Jeffrey P. Mass, Yamato Ichihashi Professor of Japanese History at Stanford University, died on Friday March 30 in Palo Alto. Mass, 60, was the premier American scholar of medieval Japanese history, a mantle he inherited from his own mentor, John Whitney Hall, who passed away in 1997.
A specialist in the legal and institutional history of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), Professor Mass was regarded as the Western historian of pre-modern Japan with the most profound knowledge of the primary sources of the period. Indeed, his passion for documents was legendary. His own collection is the most extensive private library of primary sources outside of Japan. It was a passion that he passed on to a large cohort of graduate students. In fact, the field of Japanese medieval history is largely composed of Professor Mass's own students: Mikael Adolphson (Harvard), Bruce Batten (Obirin-Japan), Thomas Conlon (Bowdoin), Karl Friday (Georgia), Andrew Goble (Oregon), Thomas Keirstead (Indiana), Thomas Nelson (Oxford University), Joan Piggott (Cornell), and Hitomi Tonomura (Michigan). Mass was as proud of the success of his students as he was of his own scholarship.
Professor Mass was a native of New York City, born in Manhattan on June 29, 1940. He developed his interest in Japan, and more broadly East Asia, as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, from which he graduated in1962. He went on to receive an MA in East Asian History from New York University in 1965, and then entered the doctoral program at Yale University to work with Professor Hall. Like many future historians of Japan, Mass was deeply affected by Professor Hall's Government and Local Power in Japan, 500-1700: A Study Based On Bizen Province (Princeton, 1966), a work that convinced him to specialize in Japan's medieval history. While doing dissertation research in Japan at Tokyo University's Historiographical Institute, Mass became the first foreign researcher to study the reading of primary documents with Professor Seno Seiichiro. Mass owed a life-long debt to Professor Seno for helping to equip him with this most fundamental tool for research. After receiving his doctorate in 1971, Mass served as a Lecturer at Yale for a year before accepting a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University in 1973, where he was to spend his entire career.
As a Stanford faculty member, Mass produced 10 books on medieval Japan, six written outright and four edited. He wrote five volumes on the Kamakura period, a goal he set for himself early in his career, and which he was pleased to have met. Professor Mass's work fundamentally reshaped the study of pre-modern Japanese history outside Japan. He established the study of original sources--administrative documents, wills, land transfers, diaries, and the like--as the fundamental approach and demonstrated that non-Japanese could in fact master the challenging forms in which these sources were written. The focus on original sources made possible new interpretations, as scholars moved away from more literary sources and secondary works in Japanese to confront the documents themselves. As a result Mass and his students, and others influenced by his work, moved beyond an older approach that saw Japan's medieval era as fundamentally analogous to that of the West, demonstrating instead that Japanese history had a rhythm of its own.
Professor Mass urged his students to move beyond his own work and into different periods. His scholarly approach also demanded that all interpretations be questioned--even his own. Nothing better illustrates this attitude than the fact that his last book on the Kamakura Period was a rewriting of his first. His very first work, Warrior Government in Early Medieval Japan: A Study of the Kamakura Bakufu, Shugo, and Jito (Yale, 1974) already established Mass as the premier young scholar in the field. Good as this work was, Professor Mass saw that changing interpretations of the late twelfth century in Japan--indeed many of them the fruit of his own research and that of his students--made that work outdated, leading him to totally rewrite the book. Yoritomo and the Founding of the First Bakufu: The Origins of Dual Government in Japan was fittingly finished on the 800th anniversary of Yoritomo's death in 1999 and published by Stanford in 2000.
His other books on the Kamakura Period are The Kamakura Bakufu: A Study in Documents (Stanford, 1976); The Development of Kamakura Rule, 1180-1250 (Stanford, 1979); and Lordship and Inheritance in Early Medieval Japan: A Study of the Kamakura Soryo System (Stanford: 1989).
Professor Mass presided over several major academic conferences at Stanford and Oxford resulting in important edited volumes that have helped to shape approaches to the study of medieval Japan. The most recent of these was The Origins of Japan's Medieval World: Courtiers, Warriors, Clerics, and Peasants in the Fourteenth Century (Stanford, 1997). Professor Mass also contributed many articles to prestigious journals in Japanese studies, several of which formed the basis of his Antiquity and Anachronism in Japanese History (Stanford, 1992). His prodigious scholarly output was widely acclaimed in the historical profession and the field of Japanese studies, and Stanford recognized Professor Mass' excellence with the Yamato Ichihashi Chair in 1992.
While Professor Mass spent his entire American academic career at Stanford, his impact was much broader. From 1987 he was a Visiting Professor at Hertford College, Oxford University, travelling to England every year to teach in the late spring and summer. Shortly before his death, he was made an Honorary Fellow at Oxford in recognition of his important contribution to the development of medieval Japanese studies in Europe. Professor Mass was extremely proud of his two appointments at Stanford and Oxford and maintained a fierce loyalty to both institutions.
Like many American scholars of Japan, Professor Mass studied for a time at the Stanford Center for Japanese Studies in Tokyo, which later became the Inter-University Center for Advanced Japanese language Studies in Yokohama (IUC). Sponsored by a consortium of 16 American universities, its administration was coordinated by Stanford. Professor Mass had been Executive Director of the IUC since 1995, and he worked tirelessly to place this important academic training resource on a sound financial basis.
While teaching at Oxford, Professor Mass developed a keen interest in English coins, which turned into a passion. He attacked it with same intensity that he did Japanese scholarship, becoming a noted authority on coins of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a period that corresponded roughly to his beloved Kamakura Period. He was very pleased that, shortly before his death, he had completed his manuscript The J.P. Mass Collection of English Short Cross Coins, 1180-1247, volume 56 in Syllogy of Coins of the British Isles, which will be forthcoming soon from Oxford University Press and the British Academy.
Jeffrey Mass is survived by his wife of 18 years, Rosa, two daughters, Karen and Tara, both of New York, two stepsons, Joshua Waltzer of New York and Ben Waltzer of San Francisco, and a sister, Meredith (Merry) dePaolo of New Jersey. A memorial service for Professor Mass will be held at Memorial Church on the Stanford University campus on Monday April 16 at 9:30 AM.
G. Cameron Hurst III
University of Pennsylvania