In Memoriam: Masao Yamaguchi (1932-2013)

On March 11 The Japan Times reported the death at 81 in Tokyo of “influential anthropologist Masao Yamaguchi”. Professor Yamaguchi was also a high-profile semiotician, a long-time Vice-President of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, and a former President of the Japanese Association for Semiotic Studies. He was a regular participant in semiotic conferences world-wide where his provocative thought, intellectual dynamism, and contagious humor were greatly appreciated. SemiotiX joins the mourning of an endearing colleague by publishing the following testimony by his former student, Professor Shinichi Nakazawa, Founder and Director of the Institute for Wild Science at Meiji University, Tokyo.

Masao Yamaguchi
Masao Yamaguchi

For my generation, Masao Yamaguchi was an invaluable emancipator of knowledge. In the 1970s, seriousness was considered an utmost virtue for Japanese scholars and everybody wanted to believe that they were doing the right thing without the shadow of a doubt. This is when Masao Yamaguchi urged us to throw away this dull, uninteresting virtue and become mischievous creators. His liberating voice reached out to a large constituency of young people who were getting tired of stiffed-neck leftist ideology. The intellectual prankster, or “trickster” as Yamaguchi called it, became a role model in intellectual circles. It made anthropology, a new discipline that had been introduced in Japan after the war, a cool and trendy branch of study which displaced philosophy and stood at the cutting edge of knowledge. We were awed by his audacity. A native of Hokkaido, a vast northern island developed for farming since the late 19th century, Masao Yamaguchi was a free-spirited mind. As a young man, far from being an armchair anthropologist, he ventured to tribal areas in Africa, in remote islands in Melanesia, in rural villages in Europe, and many other places where he did adventurous fieldwork. His outstanding capacity to learn languages and adjust to any situation allowed him to communicate as easily with native populations as with the high-profile intellectuals he encountered and befriended. He conducted many lively discussions with Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson who were engaged by his deep knowledge of the world’s cultures and his innovative vision of anthropology and semiotics. His aggressive enthusiasm commanded respect. There was no hint in his public behavior of the legendary “complex of inferiority” of Japanese people.
Masao Yamaguchi was a big laugher. His sense of humor was especially stimulated when he was confronting academic arbiters who were taking themselves too seriously. His jest could be found upsetting by some but, at the end, his laughter was shared by most.
At some point, his notoriety was eclipsed by the cheap laughter of mediocre pranksters but he soon amazingly returned to center stage as the emblematic “loser” in the context of Japan’s modernization. In one of his latest books, A Psychological History of Losers, he argued that “losers” lead mentally enriched lives, thus elegantly transforming an apparent loss into a gain while laughing off people’s delusive belief in the value of money and power.
He told me once: “Don’t be a Salieri!” Masao Yamaguchi was indeed a Mozart, a genuine, creative, and generous human being who enlightened those minds which came in contact with him.

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