a friend had exchanged ideas on their academic ambitions while sitting on the deck of a battleship during the war. Beasley had then expressed a wish to write a new social history of England, thus displacing G.M. Trevelyan. Instead, after the war, he decided to concentrate on the study of Japan.

He completed a doctorate in 1950: this was later published as Great Britain and the Opening of Japan, 1834-58 (1951). He was appointed to a post in the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in 1947 and subsequently became Professor of the History of the Far East (1954-83). He was an effective lecturer, always lucid and thoroughly prepared.

In 1955 he published Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, 1853-68, which comprised mainly translated documents. He then advanced to a challenging project reassessing the nature of the Meiji Restoration. This necessitated analysing the tergiversations and turbulence of the 1860s, culminating in the fall of the Tokugawa administration. Beasley concluded that the restoration was not bourgeois and certainly not peasant: it could perhaps best be described as "a nationalist revolution". This important monograph was published as The Meiji Restoration (1972).

For students and the wider public, Beasley's best known work was his popular general survey, originally entitled The Modern History of Japan (1963) and later republished in an amended form as The Rise of Modern Japan (1990). Here Beasley demonstrated his skill in producing a synthesis of political, diplomatic, economic, social and cultural history during the period of rapid change in which Japan advanced from the feudal era to becoming a world economic power. Numerous translations into foreign languages appeared. It is a remarkable tribute for an advanced textbook to be in print for more than 40 years. In his acknowledgements to the revised volume, Beasley paid a well deserved tribute to his wife, Hazel, "who has also opened an alternative route to the understanding of Japan through her friends and interests there, which have often been different from my own".

In his seminar in East Asian history, held at Soas, Beasley presided incisively and genially over papers presented by postgraduates and staff on a wide variety of topics. He directed discussion with a combination of discretion, trenchancy and humour. He did much to encourage postgraduates from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Beasley had graduated in history and he was not a narrow specialist in Japan. While preparing his study Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 (1987), he took part, with Terence Ranger, in a debate on imperialism at a conference held in Aston; this was a lively and stimulating occasion and it did much to clarify the impact of imperialism in Asia and Africa.

Within London University, Beasley was secretary and later chairman of the History Board. He was Warden of the Connaught Hall of Residence. Himself a good sportsman, he was a strong supporter of the University Athletic Union. In 1967 he was appointed a Fellow of the British Academy and served as the academy's Vice-President (1974-75) and Treasurer (1975-79). He was a member of the Hong Kong University Grants Committee and was awarded the Hon DLitt of the University of Hong Kong in 1978.

Beasley retired in 1983 and devoted himself to publication. After Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, an admirable concise survey of Japanese expansion, he published Japan Encounters the Barbarian: Japanese travellers in America and Europe (1995). Four years later, he produced The Japanese Experience (1999), a succinct history of Japan from the incursion of Buddhism to the fall of the Japanese empire in 1945. In 2001 Beasley published his Collected Writings, which was essentially a selection of articles and reviews; it included an autobiographical "Personal Memoir". He was appointed CBE in 1980, to the Order of the Rising Sun (Third Class) in 1983 and Honorary Member of the Japan Academy in 1984. He was awarded the Japan Foundation Prize in 2001.

Beasley's later years were affected by ill health. The fact that he achieved so much was the result of the dedication of his wife, whose encouragement and support meant so much to him.

Ian Nish and Peter Lowe

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