In Memoriam, Dr. Agnes M. Niyekawa

We were saddened to learn that Dr. Agnes M. Niyekawa passed away this past May 4, 2012, at the age of 87. She was born in Tokyo, and being the daughter of a diplomat, she lived in various places around the world, but closest to her heart (and accent!) was Vienna, where she spent most of her childhood.

Agnes earned her B.A. in English from Tokyo Women’s University in 1945, a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Hawai‘i in 1952, an M.A. in Psychology from Bryn Mawr in 1954, and a Ph.D. in Psychology from New York University in 1960.  Throughout the 1960s she did further post-doctoral training in the field of Linguistics at NYU, Columbia University, the University of Washington, and MIT, focusing on sociolinguistics, especially language learning, and the use of honorifics.

Following various teaching positions on the East Coast, she came to Hawai‘i for a stint as an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology (1964-67), then returned permanently in 1971, first as a Professor of Human Development, and then, from 1973, as a Professor of Japanese in the Department of East Asian Languages, where she also served as Department Chair from 1973-81.  During that time, she brought about sweeping changes in the department’s approach to language teaching.  From that time, at the university level she was also a key player in the establishment of the Japan Studies Endowment Committee, set up to administer proceeds from the $1,000,000 endowment UH received from the Japanese Government in 1972 for the support of Japanese Studies.  She continued serving on that committee well into the 1980s.

Agnes published extensively on topics ranging from Japanese language education, the psychology of authoritarianism, code-switching in Japanese TV dramas, and bilingualism.  Many of her works show her overlapping interest in the two fields of psychology and linguistics, which marks her as something of a pioneer in the emerging field of sociolinguistics.  Her best-known work is probably Minimum Essential Politeness: A Guide to Japanese Honorific Language (Kodansha International, 1991).  Agnes was also well-known for her pure “Taishō era Japanese,” presumably a product of her upbringing in diplomatic circles.  A visiting Japanese colleague once came out of a meeting with her wearing a happy smile.  He said he felt refreshed hearing such elegant Japanese.  She retired from UH in 1991, staying on part-time for three more years until 1995.

A dedicated member of FRAUHM (Faculty Retirees Association for the Universityof Hawai‘i at Mānoa), Agnes was active in several community organizations, especially the Austrian Association of Hawai‘i.  A good friend of Dr. Genshitsu Sen, she also attended many Urasenke tea events.  In 1998 she was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette by the Japanese Government.

Those of us who knew her will remember her bright smile, her enormous energy, her high standards, and her great intelligence.  The University of Hawai‘i is a better place for her having served here, and we in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, and the Center for Japanese Studies, are grateful for what she did to make us what we are.  We will miss her.

Those of you who knew Agnes well will perhaps chuckle to know that a year ago she wrote her own obituary, which we reproduce here with the permission of her children.  (She left the date blank in the original, of course!):

Agnes Mitsue Niyekawa died on May 4, 2012 in Honolulu. She was 87. Born in Tokyo the daughter of a diplomat, she spent her infancy in Indonesia, childhood in Vienna, Austria and Beijing for half a year before the war between Japan and China intensified. She lived in Tokyo for the duration of World War II. She was the first post-war student from Japan at the University of  Hawai‘i, known as “the Japanese with a German accent.” After receiving her Ph.D. in Psychology from New York University, she studied linguistics as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia, M.I.T. and Harvard universities and became a psycholinguist. She returned to Hawaii in 1964 as a faculty member at UH in Educational Psychology, eventually serving eight years as chairman of the East Asian Languages Department. She taught as Visiting Professor at Tokyo University as well as at University of Vienna. In 1998 she was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette (Zuihosho Yonto [4th class]), from the Japanese government. She is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in America as well as Who’s Who in the World since 2009. Her autobiography is planned for digital publication.

She is survived by her son Erik Calogeras, daughter Meagan Karen Calogeras, brother Yoshiyuki Niyekawa inYokohama, and nephew Guo Yun (grandson of Guo Moruo of the People’s Republic of China) in Tokyo.

A memorial service will be held next year by the Willed Body Program of UH John A. Burns School of Medicine. Donation appreciated to Chamber Music Hawaii, Hawaii Public Radio or Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.