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David Waterhouse receiving the Order of the Rising Sun from Consul-General of Japan Yasunori Nakayama in November, 2017.Courtesy of the Family/The Globe and Mail

Possessed of insatiable curiosity, David Waterhouse spent most of his 81 years learning as much as he could about everything that engaged him. Scholar and professor, trained pianist and organist, professional bagpipe player and black-belt judoka, Mr. Waterhouse seized every opportunity to absorb the new while incorporating the old. On a visit to Japan, he packed a map that was 30 years out of date. His Japanese wife, Naoko, wanted to know why. He told her: "It's useful to compare."

A voracious reader, Mr. Waterhouse lived in a home near Toronto that was overflowing with books and classical recordings. He kept journals and papers on a variety of subjects and corresponded so frequently with academics that when his young son, Yoshiki, was asked what his father did for a living, he replied, "He writes letters."

Yoshiki soon learned to avoid asking his father too many questions for fear of being given long and learned lectures. Even worse, his father would disappear into his vast library only to emerge with five or six books on a subject for Yoshiki to read. "And yet, before dinner, I could at random ask to hear music from say Tonga, and suddenly I would have five or six LP's from which to choose," he said.

Yoshiki fell asleep every night listening to his father playing challenging Chopin Études or Rachmaninoff Preludes. If there was no challenge, Mr. Waterhouse had little interest. A family friend said his tolerance for approximation or generalization was non-existent.

Earlier this year, before he died of cancer on Nov. 16 in Oakville, Mr. Waterhouse received the Order of the Rising Sun from Yasunori Nakayama, the Consul-General of Japan. It's the highest possible distinction for a non-Japanese person and was given to him in recognition of his years of scholarship and innumerable publications on Japanese art and music.

David Boyer Waterhouse was born on July 13, 1936, in Harrogate, Yorkshire. His father, Geoff, was an affable auctioneer and appraiser of antiques. His mother, the former May Boyer, kept house, raising first David and then his sister, Caroline. When he wasn't exploring the Yorkshire moors, David spent hours absorbing the contents of his grandfather's extensive library. David's formal education began at Grosvenor House in Harrogate before he was sent away to boarding school in Lancashire. A year ahead of other students his age, he described those days as miserable. He told his son about a compulsory sport called Rossall hockey played on a frigid beach where freezing outdoor latrines were called "the bogs."

Having begun piano lessons at the age of 4, he continued his musical training, earning his Licentiate at the Royal Academy of Music even as he completed national service in the Royal Air Force.

Brainy from the start, young David dreamed of attending the prestigious King's College in Cambridge. A full scholarship took him there in 1956. He pursued an ambitious three honours BAs, in Western Classics, moral sciences and Oriental art; disciplines that connected art, music, dance and philosophy from East to West. As if he wasn't busy enough as a freshman, a visiting Japanese judo master also sparked his interest in the martial art. Mr. Waterhouse began taking lessons, eventually working his way up to a fourth-degree black belt.

After getting a master's degree, he decided against pursuing a PhD at Cambridge in favour of making a living. In his free time, he would take bagpipe lessons because it was a difficult instrument from a country that interested him. For the next three years, Mr. Waterhouse worked in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. There he became an expert on Suzuki Harunobu, an 18th-century Japanese woodblock print artist. Later in life, he would publish a large book on Harunobu in collaboration with his son, Yoshiki, a well-known designer based in New York.

Having mastered Latin, classical Greek and classical Japanese (he knew only the most basic phrases in conversational Japanese), Mr. Waterhouse decided to pursue ethnomusicology. The single course on offer was at the University of Washington. Mr. Waterhouse moved there in 1959 as a research fellow, took lessons on the koto (a silk-stringed Japanese zither) and published many papers while working on Japanese art at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1966, he was invited to join the faculty at the University of Toronto. He accepted, teaching Asian Studies there for 40 years.

Challenge was a requisite to just about everything in Mr. Waterhouse's purview, including romance. In his mid-30s, he gave a lecture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art that flourished from the 17th to the 19th century.

Naoko Matsubara, a Fulbright scholar and renowned woodcut print artist, whose work was on exhibit at the museum, wasn't interested in going to the lecture until a friend said sake and sushi would be available afterward. Upon their introduction, a painfully shy Mr. Waterhouse told the artist, "I've seen your work and I like it very much." The couple married in a traditional ceremony performed by her father, the high priest of one of Kyoto's main temples. "My parents were not happy I was marrying a non-Japanese" Ms. Waterhouse said. "Luckily, my sister had married a German scientist so that made it a little easier."

Even before marrying the daughter of a Shinto priest, Mr. Waterhouse had an affinity with Buddhism. "I think it was because Buddhism considers ignorance to be a sin," Ms. Waterhouse said. As a professor Mr. Waterhouse taught courses on Zen Buddhism, but often remarked he had no interest in emptying the mind. He was interested in filling it up.

An enthusiastic eater who appreciated his wife's cooking skills, Mr. Waterhouse was equally respectful of her art. He only practiced his bagpipes when Ms. Waterhouse was working in a separate studio at the back of their home. She found classical bagpipes to be beautiful, but the marching variety irritated her. Her husband was skilled enough to perform numerous solo engagements in the United States, Japan and Toronto where he played 14 concerts with the Toronto Symphony. He was also in demand for weddings where he'd show up in full kilted regalia, no matter how hot the weather.

Yoshiki Waterhouse said of his parents that each was everything the other wasn't: "The art historian to the artist; a multifaceted if myopic man to a single-minded, if impatient woman, his study to her practice."

Mr. Waterhouse called music his first love, even though it was a part-time activity. "My father and I would listen to music to its conclusion, even if that meant sitting in the car with the engine off for 15 minutes after we returned home," Yoshiki said. "His stiff-upper lip prevented him from uttering something as sentimental as 'I love you,' but his great passion for music could reduce his rational mind to tears. This passion for reason and music were his greatest gifts to me."

Mr. Waterhouse leaves his wife, Naoko; son, Yoshiki; sister, Caroline; granddaughter, Aya; and two nephews.