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Renowned Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson dies at 79

Chalmers Johnson, a leading Asia scholar who was known for his staunch criticism of American imperialism, died Nov. 20.
Chalmers Johnson, a leading Asia scholar who was known for his staunch criticism of American imperialism, died Nov. 20. (Courtesy Of University Of California At San Diego)
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By T. Rees Shapiro Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 10:13 PM

Chalmers Johnson, 79, a renowned Asia scholar and expert on the economies of China and Japan who later became a fierce critic of the expanded role of the American military in U.S. foreign policy, died Nov. 20 at his home in Cardiff, Calif. He had complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

According to Ellis Krauss, a colleague at the University of California at San Diego, Dr. Johnson was one of the eminent American scholars on the economies and political environments of China and Japan, about which he wrote "seminal, absolutely groundbreaking, influential books."

On China, Krauss said, Dr. Johnson went against the academic establishment by writing that the proliferation of Communism was not an ideological movement but one founded in nationalism.

"It violated people's notions of the Cold War and that Communism was driven by people who followed it ideologically," Krauss said. "That may have been true of the more intellectual people but he was trying to show that ordinary people might follow Communism in China for other reasons as well."

In his research on Japan, Dr. Johnson was one of the earliest observers to identify variations in the U.S. and Japanese capitalistic market economies.

Krauss said Dr. Johnson claimed that Japan was a "developmental state" where "the government played a leading role in promoting growth" to gain an economic advantage over other countries, including "a highly successful challenge to American economic supremacy."

Dr. Johnson's interest in Asia began in 1953, after he graduated with an economics degree from the University of California at Berkeley and became an officer in the Navy aboard a landing ship tank, a shallow-bottomed cargo vessel.

During his wartime service, Dr. Johnson's ship ferried North Korean prisoners back across the demarcation line but often experienced mechanical trouble and was sent to Yokohama, Japan, for repairs.

While waiting for the vessel to be fixed, Dr. Johnson bided his time by learning Japanese and examining the country's culture, economy and longtime turbulent relationship with China.

When he returned to Berkeley in 1955, Dr. Johnson began studying political science and immersed himself in texts related to Asia. For his doctoral thesis, Dr. Johnson explored the rise of the Communist party in China, which he claimed was rooted in a contagious zeitgeist of nationalism shared among much of the country's poor.

To illustrate his point, he compared the rise of Communism in China to that of Yugoslavia shortly after the Germans invaded that eastern European country in World War II, where many peasants became fervently nationalistic and mobilized under the Yugoslav Communist party leadership.

He received a doctorate in 1961 and embarked on a year-long Ford Foundation fellowship in Tokyo. During that time, he revised his thesis and in 1962 it was released as a book - "Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945," - the same year he joined the Berkeley political science faculty.


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