JPRI Occasional paper No. 40 (May 2012)
Chal: An Intellectual Memoir
by Sheila K. Johnson

In going through my husband's files, books, and papers after his death, I've been forcibly struck by two things. The first is that contrary to what was said in many of his obituaries, his writings and thoughts were remarkably consistent throughout his life. In other words, he was not a right-winger who became more liberal and outspoken as he got older. He was, perhaps more than most people suspected, a radical thinker whose intellectual impulses were tempered only by his birth in the depression year of 1931 and his determination to make a decent living without “joining the establishment.” The second thing is how maniacally hard he worked all his life.

When we met in the fall of 1956, I was a 19-year-old junior at UC Berkeley, having left behind a four-year scholarship at Mills College in Oakland because I felt like a second-class citizen in what was then a “rich-girls” school. In Berkeley I “shacked up” with a boyfriend, and my parents in response cut me off both financially and emotionally. Chal, by contrast, was six years older, back from two years in Korea with the Navy, but living at home in Alameda with his parents to save money. He had just finished his M.A. thesis on “thought reform” in Communist China in the period just after Mao took over in 1949 and before the famous Hundred Flowers period, when intellectuals were urged to “let a hundred flowers bloom,” a hundred schools of thought contend, only to find themselves subjected to more thought reform.

Chal had come back from Korea—where his LST 883 ferried Chinese POWs back to North Korean ports—but where he'd also started to study Japanese when his ship was in Yokosuka. As an undergraduate at Berkeley he'd majored in economics, but now he was a graduate student in political science, taking Japanese language classes in the department of Oriental Languages and Chinese history courses from the distinguished and charismatic Professor Joseph R. Levenson. In the political science department he became the teaching assistant of Robert Scalapino, whose course on “America's Role in the Far East” I took.

Through mutual friends I had invited Chal to a Christmas party at my apartment (and had even fixed him up with a date!), so in January of 1957 he decided to deliver my final grade in Scalapino's course in person. I was not home but my boyfriend was and informed Chal that I was leaving him—even in those early days of free love I'd concluded that for women the price was too high. Several weeks later I bumped into Chal on the campus and he said, “I hear you're a free woman. Can I invite you to do something interesting one of these days?” And so our brief but intensive courtship began. Among the interesting things I recall was an Ozu film festival on campus, Tennessee Williams's “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in San Francisco, and trips to Stinson Beach. We were married in May of 1957 in Reno, Nevada, because at 20 I was still considered under-age in California and couldn't have married without parental consent. In Reno we tied the knot at City Hall on a Saturday morning, having left the car in a 15-minute parking zone, and returned to Berkeley the following day because we both had final exams.

That summer we had a honeymoon of sorts in New York City because Chal had won an internship at the United Nations and I managed to find a job as a temporary gofer at Time/Life Inc. Like all young people we were enchanted by the city and even more so by the idealism of the UN. Chal worked on various aid projects for a wonderful French bureaucrat named Marcel Schwab, and by the end of the summer he wanted to stay at the UN. But Schwab advised against it. ”It's okay for me,” he said. “I lost my entire family to Hitler and now have a sort of substitute family at work and in the Puerto Rican neighborhood where I live. But this building (meaning the UN tower) will fill up with paper before we're done. Go back to Berkeley and get your Ph.D.” I wonder if he could have imagined how much “paper” Chal himself would generate in years to come.

Robert Scalapino was then best known as a Japan scholar (he only later became influential in the China field), and on a trip to Japan he had microfilmed the archives of a wartime bureaucrat, Hatano Ken'ichi, that Hatano had taken home for safe-keeping in advance of the American fire-bombing of Tokyo. Scalapino asked Chal to index this microfilm and also offered him the opportunity to use it in writing a Ph.D. dissertation. Thus was born Chal's first book, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 . The archives included reports by the Japanese Army then trying to conquer and pacify China about the stiff resistance they were encountering in northern China from peasants being organized by Mao Zedong. It seemed to Chal that more than being seduced by Communism these peasants had joined Mao because of the terrible depredations by the Japanese army and that they won the subsequent civil war in China for basically nationalistic reasons.

