John F. Embree

Name John F. Embree
Born August 26 1908
Died December 22 1950
Birth Location New Haven, Connecticut

Anthropologist and head of the Community Analysis Section of the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Regarded as an expert on Japan and Japanese Americans, John Fee Embree (1908–50) authored the influential study Suye Mura, A Japanese Village , based on fieldwork in rural Kumamoto, Japan, and also did fieldwork amidst the Japanese American community in Kona, Hawai'i. Embree went on to become a key figure in establishing a program that placed professional social scientists in each of the WRA administered concentration camps for Japanese Americans.

Embree was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1908 to Edwin R. Embree and Kate Scott Clark, where his father worked at Yale University in a variety of positions. He attended the Lincoln School in New York and also traveled around the world, developing an interest in Asia. He began college at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but transferred to the University of Hawaii, where he graduated in 1931. He wrote for local publications in Hawai'i and married Ella Lury, who had grown up in Japan, in 1932. Deciding to pursue a career in anthropology, he took an M.A. at the University of Toronto in 1934 and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1937. [1]

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Embree decided to study a Japanese village, due in part to his interest in Japan and Asia and Ella's Japanese language abilities. John and Ella, along with their young daughter Clare, arrived in Japan in June of 1935 and visited twenty-one villages before settling on Suye, a rice-growing village consisting of 285 households in Kumamoto prefecture on the island of Kyūshu. The Embrees lived in the village from November 1935 to November 1936. [2] The resulting book, published as Suye Mura, A Japanese Village by the University of Chicago Press in 1939 was the first ethnographic study of Japan by a Westerner. The study gained even greater importance because of World War II, both because no other similar studies were possible for the time being and because the quest to "know one's enemy" sent academic, military, and government personnel flocking to it. As anthropologist Harumi Befu wrote in 1973, " Suye Mura quickly established itself as a classic and a standard reference which no student of Japanese anthropology could afford to ignore." [3] The book inspired numerous later studies of Suye by both Japanese and Western researchers and became a celebrated work in Japan after being translated in 1955. In 1985, the village threw an elaborate 50th anniversary commemoration of the book. [4]

In 1937, the Embrees moved back to Hawai'i, where John took a position at the University of Hawai'i, first as a research associate, then as assistant professor. He did fieldwork in the Japanese American community in Kona, on the island of Hawai'i and in 1941 published his research there as Acculturation among the Japanese of Kona, Hawaii . In 1941, he took a position at the University of Toronto when the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. and Japan into war.

As one of the foremost experts on "Japanese," Embree was in demand. After a brief stint doing intelligence work for the Office of the Coordinator of Information/Office of Strategic Services, he joined the War Relocation Authority as head of the Documents Section of the Office of Reports in Washington DC. Along with John Province , chief of the Community Management Division, he advocated for bringing in professional social scientists to aid in the smooth administration of the camps in which Japanese Americans were detained, an effort that was given a boost after the disturbances at Poston and Manzanar in the fall of 1942. Shortly after the Manzanar riot/uprising , Embree was given the authority to set up what was to become the Community Analysis Section (CAS). As head of the CAS, Embree hired and trained "community analysts"—nearly all of whom held Ph.D.s in either anthropology and sociology—assigned to every camp but Poston (a separate social science project, the Bureau of Sociological Research , was already established at Poston) as well two additional analysts and an assistant in the Washington, DC, office. He coordinated the work of the analysts, reviewed their reports and routed the information to appropriate people. As the CAS's expert on "Japanese," he also made a number of field visits and authored his own reports on important events in the camps. [5]

After six months heading the CAS, Embree resigned in August 1943 to take a position with Civil Affairs Military Training School at the University of Chicago, a school set up by the War Department to train personnel for the eventual occupation of Japan. He remained there until 1945, when he moved to the Office of War Information, where in worked in the psychological warfare program with many other anthropologists including Ruth Benedict, who would be strongly influenced by Embree's Japan field work. Anthropology historian David H. Price writes that Embree was critical of much of the work of anthropologists who had not worked in Japan—including some who based conclusions on the study of Japanese Americans as in the case of former Poston community analyst Weston LaBarre—finding their work one-dimensional and based in stereotypes and was frustrated when his own work was largely ignored by higher ups who found that the more simplistic analyses jived better with their own prejudices. [6]

Somehow, Embree also found the time to publish works on Japan for a general audience, including The Japanese (1943) for the Smithsonian Institution War Background Studies series and The Japanese Nation: A Social Survey (1945) for Farrar & Rinehart. [7]

After the war, he returned to the University of Hawai'i, but resigned in 1947 to pursue a growing interest in Southeast Asia, working as a cultural affairs officer for the State Department in Bangkok and Saigon. He moved to Yale in 1948 as an associate professor and director of the Southeast Asian Studies program.

