At the end of his teaching career, John C. Campbell, was not only regarded as an exceptional scholar of government policy and international relations with Japan, but as an exceptional mentor, too. Campbell had a rare talent for understanding and empathizing with the hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students he advised and instructed. Campbell’s own passion for Japan had unexpectedly blossomed into an academic career even though he had struggled as an undergraduate.

When he landed at Columbia College in 1957, Campbell was far more interested in music than anything inside the classroom. He worked for the campus radio station, WKCR, and immersed himself in the city’s jazz scene. “I didn’t study very much, and I had a lousy record in my freshman year,” he says. “After a discussion with my father, I left school and went into the army.” 

Remembering how much he enjoyed working in campus radio, Campbell specialized in journalism. He hoped to be stationed in Germany, but the army had other plans. In December 1959, Campbell started working for the armed forces radio service—but instead of Europe, he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. 

“I started out being the all-night disc jockey, which was exciting in its way,” Campbell says. “And then there’s the life of the soldier, going to bars and hanging out and so forth.”

Though he never did more than “perfectly average tourist things,” something about Japan enchanted him. Still, when Campbell returned to the States and started over at Columbia, Japan seemed like an interesting interlude rather than a first step toward a career.

Except he needed to fill a language requirement, and he’d flunked out of German during his first college try. “I thought, ‘Well, I know about 10 words of Japanese, so I might as well do that,’” he recalls. “I had to work really hard on it, harder than other people because I’m lousy at languages. I kept at it, and I wound up taking four years of Japanese. I got more and more interested as I went along.” 

In addition to the language, Campbell piled on courses in Japanese history and politics. As he prepared to graduate in 1965, his advisor encouraged him to pursue a fellowship to study Japanese in the country. What followed would shape the rest of Campbell’s life.

The Tokyo Graduate 

In 1962 Campbell married, and he and his wife Ruth welcomed their first child in July 1965. Two months later, the couple packed up their infant and traveled more than 6,000 miles to a suburb outside Tokyo. 

Campbell was enrolled at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, and while he found the coursework challenging, living in Japan was just as exciting as it had been during his army days. Ruth fell in love with it, too.  

“We spent a very good year in Japan, all three of us,” Campbell says. “That, in a way, was the formative thing. Both of us liked being there so much, even though I was not having an easy time in school.”

Despite his difficult coursework , Campbell began to seriously consider a career as an academic. He applied to Columbia University, this time to begin his Ph.D.

Because he had a solid background in Japanese studies, he focused more on political science. And as he was preparing his dissertation, one of his final courses introduced him to a book called The Politics of the Budgetary Process. Suddenly, all of the twists and turns in his education made sense.

“That was really what interested me, understanding how the government decides to do things and what explains what they’re doing,” Campbell says. In the middle of the class, he wondered if the American budgetary model could also apply to Japan.

It was the perfect project, melding Campbell’s passion for politics and Japanese politics. It was even an opportunity to dabble in journalism, since he had to spend hours interviewing Japanese bureaucrats, officials, and politicians as he did research in the field. 

“Nobody had ever thought of doing anything like that on Japan,” Campbell says. “It was the right topic, and I was the right guy to do it.”

His dissertation was accepted for publication before he’d even defended it. It’s the kind of feather an academic longs to have in his or her cap—and Campbell was just getting started. 

The ‘Japan Guy’

As he was defending his dissertation, another unexpected opportunity appeared. In 1973, the University of Michigan was on the hunt for “a Japan guy,” as Campbell tells it. Michigan had a well-financed Japan studies program, and political science was an integral part of it. Campbell hadn’t been looking for a teaching position, but before long the job was his.

Japan had begun to emerge as a global economic superpower that was both admired and vilified in the United States. The relationship between the two countries was tense, but the American public was keen to learn more. Campbell spearheaded high-level conversations between industry leaders and academics to help organize the annual U.S.-Japan Auto Conference, a subject that was particularly sensitive in the Motor City. Campbell’s efforts eventually yielded an endowment that established the Toyota Visiting Professorship, and which continues to support the Center for Japan Studies’ core activities.

In his field, Campbell is known for his work on the politics of policy in Japan, but the impact of his work in the classroom is just as lasting. Campbell mentored students who became leading scholars, such as Sherry Martin, who rose through the U.S. State Department as a Japan specialist and research analyst. “When I finished graduate school,” Martin recalls, “he had made sure that I’d had an opportunity to meet pretty much every major established academic in Japanese politics. And it wasn’t just for me; this is something that he does with all of his students.”

Campbell was also determined to see his students achieve academic success. After moving easily through the early parts of his Ph.D. program, Dyron Dabney, the Director of Japan Study and Jackson Bailey Memorial Endowed Chair at Earlham College, got off track when his father unexpectedly passed away. Years passed and Dabney’s cohort moved on without him, but Campbell didn’t. In the summer of 2008, 16 years after they began working together, Campbell invited Dabney to Japan and coached him through the completion of his dissertation.

 “I don’t know how many other graduate advisors would’ve hung in,” Dabney says. “Some of them probably would’ve cashed their chips and moved on. But I never lost my desire to finish the dissertation, and he certainly never gave up on my mission to complete it.”

When Campbell received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon award from the Japanese government in March 2019, a recognition for his work in promoting mutual understanding between the United States and Japan, both Dabney and Martin were there to see it.

“I have a deep appreciation for all of the support Professor Campbell has given me over the course of my career,” Martin says. “He’s a model of what I aspire to be as a colleague, as a peer, and even as a mentor.”



Image by Julia Lubas