Peasant Nationalism , published by Stanford University Press in 1962, is still in print almost fifty years later, but this is not to say it hasn't had its detractors. Chief among them were both the regime in Communist China—which preferred to call itself Marxist/Leninist—and the Kuomintang government in Taiwan, which did not like to think it had deservedly lost the support of the Chinese population during World War II. For many years after the publication of Peasant Nationalism Chal could not get a visa to either China or Taiwan.

But this did not bother us much at first because he was, after all, supposed to be a Japan specialist. During 1961-62 he was awarded a Ford Foundation grant to Japan, where he prepared his dissertation for publication (and I typed it), studied Japanese, and we lived in a small Japanese-style house in Tokyo. He wrote his first “scholarly” article, published by World Politics , then as now a distinguished academic journal, in which he sought to generalize the wartime Chinese experience to other revolutionary situations. Called “Civilian Loyalties and Guerrilla Conflict,” it argued that “To approach the subject of guerrilla warfare as a purely military doctrine is to court disaster,” and “General political and economic considerations must be taken into account, such as the abilities of local elites, the nature of a country's economy, its class structure, and a host of other variables that can only be altered by long-term reforms. By the time guerrilla warfare has actually broken out, the conflict may already be lost to the defenders and require a negotiated or stalemate solution.”

In Tokyo Chal haunted the used book stores of Jinbocho, and it was here that he met a very interesting bookseller who one day handed him a 1930s volume by an Asahi journalist who had worked in Shanghai. It was only after Chal had read the book and commented that it was amazing a Japanese of that era could have written so frankly and insightfully about Japan's disastrous policies in China that he learned more about the author's identity. Ozaki Hotsumi, a well-regarded journalist and adviser to the Japanese government, had also become a spy for the Russians. After the Germans had invaded Russia Ozaki and Richard Sorge, the head of the spy ring, are credited with telling the Russians that the Japanese army would strike south, permitting Russia to move its Siberian troops to defend and save Moscow. Ozaki and Sorge were both arrested in Japan in 1941 and executed in November, 1944.

I think the conundrum faced by Ozaki—his dismay over his country's war in China and his personal decision to aid the enemy—was something that deeply influenced Chal and many of his own political beliefs. We made our way back to the United States in the summer of 1962 via a slow boat to Europe—the Messageries Maritimes SS Laos—that took a month to travel from Yokohama to Marseilles. En route we got our only glimpse of Saigon, where the current U.S. policy was called “sink or swim with Ngo Dihn Diem,” and when we landed in Marseilles the ship immediately set sail for Algeria to rescue pied noirs from the ongoing rebellion there. Meanwhile, on board the Laos, Chal told me the story of Ozaki's life, and when he'd finished he said, “I think I'll write an article about him.” I said, “It sounds to me more like a book.”

An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring was published by Stanford University Press in 1964, and although it is now out-of-print in the U.S. it is being reissued in a Japanese translation. Meanwhile, Chal had been hired by Scalapino to teach Chinese politics at Berkeley. But because even then it was not considered intellectually “cool” to be type-cast as an “area specialist,” Chal decided also to pursue his interest in revolutions and guerrilla warfare by offering a graduate seminar on the subject. By then I myself was a graduate student in anthropology drinking deeply of various social theorists such as Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and Emile Durkheim. Chal borrowed some of my books and wrote a long paper called “Revolution and the Social System” (complete with an elaborate flow-chart). This led to his next book, Revolutionary Change , first published by Little, Brown in 1966.

