A Memoir of Mitsuru Shimpo

Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo, Canada

Published in the Tributes section of, July 2015.


Kenneth Westhues Homepage



Margaret Motz, our
colleague on the
Working Centre
Board, took this
picture of Shimpo
and me having
coffee after the
2007 AGM.

Shared faith in orthodox Christianity and commitment to the Anabaptist tradition were foundation stones of Shimpo's friendship with Leonard Friesen, a professor of European history at Wilfrid Laurier University, who delivered a eulogy at the memorial service.



Click here for an example of the conversations Shimpo's and my friendship was composed of. This extract from a 2006 book reports Shimpo's thinking about mobbing and reciprocity, and my response to him. Neither Shimpo nor I was optimistic about the future of the West, but hopeful nonetheless.


Three Decades in Shiwa was the title of Shimpo's study of economic development and social change in an agricultural community 500 km north of Tokyo, on the north end of Honshu. The book was published by UBC Press in 1977.


The Mitsuru Shimpo Fonds in the Special Collections of the University of British Columbia Library.


Shimpo's interests ranged wide. Click here for his article, with Yoshihiro Oinuma, about how traditional Japanese institutions have shaped the training of sumo wrestlers for the past 250 years. The article was published in The International Review for the Sociology of Sport (1983).

Quite a few of the men and women whose exceptional wisdom and decency have enriched my life have been marginal in the classic sociological meaning of that word. They have straddled contrasting worlds, one foot here, the other foot there. Their biographies overflow the usual categories. Was my friend Shimpo Mitsuru? Yes. That name was in all his bylines. Was my friend Shimpo Mike? Indeed so. If I had ever called him Mitsuru he would have laughed.

One reason Mike laughed so easily is that he knew what standard types of people often miss, that contradiction inheres in earthly life. Shimpo understood that things never quite add up, and that trying to force them to is a mistake.

In 1991, Mike informed me that after thirty years in Canada and twenty years on the faculty of St. Jerome’s College, University of Waterloo, he was taking early retirement and returning to his homeland, to teach at the Kawasaki campus of Japan Women’s University. “Canada is a wonderful country, it has been good to me,” Mike said, “but I don’t belong here.”

The new job was a tonic. Mike thrived in his new academic home. He brought groups of his students to Canada on study-tours every summer. We would meet for coffee, much as when both of us lived and worked in Waterloo.

On one such occasion in 1998, he announced that he was retiring for good the next year. He and his wife Kayoko would be moving back to Waterloo.

“But Mike,” I said, “I remember you saying that however much you like Canada, you belong in Japan.”

Mike’s face broke into an embarrassed smile. Then he laughed out loud. “I’ve learned,” he said, “that I don’t belong there either.”

Mike’s identity was torn not only between Japan and English Canada. Part of him was also in the aboriginal cultures of Canada and Australia where he spent years of field research.

Sometime after he moved back to Japan, he got a telephone call from a relative of an aged Indian in Canada’s Far North, a community elder with whom Mike had formed a close bond during fieldwork years earlier. The old man was terminally ill, and was asking that Mike visit him once more.

That man had no conception of what he was asking, Mike told me, he had scarcely ever been outside his own village, had no conception of its distance from Tokyo, or of the cost of such a trip. Mike was not rich. He and Kayoko lived frugally.

“What could I do?” Mike continued, laughing at the price of friendship. He took a plane from Tokyo to Vancouver, another plane half that distance north, then a hundred-dollar taxi to a remote village with one cheap motel, all to spend a couple of hours with a dying friend.

I remembered this story last April 16, the final time Mike met with Roman Dubinski and me for coffee at our usual DQ. Mike brought a little album to show us: thirty postcards, many with family photos, that his former students in Japan had written to him after learning of Mike’s own terminal illness. One of their number had travelled all the way to Waterloo to deliver the album personally to Mike. How fitting, I thought! Mike must have taught those students well.

The most piquant ingredient in the stew of Shimpo’s identity, the one that flavoured all the rest, was Christian faith – something he had in common with roughly one percent of his fellow Japanese.

Protestant missionaries in Allied-occupied Japan gave Mike his first acquaintance with Western religion. In 1948, at the age of seventeen, he was baptized. He learned of the pacifist Mennonite tradition while in university, and formed a lifelong attachment to this minority sect. No matter that most Mennonites have Middle European ancestry.  Mike belonged in their company as much as anywhere. In our last conversation, he told me that of all the blessings in his life, the one for which he was most grateful was the Mennonite faith. His memorial service was held at Waterloo North Mennonite Church. He and Kayoko had been members there since the return from Japan.

