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A Personal Tribute to Oliver Statler
by Michael Cooper


Oliver Statler, 87, died in Honolulu on February 14, 2002, and his funeral ceremony was held on March 17 at Koboji, a Shingon temple in the same city. In his eulogy the Buddhist priest, who had known Oliver well, noted with a smile that Statler Sensei had been a most ecumenical person, for he had died on St. Valentinefs Day and now his funeral service was taking place on St. Patrickfs Day. The remark was made humorously and yet contained a lot of truth as Oliver was ecumenical, not in the usual religious meaning of the word but in its sense of ggeneralh or guniversal.h For he was a most talented man of extraordinarily wide interests, in fact, I have met few people who can equal him in this respect.

What still surprises me is how quickly he could study and master a subject. He first arrived in Japan in April 1947, at the time gvery ignorant of Japan but at once fascinated by it,h as he later wrote, and that fascination would continue undiminished to the end of his life. Early in his stay he happened to see a small exhibition of contemporary Japanese prints, mostly woodblocks, and he gfell in love with them.h The result was a lecture on the subject delivered in Tokyo to the Asiatic Society of Japan in February 1955, and this was published later in the same year as a lengthy article titled gModern Japanese Creative Printsh in the academic journal Monumenta Nipponica; it featured fifty-seven illustrations and dealt in detail with the work of eight artists, some of whom the author appears to have known personally. Although Oliver does not say so explicitly, Munakata Shiko, 1905-1975, appears to have been his favorite, ga rebel among rebelsh and an gextraordinarily vitalh artist.

The remarkable feature of this accomplishment is that Oliver had not studied art for his University of Chicago degree, yet within eight years of his arrival in Japan he was able to produce scholarly and lengthy accounts of a subject little known and appreciated outside Japan. His interest in modern prints (he called them gcreative printsh for they were usually the work of just one man, whereas the better-known ukiyo-e were produced by a team of artists and artisans working together) lasted for the rest of his life, and he assembled a fine collection of modern prints which he placed on permanent loan at the Art Institute of Chicago. His first book, Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, appeared in 1956 and amply shows his scholarly familiarity with modern prints and their makers. Oliverfs expertise was widely recognized, and his services as lecturer and appraiser were much in demand.

Another of his interests had been acquired earlier, in fact in the first year of his stay in Japan, when by chance Oliver came across the long-established Minaguchi-ya inn, located on the old Tokaido route and facing Suruga Bay, and developed a lasting friendship with its owners and staff. From this association came the book that made him famous, the charming Japanese Inn, 1961. Written in his usual felicitous style, the book effortlessly blends fact and fiction, and cleverly using the inn as its focus, recounts episodes and personalities in Japanese history, from Tokugawa Ieyasu to the Showa emperor. Small wonder that the New York Times considered the book was gwritten with grace, charm, and zestful enthusiasm. . . profusely illustrated with Japanese wood-block prints.h

Then followed two years of research about the negotiations conducted with the Japanese authorities by the first U.S. Consul General, Townsend Harris, and this resulted in Shimoda Story, 1969.

Oliver first visited Shikoku in 1961 and twice made the famous 88-temple pilgrimage, in 1968 and 1971. Unlike some modern pilgrims, he insisted on doing the entire thousand-mile route on foot, a trek over mountainous terrain that took about two months to complete. I well remember his insistence on walking the whole way and his disapproval of those who now make the circuit by car or bus. A pilgrimage must be made on foot, he declared; gto my mind, riding travesties the pilgrimage.h And this rule was observed when he led groups of some twenty non-Japanese, clad in pilgrim robes, on a part of the traditional route.

Oliver recounts his experiences of the second complete pilgrimage in Japanese Pilgrimage, 1983, which, as in Japanese Inn, is delightfully illustrated by scores of well-chosen prints. He tells us his aim is gto fathom the meaning of the Shikoku pilgrimage,h and this he does very well, describing in the process not only famous people, such as Kobo Daishi and Emon Saburo, but also the ordinary folk he met and talked to during the walk and their reasons for undertaking the arduous venture. It is astonishing how this American, dressed in traditional pilgrim robes and carrying the obligatory wooden staff, was able to befriend others along the way, win their confidence, and listen to them as they told their life stories to the stranger.