Revolutionary Change was an important theoretical work, but it was also a bit nutty. Early in our marriage Chal and I had discussed whether it was possible to construct what we called a “Fascistograph”—a checklist of things going wrong in a country that might herald the imminent arrival of fascism, so one could get out in time. (This was in part triggered by conversations with some of our own professors, including Hannah Arendt, about when they had decided to leave Europe prior to World War II.) For Revolutionary Change Chal tried to develop various “measures” of disequilibrium that might signal the onset of a revolution—including the number of suicides and violent crimes, the number of police and military, and the circulation of certain ideological magazines. When the book finally went out of print in 1982, Stanford Press offered to bring out a second edition, but we all agreed that the chapter on measuring disequilibrium had to go. In its place Chal wrote a new chapter about terrorism as a revolutionary strategy, and another chapter discussing some of the other theories of revolution that had followed on his first effort. Stanford Press's brilliant editor (and later director) Norris Pope also re-edited the entire text and made it much more accessible. When we read in the Los Angeles Times of March 2, 1986 that when the Filippino General Juan Ponce Enrile abandoned Ferdinand Marcos and joined Cory Aquino's revolution, he threw into his nap sack three books: Sun Tzu's The Art of War , a book about the idea of law, and Chalmers Johnson's Revolutionary Change , we could only laugh and say we hoped it was the second, revised edition (which is still in print in 2011).

The decade of 1965-75 can be called our China years. They were also of course the years of American's war in Vietnam and of student protests on many college campuses, not least among them Berkeley. In 1965-66 we spent nine months in Hong Kong as “China Watchers.” The Cultural Revolution was just then beginning, and as Chal became increasingly convinced of the harm it was inflicting on China's people and its economy, many of his students were turning into sincere Maoist camp-followers. Many of them were also protesting the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, while Chal became a temporary convert to the domino theory.

And yet in 1973 he published a little book called Autopsy on People's War in which he argued that Maoist theories would not lead to a general Asian conflagration. “It is useful to be reminded that revolutions in the modern sense are also, in fact, civil wars. If other nations want to make a successful adjustment to them, they cannot ignore the fact that a domestic fight is going on between people who are agitated by issues other than the general course of human history. For this reason direct intervention in one is generally the worst thing that a prudent nation can do— not because the revolution is unimportant either ideologically or to the world balance of power but because foreign intervention, if it fails, is bound to antagonize in the most direct manner the victorious revolutionary state.”

The cool tone of this prose brings back memories of a large San Francisco cocktail party around that time. People were clustered around Chal carrying on a vigorous debate about the Vietnam War and I was hovering around the perimeter. Suddenly a bearded man veered away in disgust. It was Lawrence Halprin, I later learned—the famous landscape architect and husband of the dancer Anna Halprin. “That man,” he said to me (meaning Chal and not knowing who I was) “is discussing the Vietnam War the way I discuss design projects.” It was true, I thought, but all I could say was, “Yes, that's what they teach you in graduate school.”

It was an uncomfortable time to be Chairman of UC Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies (1967-72) while simultaneously being a consultant for the CIA's Board of National Estimates. Chal had accepted Richard Helms's invitation because at that time some of the most accurate reporting about China was being done by the CIA (and also, as would later be revealed, about Vietnam).

At the same time, Chal also managed to write and publish in 1972 another book about Japan— this one a complicated story set during the Occupation about a train-wreck probably caused by left-wing labor unions but that revealed a great deal about Japanese police methods and American interference. The summer Conspiracy at Matsukawa came out Chal spent a month by himself in Japan, decompressing from five turbulent years in Berkeley. During this time he wrote me a series of charming letters saying he suddenly realized he was tired of following at a distance the ups and downs of Maoist China and wanted to return to doing concrete research about Japan. Matsukawa had awakened his interest in studying the Japanese police, but another researcher, Dave Bayley, was already well-advanced on a similar project. An old Japanese friend suggested that Chal should instead take up the study of another branch of Japan's bureaucracy— namely MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. That research was to preoccupy him for the next ten years.

Part of the time that Chal worked on MITI, he was also chairman of Berkeley's political science department (1976-80) and this meant he had less time for research and writing. But he nonetheless began producing a series of articles that explored various aspects of the subject. In 1974 he was the first person to explain in English the Japanese system of “amakudari,” whereby retired bureaucrats were hired by big businesses to smooth their future relations with the government that regulated them… rather similar to the revolving door between U.S. elected officials (and also retired military officers) and big American firms. In 1975, he published an important article called “Japan: Who Governs? An Essay on Official Bureaucracy,” that in 1995 was collected in a volume of that title containing many other pieces he wrote during those years. When his term as department chairman ended and he had a year's sabbatical from teaching, he wondered aloud whether he needed to write another book: hadn't he already written enough about MITI? “Well,” I said, “You have all of this historical material. It would be a pity just to throw it away.”

