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UC Berkeley Press Release

Obituary: Thomas C. Smith, professor emeritus dies at 87

– Thomas C. Smith, a University of California, Berkeley, 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, Calif. 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 Irwin Scheiner, UC Berkeley professor of history. "His conclusions were often quite striking, as he argued against what had become the accepted wisdom."

In "The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan," for example, said Scheiner, Smith "ascribed to the gradual evolution of the Tokugawa agrarian economy (1600-1868), the change in the village from subsistence production to production for the market and the transformation of family farming, a major role in the shaping of Japan's modernization."

As professor Kenneth B. Pyle of the University of Washington, a former student of Smith's, writes: "His research and writing are critical to our understanding of how it was that the Japanese became the first non-Western people to achieve an industrial society."

Scheiner said that what was often crucial to Smith's historiography was his willingness to write as a comparative historian. Often, in fact, he said, Smith's explorations in Japanese history "suggested the necessity of re-examining the assumed universality of the Western process of modern industrialization."

This internationally renowned scholar was born in Windsor, Colo., and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., from the age of 12. He graduated from Santa Barbara State College and received his master's degree in French history from UC Berkeley. He began pursuing a doctorate degree in French history at UC 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 studying Japanese history, Smith transferred his doctoral studies from UC Berkeley to Harvard University, which offered a Japanese history doctorate. He received his Ph.D. in Japanese history in 1947.

He then accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at Stanford University, where he remained until his appointment at UC 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.