Atsuko Hirai

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B.A., Tokyo University; Ph.D., Harvard University

I recently received a letter from one of this year’s Bates graduates who majored in history.  The letter is touching and may be of some interest to the readers of this page.  So here it is.

Dear Hirai Sensei,
I received your gift in the mail a few days ago, and I wanted to thank you for the book.  After Commencement, I tried to find you, so that my father could say hello . . . but I was unsuccessful. It was like finding the metaphorical needle in the hay stack.  And then I got swept up with the sorrow of . . . my friends going one way while I head for the other.  Ah, but I guess that is the nature of endings, and beginnings, since one cannot exist without the other.
I stand at a threshold, like looking down an unexplored path, and I can’t help but think that I only just got familiar with the path I have just finished walking. Familiar friends, teachers and areas of academic interest.  The only constant, however, is change, so I guess the unexplored must eventually be sought.  I hope to travel north at some point this summer . . . . Graduate school is in the not so distant future, so all that stuff needs to be done . . . . Once again, I thank you for your gift, the tangible one, and the many other gifts you have given me over the past few years.


Kevin addressed me as Hirai Sensei because this is how professors are addressed in Japan, because I am Japanese, and because he studied the Japanese language as well as East Asian history.  The gift he referred to is the ritual I have established for myself and students, whereby those who take three of my courses on Japan receive from me, upon their graduation, a memento of our work together at the College.

Kevin not only took three courses with me but also wrote his senior thesis on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 under my supervision.  I wanted him to understand the nature of imperialism by studying how Japan financed the war. (Actually, Japan took a loan from England to fight a war against Russia.) But Kevin was more interested in military history, and that was fine with me.  Thus I gave him an anthology of Chinese treatises on warfare.

Kevin’s father, Dr. Terrence Finn, once visited my seminar on World War II in the Pacific Theater when Kevin was taking it.  My revisionist perspective on the war did not sit well with Dr. Finn, so he and my class had a lively discussion.  I am sorry I missed an opportunity to say hello to him on Kevin’s graduation day.

One thing Kevin’s letter does not reveal is my passion for Europe’s classical music, especially opera.  I am an amateur musician, and I sing.  Occasionally, I give a concert accompanied, fantastically fortunately, by the well-known pianist, Frank Glazer.  On the day of my last concert, Kevin wished me good luck at the end of my class on modern Japan but declined to hear me sing!

People ask me why a graduate of Tokyo University and a Harvard Ph.D. in Government has ended up teaching Japanese history at a college in Maine. This is a cruel question, but Americans usually understand it when I tell them that there was a job at this college in Maine.  I am the first Kazushige and Marxism interested me most.

Presently, however, the focus of my work is on Japan.  I am studying the edicts on mourning that Japan’s various regimes issued from the early 17th century through the middle of the 19th.

P. S. Good luck to you, Kevin, when you seek an unexplored path.


  • East Asian Civilizations: Japan
  • The Emergence of Modern Japan
  • Japan Since 1945 Through Film and Fiction
  • World War II in the Pacific
  • Japanese-American Relocation Camps

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