A Japanese boy’s journey to Japan

The Liaodong Peninsula, once part of Manchuria and now of China, juts into the Yellow Sea just west of Korea. Japan ruled the area from 1905 to 1945, and continued earlier Russian efforts to create there a spectacular supermodern city. Dalniy was its Russian name. Japan renamed it Dairen. Today, under Chinese rule and with six million inhabitants, it is called Dalia.

Shimpo was born in Dairen to a business family of ethnic Japanese, a privileged minority comprising about 15 percent of the population, the remainder being mostly ethnic Chinese. That same year, 1931, Japan invaded and occupied the region to the north, later establishing there the puppet state of Manchukuo. Japan was in its ascendancy. Little Mitsuru probably imagined that his people, the Japanese, would soon rule the world.

Instead, in the early 1940s, Mitsuru’s world turned upside down. City by city, amidst much bloodshed, Japan was forced off the Asian mainland. Chinese troops occupied Dairen. Meanwhile, Mitsuru’s father took sick.

In one of our many conversations over coffee, Mike recalled a night that shaped his inmost being. He was about twelve years old. Dairen was under curfew, imposed by the Chinese military administration. Mike’s father needed medicine. Mike was sent out into the darkness to get it. Chinese soldiers caught him. Mike remembered staring up their rifle barrels, and hearing them debate whether to kill him or not. A kind superior officer let him go. He has considered every day since then a bonus, Mike told me, in no way an entitlement, instead a gift.

Mike’s father died in Dairen, having buried the family’s money under a tree. A few weeks before Mike’s own death, he remarked, “Maybe it’s still there,” and then he laughed.

Ethnic cleansing has a long history. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, most ethnic Japanese on the Asian mainland were forcibly repatriated to the mother country. Mike’s widowed mother and her children were among the evacuees. Japan did not welcome them home. Its cities were in rubble, its economy in ruins, its people in shock.

Encounter with the West

Such was the context in which Mike embraced Christianity. His faith commitment at Baptism was sealed by a momentous experience with an agemate not long after. Mike chanced to read in a Tokyo newspaper that a boy he had known and been friends with years earlier had been sentenced to death for a serious crime – murder, if I recall correctly. Mike took the initiative to visit the boy in prison and to keep in touch until the date of execution. The boy admitted his guilt, expressed shame and remorse for what he had done, and regret that he would not have a long life in which to make amends and do good. He asked Mike to promise to do enough good for both of them. Mike promised. Decades later, he ended the story with a frustrated shrug and smile, “I’ve done my best.”

On account of the turmoil of his childhood, Mike graduated late from secondary school, but he excelled. He knew no way to live except with work and self-discipline. Thereby he gained admission to a new, highly selective educational institution in Tokyo, founded mostly by Westerners promoting peace, reconciliation, and human rights, the International Christian University. General Douglas MacArthur himself had headed the US fund-raising campaign, and Eleanor Roosevelt gave the first convocation speech. ICU billed itself “The University of Tomorrow.” Mitsuru Shimpo graduated in 1957.

On account of sociology’s aspiration (however quixotic) to make sense of the contradictions in earthly life, this field has held since its inception special appeal to marginal men and women. Shimpo did an MA in sociology in Tokyo, and returned to ICU to teach it for three years, 1959-1962.

Then, at the age of 31, Shimpo migrated to Canada for further advanced study of sociology. He earned both an MA and PhD at the University of British Columbia. From the start, he preferred research methods that involved personal interviews and other forms of face-to-face interaction in the communities being studied. His writings avoid both statistical analyses and high-blown theorizing in favour of close-to-the-data ethnography. As a result, and on account of his interest in aboriginal peoples, he was sometimes known more as anthropologist than sociologist. He was comfortable with either label for his writings, his courses, and himself.

Making friends with Mike

I first met Shimpo in 1975, when I moved to Waterloo to chair its sociology department. Shimpo had already been on campus five years, teaching sociology in the federated Catholic college, St. Jerome’s. I liked him from the start and admired his scholarly productivity, but he was subject to the college’s authority rather than the university’s, his office was in a building some distance away from the main-campus department, and our research interests were dissimilar. Our paths did not often cross. We were colleagues more than friends.

