Weekly Local Biography

  Ivan P. Hall

An 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 English.

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 professor!