On December 22, 1950, Embree and his daughter Clare, who was soon to turn seventeen, were killed while shopping for a Christmas tree in New Haven when they were hit by a car driven by a drunk driver. He was just forty-two years old. [8]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Eggan, Fred. "John Fee Embree, 1908–1950." American Anthropologist 53.3 (Jul.–Sept. 1951): 376–82.

John Embree Papers, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

Pelzel, John. "John Fee Embree, 1908–1950." Far Eastern Quarterly 11.2 (Feb. 1952): 219–25.

Price, David H. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. "John Fee Embree, 26 August, 1908–22 December, 1950." Man 51 (Oct. 1951): 138–39.

Smith, Robert J., and Ella Lury Wiswell. The Women of Suye Mura . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Wiswell, Ella L., and Robert J. Smith. "Suye Mura Fifty Years Later and Postscript." American Ethnologist 15.2 (May 1988): 369–84.

Embree, John Fee. Suye Mura, A Japanese Village . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939.

———. Acculturation among the Japanese of Kona, Hawaii." Menasha, Wis.: The American Anthropological Association, 1941.

———. "Dealing with Japanese-Americans." Applied Anthropology 2.2 (1943): 37–41.

———. "The Relocation of Persons of Japanese Ancestry: Some Causes and Effects." Journal of the Washington Academy of Science 33.8 (1943): 238–42.

———. "Resistance to Freedom: An Administrative Problem." Applied Anthropology 2.4 (1943): 10–14.

———. "Community Analysis: An Example of Anthropology in Government." American Anthropologist 46.3 (1944): 277–91.


  1. Fred Eggan, "John Fee Embree, 1908–1950," American Anthropologist 53.3 (Jul.–Sept. 1951): 376–82; John Pelzel, "John Fee Embree, 1908–1950," Far Eastern Quarterly 11.2 (Feb. 1952): 219–25.
  2. Due to the difficult living conditions at Suye, Ella later decided to leave Clare with her parents in Tokyo, while she and John completed their fieldwork. Ella L. Wiswell, and Robert J. Smith, "Suye Mura Fifty Years Later and Postscript," American Ethnologist 15.2 (May 1988), 370.
  3. Harumi Befu, Review of Hembō Suru Sue Mura: Shakai Bunka Henka no Kisoteki Kenkyū , American Anthropologist 75.2 (Apr. 1973), 455.
  4. Wiswell and Smith, "Suye Mura Fifty Years Later," 369–84.
  5. John Fee Embrey, "Community Analysis: An Example of Anthropology in Government," American Anthropologist 46.3 (1944): 277–91; Yuji Ichioka, "JERS Revisited: Introduction," in Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study , edited by Yuji Ichioka (Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989): 3-27; Alexander H. Leighton, The Governing of Men: General Principles and Recommendations Based on Experience at a Japanese Relocation Camp (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1945); Edward H. Spicer, "The Use of Social Scientists by the War Relocation Authority," Applied Anthropology 5.2 (Spring 1946): 17-36; Peter T. Suzuki, "Anthropologists in the Wartime Camps for Japanese Americans: A Documentary Study," Dialectical Anthropology 6.1 (Aug. 1981): 23-60.
  6. David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008), 174–75. See also Price's earlier book, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 171–72.
  7. According to Price, the Smithsonian publication was a public version of a March 19, 1942 report Embree had written for the Office of Coordinator of Information titled "Social Relations in Japan." Price, Anthropological Intelligence , 233–34.
  8. "Prof. Embree of Yale and Daughter Killed," New York Times , Dec. 23, 1950, 16.

Last updated Jan. 4, 2024, 1:11 a.m..