Takie Sugiyama Lebra

February 6, 1930–May 26, 2017

Takie Sugiyama Lebra died in Honolulu on May 26, 2017, following a lengthy illness. She was born on February 6, 1930, in a rural village in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. She attended Tsuda College in Tokyo (1951), Gakushuin University in Tokyo (BA, Political Science, 1954), and the University of Pittsburgh (MA, Political Science, 1960; PhD, Sociology, 1967). Her husband, anthropologist William P. Lebra, died in 1986, and she has no survivors.

Lebra was based at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i from 1971 until her retirement in 1996. She was a popular teacher; her principal course attracted many students, especially from Japanese Studies. Over the course of her career, she also held visiting positions at the University of Washington, University of Michigan, Oxford Brookes University, Harvard University, and National University of Singapore. In addition to a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, she received awards from Fulbright Council for International Exchange, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Japan Foundation Research Fellowship, and Joint Committee on Japanese Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. She served on the boards for the Society for Psychological Anthropology, US-Japan Women’s Journal, and Journal of Japanese Studies.

Lebra’s contributions to the anthropology of Japan are regarded as foundational. Japanese Patterns of Behavior (1976) provided non-Japanese with an insider’s perspective on Japanese culture, derived from direct observation and analysis. Japanese Women: Constraint and Fulfillment (1984) was the first monograph to detail Japanese women’s lives. Above the Clouds: Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility (1993; Hiromi Arisawa Memorial Award) broke new ground by shifting anthropological study from its focus on commoners to the highest elite. Her books have sold more than 66,000 copies to date.

Throughout her career, Lebra was committed to explaining human behavior at both the cultural and individual levels. Her own life took radical and sometimes tumultuous turns, as she explained frankly in the introduction to a collection of her articles titled Identity, Gender, and Status in Japan (2007). She was born into militarism and its indoctrination, her birth coinciding with the advent of what in Japan is known as the fifteen-year war (1930–1945). Along with many others, she was “simply stunned, stupefied” at hearing Emperor Hirohito’s actual voice announcing defeat. Those emotions devolved into anger, existential devastation, and political activism. While still searching for ideological grounding, she received an unexpected opportunity to study in the United States. There she became immersed in new ideas, new people, and new possibilities, gaining perspective on her own culture, which became the impetus for her lifelong inquiry.

Takie Lebra will be remembered for her feistiness that combined probing intellect with humor. For her many students and colleagues, she demonstrated that the life of the mind should never forget the body, that we are driven as whole creatures that embrace emotions, relationships, institutions, and ideas. She taught that we are only and always too human, and in the end, that may be enough. (Christine Yano)

Cite as: Yano, Christine. 2017. “Takie Sugiyama Lebra.” Anthropology News website, July 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.518

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