This is not the place to recount all aspects of Oliverfs career - his other books and articles, his lectures on Japanese religion and the Shikoku pilgrimage, his travels throughout Japan - for a full account is provided elsewhere. But perhaps enough has been related here to show that he was truly an gecumenical man.h

I first met Oliver in the evening of January 19, 1970. This may appear to be an astonishing feat of memory on my part, but it really isn't. I remember talking to him after his lecture to the Asiatic Society of Japan in Tokyo, and a quick check of the Societyfs records shows that he spoke on gShimoda: Another Storyh that evening. I cannot say we were close friends, at least not at the beginning, but our friendship deepened as the years passed. During his visits to Japan he would invite me to breakfast with him at his business hotel near Tsukiji, and while in Tokyo he would attend one of the lengthy Saturday lunches benignly presided by Charlie Mitchell, the ukiyo-e expert, and aided by Fred Roach, the nagasaki-e specialist, in the bar at the lofty Foreign Correspondents Club. Visiting specialists in Japanese art were always welcome, and although I cannot claim to be an expert in any aspect of that subject, I was happy to belong to the weekly gathering.

Oliver moved to Hawaii in 1977 and I followed him when I retired from Sophia University, Tokyo, some twenty years later. From then on I was privileged to meet him quite often at art gatherings, symphony concerts, and receptions. I would sometimes visit him in his high-rise apartment and we would then head for lunch at the nearby French restaurant, Ducfs Bistro. When the proprietor was told of Mr. Statlerfs arrival, he would always bustle out of his kitchen to greet the honored guest personally. In time Oliverfs sight began to fade and so I would read to him the menu; this kind exercise was not really needed as he would invariably order his favorite lunch of local white fish; for myself, I usually chose the delicious duck. Oliver left his books and papers to the University of Hawaii library, and after his death half-a-dozen of us went to his apartment one day to begin the work of sorting and packing. When lunch time came we repaired to Ducfs Bistro and there, a little sadly, we toasted his memory.

Unhappily Oliverfs legs became progressively weaker and he had to use a walker to move around. One day in February 2000 he and I proceeded to Ducfs Bistro as usual and all went well on the way to the restaurant, but while returning to his apartment he began stumbling, his face turned gray, and he was obliged to sit down and rest on a bench. In view of his advanced age an ambulance was called and he was taken to the nearby Queenfs Medical Center, where the doctors found no serious problem but advised him to stay the night. This made Oliver extremely anxious, not about the state of his health but about the feeding arrangements of his two beloved cats, and so I was packed off to his apartment to see to their dinner and comfort them as best I could during his unscheduled absence.

From that time Oliver was confined to a wheelchair, and also had to use a TV-like machine which greatly enlarged on a screen anything he wished to read. Here was a man who had twice walked the thousand-mile Shikoku pilgrimage and was now tied to a wheelchair; here was a man who had been a voracious reader and had studied so much material for his books and lectures, and now had to use the clumsy machine to read even a line of type. And yet I never once heard Oliver complain about his misfortune.

But he did not allow this handicap to limit his activities, and he flew back to Japan to obtain illustrations for his book on Dazaifu; he had been working on this volume for many years, but, alas, he left it uncompleted. On his return to Honolulu, he told me he had gone to the famous Dazaifu shrine at Fukuoka and had been assured the photos would be mailed to him, but as far as I know, they never arrived in Honolulu, much to his disappointment.

There was yet another feature in Oliverfs life and that was his knowledgeable interest in films, and in former years he would often be seen attending the Movie Museum in Honolulu. His taste in films was broad (dare I say ecumenical ? ), from classics to comedy. One day toward the end of 2001, I was with him in his apartment, and he pointed to a shelf full of CDs, telling me he had all the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby gRoadh movies. He diffidently asked if I would sometime like to watch one or two with him, and I answered I certainly would enjoy it and promised to let him know when I would be free to visit him again. Alas, I postponed the visit too long, and so Oliver and I never watched those films together, and this is something I will always regret.


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