John M. Maki


Name John M. Maki
Born April 19 1909
Died December 7 2006
Birth Location Tacoma, WA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

John M. Maki, a pioneering Nisei journalist, teacher, and author, worked with the Office of War Information as a Japan specialist during World War II and published a popular book on Japan.

An Unusual Nisei Upbringing

John Maki was born Hiroo Sugiyama in Tacoma, Washington. His Japanese immigrant parents, burdened by other small children, lacked the resources to care for him. Thus, while still an infant, he was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander McGilvrey, a white couple of Scottish ancestry, and in 1918 they legally adopted him under the name of John McGilvrey. Although John (universally known as "Jack") continued to see his birth family sporadically, he later stated that he enjoyed a typical mainstream American upbringing, and had little contact with Japanese communities. In 1928, the young McGilvrey enrolled at University of Washington, and earned a degree with honors in English literature in 1932.

Although the Depression was at its height by this time, Jack managed to find a job working as writer and editor for the Seattle Nisei weekly Japanese American Courier, and contributed stories and poems to other Nisei newspapers. Through his journalistic work, he came into regular contact with Nisei for the first time. In 1935 he joined his friend and fellow Courier columnist Bill Hosokawa at a Japanese student conference in Oregon. There he met Mary Yasumura, daughter of a Seattle Nikkei family, whom he married soon after.

In the mid-1930s, Jack began graduate school in English at UW. However, school officials bluntly advised him that as a Nisei he would never be able to get a job in English, and offered him instead a fellowship in Oriental Studies funded by the Japanese government. Although he spoke little Japanese and had no experience with Asian civilizations, he nonetheless agreed. With the help of the Yasumura family, Jack began to study Japanese language, and he changed his last name to "Maki" to make himself more credible as an Asianist. In 1937, Maki and his wife began a two-year residence in Tokyo, where he studied Japanese history and literature. After two years, he was able to read Japanese without difficulty, though his spoken Japanese remained heavily accented and imperfect. Upon his return to Seattle in 1939, Maki was named lecturer in Oriental Studies at UW.

Wartime Japan Specialist

Maki's life changed radically after Pearl Harbor. His wife's father was interned in Montana. He himself had to get a special permit to attend his adoptive father's funeral. Maki was recruited by Audrey Menefee, wife of his friend and former classmate Selden Menefee, to work under her direction as a Japan specialist at the Federal Communications Commission, but he was unable to get a security clearance to take the job immediately. In May 1942, Maki was incarcerated with his wife and her family at Puyallup. One month later, however, the approval for the FCC job came through, and Maki and his wife were permitted to leave the assembly center and move to Washington DC. Following his arrival, Maki was assigned to analyze translated Japanese propaganda materials for the FCC's Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. In June 1943, he switched to the Japan desk of the Office of War Information, headed by his former UW colleague George Taylor, where he analyzed Japanese radio broadcasts and put together directives and scripts for shortwave news broadcasts to Japan.

While at the OWI, Maki spent his off hours writing a book, in preparation for the postwar American occupation. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in May 1945 under the title Japanese Militarism: Its Cause and Cure, it was the first-ever book by a West Coast Nisei produced by a mainstream press. In its pages, Maki undertook a historical analysis of Japanese development. He concluded that militarism was not imposed on the Japanese people; rather, it was so deeply ingrained in Japan's culture that democratization would require revolutionary change. In one notable passage, Maki stated that the Emperor was a bulwark of militarism, and the ideal solution would be for an internal movement in Japanese society to arise for his removal. Yet Maki stated that having the occupying powers execute the emperor would be a tragic error, and he prophetically recommended transforming the Emperor into a vessel for democracy by having him mix directly with his people. The book was widely reviewed in the mainstream press. The Washington Post praised Maki's work as "a brilliant and timely survey." The New York Times critic agreed that the book was "scholarly and informative" but complained that the writing was "monstrously dull." The book sold out its initial 5000-copy run.

Postwar Academic Career

Once World War II ended, the OWI dissolved. Maki was transferred to the Department of State, but continued his same assignment of analyzing Japanese broadcasts. He soon applied to the American Army forces for work in the occupation of Japan. In early 1946, Maki was sent to Japan for work under the American occupation. He later recalled that it took him so long to get from the United States to Japan that he was not present to work on drafting the new Japanese constitution. Instead, he toured Japan's government agencies and reported on the surviving administrative structure. After six months in Japan, he returned to the United States, and enrolled in doctoral studies at Harvard University. Some time after, he received word that Harvard's faculty would accept Japanese Militarism as equivalent to a thesis, once he added footnotes to the text! Thus, Maki was able to earn his doctorate in less than two years—thereby apparently becoming Harvard's first Nisei Ph.D.

Following graduation, Dr. Maki accepted a job as assistant professor of Asian Studies at University of Washington. During the following years, he became a leading expert on Japanese politics and constitutionalism. Among his contributions was the 1962 book Government and Politics in Japan. He also chaired the Faculty Senate. He and his wife raised two sons. In 1966, Maki was persuaded to accept a position directing the new Asian Studies program at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He remained there until retirement in 1980, and served as a vice dean. In the years that followed his retirement, he wrote A Yankee in Hokkaido, a biographical study of William S. Clark, founder of Hokkaido University and first president of the University of Massachusetts, and brokered a novel "sister" agreement between the two universities. For his services, he was decorated by the Emperor of Japan. He also brought out Devil's Harvest, a translation of a Japanese novel by Hiroyuki Agawa. In 2002, the nonagenarian Maki produced From Imperial Myth to Democracy, a cowritten study of Japan's constitutions. In 2004, he privately published a memoir, Voyage Through the Twentieth Century. Two years later, he was hospitalized after a fall at his home, and died some weeks afterwards.

Though he studied Japan professionally, and never denied his Japanese heritage, John M. Maki saw himself fundamentally as a mainstream American. Ironically, Maki's adoption by a white family and his lack of early connection to Japanese communities—which generally hindered his development as a Japanese specialist—may have actually worked in his favor, by reassuring government officials of his "Americanism" after Executive Order 9066. Despite his complex identity formation, he found many ways to build bridges between Japan and America.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Maki, John M. Voyage Through the Twentieth Century. Amherst, Mass.: Modern Memoirs Publishing, 2004.