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Early Life | Japan | Birth of Masterpieces | Hawaii | Japanese Pilgrimage | Later Life

Early Life

childhoodBorn on May 21, 1915, Oliver Hadley Statler was the only child of Mae (Hadley) and Dr. Oliver I. Statler. He grew up in Huntley, Illinois, a small dairy community of about 700 residents located approximately 50 miles northwest of Chicago and 15 miles from Elgin, Illinois. His father served the community as a physician and surgeon for over forty years.

Oliver H. Statler attended public schools in Huntley before graduating from Elgin Academy as an outstanding scholar and leader in his class. He was a member of the Cum Laude Honor Society and won an award for excellence in English, a gold medal for his ability as a debater and another gold medal as a speaker when he graduated from the Academy in 1932. He continued his education at the University of Chicago during the exciting years when Robert M. Hutchins was president. He became active in the Drama Club and participated in the production of plays including one in which George Orwell played the role of Hamlet. In 1936, Oliver received his BA degree from the university and began what was to be a life long relationship with his alma mater.

After graduating, he worked in the Business Department at the University of Chicago as an Assistant to the Bursar from 1937-1941 when he was called into the Army. He was inducted as a member of the Illinois National Guard, 33rd Infantry Division where he was quickly promoted to Master Sergeant and served from 1941-1945.


youthDuring World War II, he was stationed in the Pacific including New Guinea and the Philippines but was home on leave when the war ended. He requested return to his unit for duty in the Occupation of Japan but was discharged. The rest of his experiences are best described in Statler's own words:

gFeeling cheated because I had been denied a look at Japan, I took a civil service position with the Army in order to get there. I arrived in Yokohama in April 1947, very ignorant of Japan but at once fascinated by it. I remained with the Army as budget and fiscal administrator until December 1954, living and working in Yokohama and Tokyo. After retiring from the civil service, I remained in Japan for four more years to do research and writing.

Early in my stay I saw a small exhibition of contemporary Japanese prints, mostly woodblocks. I fell in love with them, came to know many of the artists, and began a collection which now numbers well over a thousand prints and is at the Art Institute of Chicago. My interest in these then quite unknown prints brought an invitation to read a paper on them before the Asiatic Society of Japan in Tokyo in February 1955.

Our mutual love of Japanese prints had led to a lasting friendship with James A. Michener. Michener recommended to Charles Tuttle that my paper be expanded into a book and the result was my first book, Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn (Tuttle, 1956). Later I did essays for books on individual artists including Koshiro Onchi, Kiyoshi Saito, Shiko Munakata, and Umetaro Azechi, and meanwhile served as art critic for the English-language Asahi Evening News.

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Birth of Masterpieces

(Statler's words continue)
During my first summer in Japan, in 1947, I had fled Yokohamafs heat by visiting the Minaguchi-ya, an inn on the old Tokaido Road between Tokyo and Kyoto. The first visit led to many more, to friendship with the family of the inn, and to learning something of their history. This initial exposure to the history of Japan was fanned by my enthusiasm for the Kabuki theater, many of whose plays are derived from historical incidents.

The Minaguchi-ya was four centuries old and had always been operated by one continuing family; since it lay on what could be called Japanfs main street, the Tokaido Road, much history passed before its gate and sometimes entered. Michener encouraged me to write the innfs story, and in 1958 I took home most of the manuscript for Japanese Inn (Random House, 1961), which I dedicated to Michener in acknowledgement of his friendship and help.

In 1961 I returned to Japan to live for two years at Shimoda, a port opened by Commodore M. C. Perryfs naval expedition of 1853-1854 and the site of the first U.S. Consulate in Japan. Here I wrote the text for The Black Ship Scroll (Weatherhill, 1963), which reproduces an anonymous Japanese artistfs saucy sketches of the Americans. And during this stay I accomplished much of the research for Shimoda Story (Random House, 1969), an account of the Japanese and the first U.S. Consul General and later Minister to Japan, Townsend Harris.

In 1976 I worked on scripts for the ambitious television series on Japanfs history and culture produced by a consortium called the University of Mid-America. The series was the brainchild of Professor Edwin O. Reischauer, who served as Senior Adviser; it was the backbone of a home-study course but was also intended to be of interest to the general viewer and useful in the classroom.

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(Statler's words continue)
I was invited to the University of Hawaii (in Honolulu) as a visiting professor in Asian Studies for the first six months of 1977; I taught a seminar on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. While in Honolulu I decided to move there. I had fond memories of the islands from a few months of training on Kauai during World War II, and Hawaii suits me very well as a place to live and work, being closer to Japan, both physically and culturally, than any other part of the U.S. Since 1977 I have been associated with the University of Hawaii as an Adjunct Professor and a Fellow in Asian Studies and have periodically taught courses in Japanese history.

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Japanese Pilgrimage

pilgrimage(Statler's words continue)
My interest in the Pilgrimage to the Eighty-eight Sacred Places of Shikoku dates from my first visit to Shikoku, in 1961. I first performed the 1000-mile circular pilgrimage in 1968. From 1969-1971 I lived on Shikoku in the city of Matsuyama in order to study and perform the pilgrimage, and in 1971 made the entire pilgrimage again. In 1973 I was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which permitted me to undertake a book about the pilgrimage. Japanese Pilgrimage was published in May 1983 by William Morrow & Company.

During the Japanese Academic year 1980-81, I was a visiting professor at Kobe College (Kobe Jogakuin), the old and prestigious womenfs college now located in Nishinomiya. During this year in Japan I worked with a Matsuyama film maker, Ueda Masakazu, to make an 8-mm film about the pilgrimage; the film was first shown at the 1983 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in San Francisco.h

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Later Life

In April 1983, Oliver Statler was invited to spend a month at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, where Professor Bardwell Smith asked him to teach the Shikoku Pilgrimage as one segment of his course on the Buddhist tradition. Then he spent the month of May on a book tour promoting Japanese Pilgrimage and traveling across the U.S. to speak to Japan-American societies in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Palm Beach, Houston, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. In 1983, 1984 and 1985 he led other groups, including University of Hawaii Study Abroad Course students. These tours were described as being ga deeply rewarding experience, physically, mentally, and spirituallyh by the participants.

statlerIn 1986 Oliver Statler returned to Japan and rented a small apartment a few minutes from the famous Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shrine. Here he began his research for what would be his final unfinished manuscript Dazaifu. As the reader can tell from Oliver Statlerfs description of his accomplishments, he was a modest man. His literary works appeared on bestseller lists and were book of the month club selections. They were translated into both European and Asian languages. He was also a respected art collector who bought not only for himself but selected purchases on behalf of James A. Michener. He helped make modern Japanese print artists known and popular. He also wrote numerous articles, film scripts, plays and lectured. Even though he did not consider himself a scholarly specialist on Japan, many others did. Perhaps the words of James A. Michener said it best: gOliver Statler knows more about Japan than any other living American and can write about it with great skill, as proved by his international success Japanese Innch

On February 14, 2002 Oliver Hadley Statler passed away. On Thursday, April 18, his ashes were taken out to sea on the ship gSea Verseh and were scattered off the coast of Waikiki in accordance with his wishes.

>> Obituary column "In Memoriam: Oliver Statler, 1915-2002 " by UHM Center for Japanese Studies

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