And so, in the fall of 1980, Chal began work on MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975 . He worked, as he always did, by first reading through all his files and indexing things he wanted to use. He knew the story he wanted to tell but he still wrote with incredible intensity and speed, producing two chapters a month. He said he was working this rapidly because the material was so complex he could hold it in his head only a short time. I was reading and editing what he wrote as he went along, and we had (as we often did) a number of arguments about not the contents so much as its presentation. Chal was a radial thinker: one thing would remind him of something else and that something else would remind him of still other things, so that when he lectured students sometimes held their breaths wondering when and if he'd return to his starting point. In writing about MITI bureaucrats he might begin with a thumbnail sketch only to stop in mid-paragraph to say that before one could fully understand the person one would also have to know who his father was. And midway into that digression Chal might veer into an account of the grandfather's career! All of this was of course important information, especially in a place like Japan, but I suggested that some of it belonged in footnotes. This was a point I won, but by the time he'd written eight chapters and we were approaching the end of December, I acquiesced when he said, “I was going to write a concluding chapter, but I've said it all, haven't I?” We were both exhausted.

We sent off the manuscript to Jess Bell, a friend and publisher of Chal's other books at Stanford, and Jess read it during his Christmas vacation. In early January of 1981 he told us that of course he wanted to publish the book but that it needed a concluding chapter… a “take-home” message. We laughed because we realized Jess was right. Chal was well aware that one of the unusual and important aspects of his description of MITI and its wartime predecessor, the Ministry of Munitions, was their continuity in both practices and personnel. Unlike most books about modern Japan that draw a sharp dividing line at 1945, Chal's did not. He knew that the implicit message Jess was now asking him to make explicit might just as well be given the jocular title Jerry Della Femina had once proposed for a Panasonic ad: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. Still, he wrote the concluding chapter to MITI in record time, and when the book was published in early 1982, both he and Jess were pleased when reviewers singled out for special praise both the first and last chapters.

In the fall of 1982, our home phone rang and it was Henry Rosovsky, then dean of the Harvard faculty but also a friend who had taught at Berkeley and been a member of Chal's Ph.D. orals committee. I knew at once what this call was about: like a summons from the Vatican, Harvard had at last decided to offer Chal a job. Of course we would go for a “look-over” and give it serious thought. In addition to Henry, we knew a number of people at Harvard, but we were worried about the winter climate in Boston because of Chal's rheumatoid arthritis. As it turned out, we liked Boston and Cambridge a great deal; it was Harvard that struck us as too patrician and full of itself. President Derek Bok gave a dinner party at which he seemed unable to utter a sentence without mentioning either Harvard or his illustrious parents-in-law Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. Chal asked one of his Harvard friends what he would be asked to teach, and the friend replied, “Oh, Chalmers, at the level you're being hired you don't have to teach anything you don't want to. The only thing you must never refuse is a request to speak to the Harvard alumni.” As we flew back to California, Chal said glumly, “They want me as a moosehead professor—to hang my head on the wall and say they've bagged me.” Needless to add, we chose to remain at Berkeley for another 6 years.

Even before the MITI book was published the Japanese had expressed an interest in translating it, and their first reaction was one of great pride in Chal's description of their postwar economic growth and how it had been achieved. But as Japan's trade deficits with the United States grew along with calls for U.S. tariffs on Japanese automobiles and other products, Chal came to be characterized as a “Japan-basher.” It's true that writing MITI had reawakened his interest in economic theory, and he agreed with people who accused Japan of not providing a level playing field. But he was more interested in seeing the U.S. adopt some of Japan's methods of state-guided development or “industrial policy.” This was anathema to most American economists and politicians, and so Chal came under attack from Americans as well. When Japan's economy became stagnant in the face of China's rapid development (which, incidentally, is also heavily state-guided), MITI's policies were further derided in the U.S.

