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John Howes

Scholar. Teacher. Railway enthusiast. Good Samaritan. Born June 19, 1924 in Chicago; died Feb. 4, 2017 in Vancouver, of old age at 92.

When a 22-year-old U.S. Navy officer set foot on a Yokohama wharf on Jan. 1, 1947, no one could have foretold this as a pivotal step in Canada-Japan relations. But for decades, John Howes shaped Canada's modern view of Japan, mainly through the eyes of thousands of University of British Columbia students.

Fresh out of U.S. Navy language school, John was sent to Tokyo to join General Macarthur's postwar occupation. But where most occupiers shunned "fraternization," John plunged headlong into the chaos of a city still bombed flat and hungry. What began as abstract study of "the enemy language" suddenly became his passport to befriending people wherever he went. And that experience struck two deep chords in his soul.

Born to a mother whose family had been missionaries in India since the mid-1800s, he was a compulsive do-gooder. So any spare moment was soon devoted to random acts of kindness, helping Tokyo's many hungry and homeless. Years later, he also connected Hiroshima A-bomb victims with New York's top plastic surgeons. That was never forgotten: In Japan there is no gaijin, or foreigner, who commands more respect than one who spontaneously helped people through the nation's worst time.

John also fell passionately in love with Japan's rail network, already a marvel even before its massive postwar expansion. As the son of a railroad civil engineer, he came by this honestly – and even at age 90 no present from Japan delighted him more than the latest Jikokuhyo, the phonebook-thick nationwide timetable.

In 1980, I was a callow UBC undergrad in Asian Studies with zero interest in Japan – as I saw it, a land of grey-suited dullards. But the only course to fit a hole in my schedule was Professor Howes's first-year survey of Japanese History.

John was by then the grand old man of UBC Asian Studies, having joined the department at its inception in 1961. Before getting his PhD from Columbia, he'd returned to Japan in 1949 as the first postwar grad student at the University of Tokyo, where he began a lifetime study of the 19th-century Christian intellectuals who precipitated the most profound reordering of Japanese thought in millennia.

But from the first lecture in a crowded hall, John Howes held my rapt attention. More than just a brilliant lecturer, with personal anecdotes that shone light into the Japanese soul, John was that rare prof happy to devote his time to any undergrad. We discovered a mutual love of trains and thus began a four-decade mentor/friendship that's left me living in a Japanese forest and writing about the country.

Not that my experience was unique. John kept in touch with scores of former students who went on to play prominent roles in Canada-Japan relations: diplomats, businesspeople, journalists and academics.

Happily, in 2005 we were able to honour John's profound contribution to our lives, writing in support of his successful nomination for the American Historical Association's Roelker Award for teaching excellence. In 2003, Japan's emperor needed no such persuasion, conferring on John the Order of the Rising Sun, one of Japan's highest civilian honors.

John R. Harris is a former student of John F. Howes.

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