Times Obit - Professor Geoffrey Bownas CBE Int Corps

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  1. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    Professor Geoffrey Bownas

    Geoffrey Bownas
    Ralph Paprzycki

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      Geoffrey Bownas Ralph Paprzycki

    March 2 2011 12:01AM

    Academic whose study of Japanese led to his participation in the country’s industrial and cultural renaissance
    The parade ground at Catterick in 1943 might seem an unlikely place as a starting point for a career in Japanese, but when the sergeant called for five volunteers to learn Japanese (followed by the classic “You, you and you”), Private Geoffrey Bownas was the last to be volunteered.
    He was a more than suitable candidate, however, having spent a year at Oxford studying Greats, and, therefore, having a command of Latin, Greek and ancient philosophy, an intellectual training that stood him in good stead when he was transferred to Bletchley Park to break Japanese military codes. This was to be the first step in a remarkable career, encompassing the study, teaching and promotion of Chinese as well as Japanese, and the establishing of Japanese departments at Oxford and Sheffield universities, not to mention a lifetime dedicated to the better understanding of Japan in cultural and commercial spheres.
    Geoffrey Bownas was born in Yorkshire in 1923 and brought up in a village not far from Ilkley Moor. The Far East was not as remote as it might have been — his parents were Methodists and took an interest in missionary work in China, where a cousin was to work later as a missionary doctor.
    The young Bownas sang in the choir and played for the local cricket team, two passions which stayed with him throughout his life. The minister’s wife also coached him in Ancient Greek, in preparation for the state scholarship that he won to go from Bradford Grammar School to that traditional bed of talent for the White Rose, The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he also won a Hastings scholarship.
    His studies were interrupted by the Second World War, but he was able to take honour moderations in one year, and returned not long after to Bradford for his training course in Japanese. Having spent some time at Bletchley Park, he was transferred to India as a lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, where he also embarked on the study of Persian. His Oxford tutor contrived to have him demobilised early in order to finish his degree, a wise investment as Bownas took his first in Greats and embarked on an academic career, briefly at Aberystwyth.
    He returned fairly quickly to Oxford, however, attracted by an advertisement for a graduate in Greats with a knowledge of a Far Eastern language, and to study under the celebrated American sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs. Bownas took a second degree in Chinese (again a first), aided by a Scarborough studentship, funded by the Treasury to encourage the study of “hard” languages.
    This allowed for a lengthy period of study in China, but his plans were curtailed by the formation of the People’s Republic, which redirected Bownas into Japanese. A two-year stint at Kyoto University followed, where he studied under the no less eminent Professor Kaizuka Shigeki.
    In his autobiography Japanese Journeys, Bownas warmly acknowledged not only his good fortune (supplemented no doubt by a great deal of effort) but also the important role played by his teachers throughout his student life. It was a debt he repaid with interest through the support he in turn provided fledgeling academics (not to mention new heads of department) in their own careers. Many of his students also went on to have distinguished careers in the worlds of diplomacy and business.
    In 1954 Bownas established the Department of Japanese Studies at Oxford, where he stayed until the foundation of the Japanese Department at the University of Sheffield. This was established in response to the Hayter report of 1961, which noted the need for greater emphasis on the study of the Middle East, Far East, Africa and Eastern Europe. Hayter recommended a focus away from London and Oxbridge, and also the combined study of the language with social sciences.
    Bownas, who by now was also a research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, took up the challenge, but was scathing about the “scatterbrained notion” that a Japanese historian or economist should not at least be able to read primary sources in the original.
    Sheffield became a key centre for Japanese (it was used as a training centre by the Foreign Office for the next decade) and Bownas followed up on his views of combined skills by developing a profound understanding of Japanese business, with particular reference to the rapid growth of the automotive industry. He became personally acquainted with leading Japanese industrialists, including Honda Soichiro, and he advised British industry on ways not only of establishing closer links with Japan but also how to understand better their new industrial practices.
    He was a consultant to companies in the building of Kansai international airport, among other projects. This may at first sight seem odd for someone whose expertise was rooted in medieval Japanese literature, but Bownas was a polymath in so many ways. He was an interpreter for the BBC at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 and was at Expo 70 in Kyoto. In 1973 he was awarded a handsome Tanaka grant by the Japanese prime minister for the development of Japanese in UK universities.
    He also became a close associate of the controversial Japanese writer Mishima Yukio, with whom he produced New Writing in Japan for Penguin in 1972. They were working together regularly almost up to the time of Mishima’s suicide. Bownas was fascinated by the long cultural traditions of Japan, and was uniquely placed to see the transition of the country from a war-torn empire to a modern industrialised society.
    He witnessed the Anti-Security Treaty demonstrations during a prolonged stay in Japan in 1960, and the protests of ardent traditionalists, such as Mishima, who feared the threat to traditional values from the Left-wing in politics, the challenge of the West, and the growing impact of prosperity. Bownas also saw the rebuilding of Tokyo in time for the Olympic Games, with the new subway, monorail and bullet train, which he could see from his room while staying in Otsu.
    He was equally comfortable with the customs and literature of Japan. He was a regular broadcaster on the BBC from the 1950s, ranging from aspects of modern Japan to dramatisations of Japanese literature, with Prunella Scales as one of the readers.
    Bownas remained a man with lifelong outside interests. Apart from cricket (he once pulled a pint for Fred Trueman), he was a choral singer of some distinction. In retirement he sang with the St Bartholomew’s Choral Society, the high point being a production of Verdi’s Requiem in Verona, where some 1,500 singers performed with Pavarotti (hence his wry claim that he had once sung in a backing group for the celebrated Italian tenor).
    In 1999 he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure with Sun’s Rays, a Japanese honour, and in 2003 was appointed CBE in recognition of a lifetime’s contribution to education, scholarship and the improvement of Anglo-Japanese relations in commercial and cultural spheres. In addition he was emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
    In 2009 he married his long-term companion Wiesia Janina Cook. He had two daughters from a previous marriage.
    Professor Geoffrey Bownas, CBE, Japanese expert, was born on February 9, 1923. He died on February 17, 2011, aged 88


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