Meanwhile Chal's intellectual playfulness never ceased to amaze me. After reading several books about the Venetian Republic he wrote “La Serenissima of the East,” comparing Venice's history to Japan's long balancing act as a trading nation. And one evening after listening to a CD of Stravinsky's Le Chant du Rossignol , I pulled out the liner notes and read aloud the story, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. “Did you know,” I asked, “that it was ‘emissaries of the Emperor of Japan [who] arrive [at the Chinese court] bearing a mechanical nightingale, whose song causes the true Nightingale to flee?'” A few months later Chal wrote a piece about Japan's economic development called “The People Who Invented the Mechanical Nightingale.” The editor of Daedalus , who published it in the summer of 1990, was so incensed by some things in the piece that he cut part of the opening paragraphs.

Chal continued to write and travel to conferences throughout the first half of the 1980s. But in the winter of 1985, after a wonderfully relaxing vacation in Hawaii, he had a major rheumatoid arthritis “attack.” He had never before experienced such a thing. Chal had been diagnosed with the disease when he was in his early twenties. In fact, a Navy doctor had suggested he could use it to get out of the service, but Chal declined. For the next thirty years he had survived on large quantities of aspirin or a variety of stronger pain killers such as Indomethacin. But in 1985, in the space of a few hours, he began running a high fever and his body, painful even to the touch of a sheet, became as rigid as an I-beam. He spent a week in the hospital on heavy doses of cortisone, and when he went back to teaching he had to use a cane and lecture sitting down. Like a midlife heart-attack, it was a sort of wake-up call, and we began to think about moving to a warmer, drier climate.

Unfortunately, since everyone knew he'd turned down a job at Harvard, people assumed he meant to stay at Berkeley forever. We put out feelers for something called the Herman Kahn Chair at Arizona State University in Phoenix, where he'd been born, and UCLA's Business School expressed an interest. But in 1987 the San Diego campus of the University of California was creating a new School of International Relations and Pacific Studies with the intent of offering an M.A. that would combine business courses with Asian area studies and languages. It seemed like an interesting experiment and a good fit for Chal's interests and abilities.

When Chal began teaching at IR/PS in 1988 he was 57 and we assumed he'd probably work at least eight more years. But the state of California, then as now, was experiencing big budget deficits and the university was anxious to retire highly paid senior professors in order to replace them with cheaper, often temporary staff. So it was in 1992 that Chal took early retirement. His departure from IR/PS was acrimonious because by then it had also become clear that the bulk of the faculty was interested in studying Asia through the lens of a paradigm known as “rational choice theory.” Much like other theories that sweep through academic disciplines—structural-functionalism, behaviorism, Marxism—rational choice theory provided a template (and a vocabulary to go with it) to explain how nations function, whereas Chal (except perhaps for his flirtation with theory in Revolutionary Change ) always wanted to proceed inductively by beginning with the data on the ground.

He wrote several stinging and acerbic articles about trends in academic political science, and then—quite by accident—he was offered a chance to form a small “think-tank” in which to showcase what he considered good research on Asian societies. It was called the Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI), but for almost 12 years it published monthly papers concerning all of north and southeast Asia, held conferences open to the public, promoted and gave away books, and began to focus attention on much neglected policy issues.

On September 4, 1995, three American servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, provoking widespread anger and demonstrations on the island. Chal began to write extensively about the American bases on Okinawa, which had been there since the end of World War II, and the American “security” treaty with Japan. In late September of the following year he was invited by the island's governor to address members of his prefectural government and to tour the island. Never one to mince words, Chal also spoke at Tokyo's Foreign Correspondents' Club after his trip and said: “The American government is the rapist; the Japanese government is the pimp.”

Not only did he continue to write and lecture about Okinawa, but JPRI published and commissioned other scholars and journalists to write about the subject. By 1999 we had enough articles to publish a book: Okinawa: Cold War Island (currently out of print).

