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Anthropologist Robert Smith, Japan scholar, dies at age 89


Robert J. Smith, Ph.D. ’55, a noted expert in the sociocultural anthropology of Japan, died Oct. 11 at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca. He was 89.

Smith was a distinguished authority in Japanese studies and Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology Emeritus. He was the author, co-author or editor of a dozen books and 100 articles, chapters and essays on Japan. His books include “Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan” and “Kurusu: The Price of Progress in a Japanese Village, 1951-75.”

He received wide recognition and numerous tributes for his scholarly accomplishments. In 1974, he was named Goldwin Smith Professor. He was elected president of the Association for Asian Studies in 1988. In 1993, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government in recognition of his distinguished career. He retired from Cornell in 1997.

Smith’s interest in Japan began in 1944 when, at 17, he dropped out of college, joined the U.S. Army and began to study the Japanese language. Even though he had no prior knowledge of Japan, he soon acquired a passion for all aspects of Japanese life – not only language but also history, art, society and culture – that sustained him for the rest of his life.

In 1949, after finishing his military service, Smith earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota. He then joined one of the first cohorts to enroll in what was then Cornell’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology, as a graduate student in anthropology. He lived in Ithaca for the rest of his life.

In 1955, upon completion of his doctorate, he joined Cornell’s Department of Anthropology as a faculty member, becoming involved in its applied anthropology initiatives in Thailand, Peru and India. He became chair of the Department of Anthropology in 1967 and served for nearly nine years. In all, he taught in the department for more than 40 years. For another five years, he chaired the Department of Asian Studies.

Smith is survived by his wife, Kazuko Smith, who taught Japanese language at Cornell for many years.

Arrangements have been made with the Ness-Sibley Funeral Home in Trumansburg.

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Melissa Osgood