interesting American whose business card reads Japan Historian
and Author has recently arrived in Chiang Mai after a spell of
teaching Modern Japanese History to the Chinese in Beijing. Turn
over the card and there are brief synopses of three books he has
written, with one garnering the award as one of the ten best
business books of the year from Business Week. It was obvious
from the outset that this was no ordinary historian!
Ivan Hall was probably destined to become an
international. Even his birth had portents of what was to come
– he was born in Sofia in Bulgaria, the city where his
American as apple pie parents were working at the American
College, his father being Dean. And when I say his parents were
American, that is no exaggeration – his mother being able to
trace her ancestry back to their forebears who arrived in 1638
and was one of the two founders of Newhaven! This meant that
Ivan was born with dual citizenship, but by statute he would
have to make up his mind which one he wished to keep at age 18,
but more on that later!
He stayed in Bulgaria until he was seven
years old, attending a German school for two years, giving him a
basic grounding in that language. However, around this time a
certain Mr. Hitler was rising in Germany and Ivan’s father
felt they should return to the US, which they accomplished, just
before WW II broke out.
Hall Senior decided to settle in Idaho, which
Ivan described as being another cultural divide. “I showed up
for school on that first day wearing short trousers (the norm
for Europe), and was laughed out of school. I had to go home and
get into corduroys.”
He moved on to a private senior school
(Groton) run on English Prep. School lines and again on his
first day he was dressed politically incorrectly! Grey flannels
were de rigeur at establishments such as this. Corduroys were
for farm boys from Idaho! However, Groton did give him six years
of Latin, French and German, which was going to be a critical
factor in his later life.
As his 18th birthday came up, he went along
to register for the draft, but it was more of a joke than
anything else, thought Ivan and his compatriots. “Nobody
foresaw another conventional war, and ten days later North Korea
marched into South Korea,” said Ivan.
Ivan also had the question of citizenship to
resolve. “We were in the middle of the Korean war, so I had no
problem in making the decision.” America was an easy winner!
With his draft deferred to allow him to
complete his tertiary education at Princeton, where he took a
B.A. in European History, he had no sooner doffed his mortar
board when the US Army had basic training waiting for him. While
this was taking up his life, he heard an announcement over the
PA system looking for draftees with German language experience.
He had spoken it for two years as a boy, and had classroom
lessons for another six. With that behind him, Military
Intelligence picked him up for him to serve his draft as a
German interpreter in northern Bavaria close to the Czech and
East German borders. Ivan enjoyed the strong cultural component
of his work, and when his enlistment was over, looked to what he
could do to stay in Germany.
It was then that he remembered that the
Groton School had an associated school in Germany which very
happily took the 24 year old as an instructor in History and
After two years it was time to move on, but
by now Ivan knew that he enjoyed the cultural interchange that
working overseas could give him, and he joined the US
Information Service, the cultural and international wing of the
US Foreign Service, after taking an M.A. in International
Relations at the Fletcher School in the US.
The government then sent him to Kabul in
Afghanistan, and Ivan having arrived there immediately wanted to
be sent back to Munich! However, he was stuck there in the
region for the next three years, also spending time in Dacca
(which was then East Pakistan).
By now Ivan was set in his direction, which
was towards East Asian studies and he returned to the US to go
to Harvard to study East Asian History, finally ending up as a
teaching fellow there and taking his doctorate in Japanese
History in 1969.
Once again he entered government service as
the Associate Executive Director and Japan Representative for
the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, liaising with
Japanese bureaucracy while helping develop courses in Japanese
studies in American universities. The concept was that Japan
would foster reciprocal courses on contemporary American studies
at their universities, but this was not to be. In fact, Ivan
found great resistance to this. He left the Commission in 1984.
I asked Ivan how did he personally manage to
contain his frustrations working with unsympathetic government
organizations to which he replied, “You can stay afloat when
you have support from your own bosses and embassies. Otherwise
go back home!” He also had another more positive way of
letting his frustrations out, and that was by writing about
them. That spawned his award winning book “Cartels of the
Mind”, an expose of barriers to foreign participation in
Japan’s academic, media and legal institutions. This he wrote
while employed as a professor at many universities in Japan over
the next 20 years.
Now in his early 70’s, Ivan is looking at
academic teaching for six months every year and writing for the
other half year. “Have lectures, will travel for food,” he
joked. He is also looking to settle in Chiang Mai, finding
Thailand very central to his geographic areas of interest.
In between lectures he would like to travel on the
Trans-Siberian Railway and go sightseeing – “I’m a
cathedral buff,” said our very interesting international