Chal also continued to write about economics, and the March 30, 1998 issue of U.S. News and World Report carried a small piece of his called “Enter the Dragon: Ten Reasons to Worry About Asia's Economic Crisis.” This article inspired the literary agent Sandra Dijkstra to contact Chal and ask whether he was thinking of writing a book. As a matter of fact, he was, having decided to distill his forty years of studying and teaching about China, Japan, and Korea into essays that would also reflect on the U.S.'s post-World War II policies in Asia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had acquired an empire but, Chal argued, so had we. After the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and many parts of the southern Soviet Union—Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan—declared their independence, while the U.S. maintained and even expanded its overseas military bases. Chal called his book Blowback (a term he'd first heard at the CIA) because he feared that there would be a time of reckoning for the U.S., as there had been for the Soviet Union.

In a note to the publicity department of his publisher about how they should market his next book, Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic , Chal wrote:

I wrote Blowback between 1997 and 1999, and it was published in March, 2000. In the summer of 2000, I signed another contract with Holt to write a new book, but at that time I conceived it as a book about Asia—particularly China, Japan, and Korea—and their relationships with the U.S. Blowback sold reasonably well throughout 2000 and the first part of 2001, but after 9/11 it suddenly began to jump off bookstore shelves. So I stopped and wrote a new, post-9/11 preface to Blowback and did a lot of journalism and radio interviews; and I found that I had quite a lot more to say on the whole subject of blowback and, more particularly, on how the American government was reacting to the threat of terrorism and al-Qaeda. I scrapped my earlier book outline and wrote a new one, and for the next fifteen months I worked like someone possessed on this new book.

Sorrows of Empire was published in January, 2004, and Chal gave many speeches and interviews that spring and summer in an effort to help defeat George W. Bush. When Bush was reelected and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan continued to take their human and economic toll, Chal determined to write still a third book in what was to become the Blowback Trilogy.

This time his tone was even more alarmist and he chose Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic as his title. He pulled together many of his analytical thoughts about empires—particularly the Roman and British ones—and predicted that the U.S. would have to choose between remaining a democratic society or becoming a military dictatorship.

Nemesis was published in January, 2007, and given Chal's increasing debility caused by his arthritis (he was by then often using a wheelchair) I did not think he would write another book. But he was reading so many others—Andrew Bacevich, Steven Coll, Tim Shorock—that he continued to produce a steady stream of op-eds, articles, and reviews. By the spring of 2009, Tom Engelhardt, the editor of the Blowback Trilogy, suggested that there were enough of these essays and book reviews to collect in a small volume. The three of us read through them and Tom, with his usual talent for finding a path through the underbrush, found the common thread.

Tom also wanted Chal to write a new concluding essay, but by 2009 this was no longer an option. Chal was tired and ill. He still avidly followed the news, but the kind of sustained work in his study that he'd kept up for more than fifty years was simply beyond his strength. By the time Dismantling the Empire was published in April of 2010, Chal could barely move or sign his name. And in September even that became impossible. We had decided some time earlier that more hospital stays were not what we wanted, and so on September 15, 2010, he entered hospice care. A hospital bed was delivered to our family room, overlooking our garden and the Pacific Ocean that had played such an important role in his life. Friends could visit, we watched the TV news every evening, and our cat Seiji (successor to Miti and Mof) slept at his feet.

As his life slowly ebbed Chal often said in great agitation, “I don't know what to do,” and I always replied, “You don't have to do anything. Just take it easy,” or “You've ‘done' enough.” Toward the end he changed this to “I can't do it anymore.” I wasn't sure by then whether he was talking about the intellectual tasks he'd always set himself or about life itself. He was a formidable—I'm tempted to say—driven man. After his death I received a letter from someone who had known him in high school who said much the same thing. “I always admired Chal's ability to really focus in on an interest. I hate to use the word, but it bordered on zealotry. An example was his ‘passion' for collecting streetcar and bus transfer slips. As I recall, they were colorful and contained a lot of information about the routes.” I had to laugh when I read this and I offer it as a piece of advice to parents who may have similarly focused kids: don't worry if they're memorizing baseball statistics. It may lead to something much more important.

Sheila K. Johnson , Ph.D., is the author of The Japanese through American Eyes (Stanford University Press) and Idle Haven: Community Building Among the Working-Class Retired (University of California Press). She has served as editor at JPRI since 1994.

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