What first brought Mike and me closer was his request for my help about 1988. The college was dragging its feet on promoting him to the rank of full professor. Mike asked me to review his record of research and publication, and if this led me to agree with him that promotion was deserved, to accompany him as “academic colleague” to a meeting with his dean.

The meeting was painful. I winced at the dean’s condescension toward him – the same polite disdain, I imagine, that Japanese managers showed Chinese employees in Dairen in the 1930s. Mike was an unassuming, humble man, unmarked by the pomposity that infects so much of academe. Yet he was also stubborn in asserting what evidence persuaded him was true. I left the meeting puzzled by the college’s intransigence. Without saying so to Mike, I surmised that he was probably a better researcher and writer than teacher. He was a learned man. His English was heavily accented. I guessed that negative reactions to him by undergraduates might be the reason his promotion had not gone through.

Over the next year, Shimpo’s promotion became a cause célèbre in the college’s micro-politics. Mike dug in his heels. The circle of administrators (Mike called them "the power group") dug in theirs. An appeals committee was set up by college policy to decide on the case. Being on good terms with both Mike and the administrators, I was appointed to chair it. The committee’s investigation was thorough and detailed.

The approving, commendatory, enthusiastic letters from the prominent scholars elsewhere who reviewed Mike’s publications were no surprise to me. They confirmed my own impressions. What astounded me, indeed blew me away, was the stream of accolades, compliments, and expressions of gratitude from students who had taken courses from Shimpo – and not just average students, especially the ones most serious and capable. Neither research commitments nor a foreign accent seemed to impede at all Shimpo’s success in the classroom. This professor, I concluded, deserved not just promotion but a teaching award.

The college president summarily rejected our committee’s recommendation of promotion – giving me, incidentally, an indelible lesson in the intractability of certain forms of conflict among humans. Shimpo appealed for help to the main-campus faculty association and to the Canadian Association of University Teachers. A new president took office at St. Jerome’s. The promotion was quietly approved.

I got a chance to observe Mike’s teaching abilities further after his return to Waterloo in the new century. Term after term, out of desire to keep developing his mind, Mike audited an undergraduate course. Most of these were in theology or the early history of Christianity, but he audited at least four sociology courses of mine, a couple of them more than once.

He would have been content to sit quietly in the back of the room taking notes, but I always insisted that he should not just listen but respond in some way, usually by giving a guest lecture or critical commentary. I was struck on these occasions not just by his insights but by how effectively he got them across to students. Their response to him was wholly positive. They chatted easily with him before and after class, laughed with him, respected what he said. They probably also listened more attentively to me, seeing that a retired professor of his calibre was sitting in not for credit but just out of interest.

Mike kept himself almost as busy after he retired as before. Had he been more comfortable with the internet, he might have started a blog. Instead, week after week, he sent by email reflections on life and current events to a long list of friends and former students in Japan. Some of these were later published as a book.

As well, he taught occasional courses in Japanese studies at Waterloo’s Renison College. He and Kayoko took guided tours to far corners of the earth, especially archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. They relished films shown at the Princess Cinema, Waterloo’s indie art-house. For years Mike and I traded movie recommendations by email.

A few years after returning from Japan, Mike began helping prepare meals at St. John’s Kitchen, where some hundreds of Kitchener’s poor gather for lunch five days a week. “I'm not sure your culinary skills are good enough," I teased, knowing well that Kayoko was mistress of the kitchen in their home, and that Mike stayed out of her way. “I can’t cook,” Mike answered with a smile, “but I can prepare vegetables. Chop, chop, chop,” he made the motion with his wrist, “I’m good at it.”

I saw Mike the next week. His hand was heavily bandaged. He laughed out loud before I could say anything. “I’m still learning,” he said cheerfully.

Since Mike was already volunteering at the Working Centre and understood its ethic of simple living, I put his name in for invitation to join its board of directors. He agreed to serve, and attended meetings faithfully for about five years, before resigning in 2010, explaining that he was getting too old. In truth, I don’t think Mike ever liked being on the board. He preferred hands-on, front-line kinds of work, as opposed to poring over financial statements or discussing policy.

The leveller

Mike’s life was exotic, but his death was mundane. Stomach pain in the spring of 2014. Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Unsuccessful surgery. Futile chemo. Mike emailed me in December: “I have been sentenced to live a few more months, but not years.” He faced death without panic, with the same grace, gratitude, humility, and matter-of-fact acceptance of contradiction that he had shown for all the years I knew him. He did not laugh at death, that would be blasphemy, but he smiled.