UC Berkeley News



29 April 2004

Thomas C. Smith
Thomas Smith, a professor emeritus of history who was considered the most distinguished historian of early modern and modern Japan in the West in the last half century, died in his sleep on April 3 in Danville. He was 87.

In four major books, Political Change and Industrial Development: Government Enterprise 1868-1880 (1955), The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan (1959), Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in a Japanese Village, 1717-1830 (1977), and Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920 (1988), Smith “changed our understanding of the trajectory of Japanese economic development and social change in the early modern and modern eras,” said history professor Irwin Scheiner. “His conclusions were often quite striking, as he argued against what had become the accepted wisdom.”

Smith, born in Windsor, Colo., was raised in Santa Barbara from the age of 12. He graduated from Santa Barbara State College and received his master’s degree in French history from Berkeley. He began pursuing a doctorate degree in French history at Berkeley, but when World War II broke out, he enrolled in the U.S. Navy Japanese language school in Boulder, Colo.

Upon graduation from the language school, he was commissioned as a marine lieutenant and served throughout the war as a combat interpreter and translator. Returning from the Pacific with a new interest in Japanese history, Smith transferred his doctoral studies from Berkeley to Harvard University, which offered a Japanese history doctorate. After earning his Ph.D. in that subject in 1947, he accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at Stanford University, where he remained until his appointment at Berkeley in 1970 as Ford Professor of Comparative History. Smith retired in 1987.

He leaves behind his wife, Jeanne, of Walnut Creek; two children, Zachary Smith of Loomis and Rachel Smith of San Diego; and two grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned.
— Kathleen Maclay