Dr. William M. “Bill” Tsutsui is an acclaimed academic leader who writes, researches and teaches on a broad array of fascinating subjects. His areas of expertise include the economic and environmental histories of Japan, issues of Japanese-American identity, and the global significance of Godzilla. He currently serves as president and CEO of Ottawa University in Kansas.
Tsutsui was born in New York City and grew up in Texas. The child of Japanese and American academics, he became fascinated with Godzilla at an early age and found a unique connection with his own Japanese heritage through the iconic character. Tsutsui earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a Master’s degree from Oxford, and a Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton. His teaching career began at the University of Kansas. After holding several leadership positions there, he served as a dean at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and president of Hendrix College in Arkansas. His tenure at Ottawa University began this past July.
Tsutsui is a prolific and critically-acclaimed writer and speaker. His 2004 book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, was described by the New York Times as a “cult classic,” and his bestselling 2010 publication Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization is used as an educational resource in classrooms around the world. In 2021 alone, Tsutsui’s publications and presentations have included a lecture on Godzilla, Hiroshima, and COVID-19 for Chapman University. He has been featured in articles in The Harvard Crimson and The Harvard Gazette, and in interviews with Sirius XM and the New York Times.
NichiBei Connect recently spoke with Tsutsui about the transformative power of mentorship, the vitality of the U.S.-Japan relationship, and how a strong sense of humor can foster resilience and opportunity.
What role did Japan play in your life growing up?
My father was a first-generation immigrant from Japan. He’d been a commander in the Japanese Navy during World War II, and he came to the United States in the 1950s to study at Yale. He met my mother in a laboratory at Sloan Kettering in New York City. When they got married, they were written up in the New York Times—not as a society piece, because neither of them was society people—but because it was so rare for a Japanese man to marry a white woman.
My father’s English was never particularly good, but like many immigrants, he never wanted me to learn Japanese for fear that I would be saddled with the Japanese accent that he felt had held him back. In many ways, I had an all-American childhood growing up in central Texas. My father was a chemist and my mother was a biochemist, and both were professors at Texas A&M University. I basically grew up on campus and was surrounded by higher education my whole life.
Did you know other people of Japanese heritage growing up?
There were only two Japanese American families in our community in Texas. As a child, I had very little to relate to when it came to Japan, especially since my father didn’t want to overburden me with a connection to the country. The Godzilla movies became my entrée into Japanese culture, and into my Japanese identity.
I saw my first Godzilla movie when I was seven or eight years old. I fell in love immediately for the same reason that most people fall in love with Godzilla—he’s big and powerful. And all the fantasies a kid can have about playing out aggressions by watching Godzilla destroy things worked for me as well.
Godzilla was also significant because it was from Japan, and it was cool! My friends knew who Godzilla was and they thought Godzilla was okay, so playing Godzilla was better than being teased about Pearl Harbor at recess time. I remember pretending to be monsters with my friends. I would be Godzilla, they would be King Kong, and we would wrestle around in the schoolyard. Having something related to my Japanese ancestry that I could be proud of became very important to me.
When did you first visit Japan?
I first went to Japan when I was nine years old to visit relatives. I’m glad I went when I did because I was able to meet my Japanese grandmother for the one and only time in my life. It was a great experience and was very eye-opening. Because my parents were academics, I had a lot of opportunities to travel abroad—by the time I was ten, I’d been to Russia, Mexico, and Europe. But Japan was special because of my family roots, and because Godzilla was there! I remember coming back from that trip with lots of Godzilla toys, a few of which I still have today.
Did you know early on that you would pursue a career related to Japan and education?
I went to Harvard as an undergrad—partly to get as far away from small-town Texas as I could—and I had no intention to study education, Japan, or Asia. My feeling was that I’d be an economics major. I would go into business, get a job on Wall Street, work in a skyscraper, make a killing, and be in that corporate business world.
I took introductory economics during my freshman year. It was okay. I got a decent grade, and my teacher was wonderful, but I didn’t enjoy it. I found out that economics is largely mathematics, and while I’m not terrible at math, I like people and stories more than numbers and tables. So, economics was not singing to me.
What did you pivot to?
I took a course called Industrial East Asia, which was taught by Ezra Vogel. He was a well-known sociologist of Japan and Korea, and he wrote the book Japan As Number One: Lessons for America, which really brought Japan’s economic rise to the attention of America’s political and economic elites. That course made me realize that Japan was different and important—that it could relate to my interest in business and finance, and not just in the standard number-crunching kind of way. Because of that class, and because of my heritage as a Japanese-American, I became an East Asian Studies major. That set me on the course to do something related to Japan with my career.
How did that manifest?
A lot of my friends at Harvard were going to law school—I think all of us had watched too much L.A. Law and focused on the nice suits, fancy buildings, and fast cars. [Laughs.] I thought I could be a lawyer too, so I applied to law school. I got in and spent all of six weeks there before realizing it was not for me.
After that, I finally broke down, went into the family business of education, and decided to study Japan and its history, which is really what I was interested in. I love the incredible story of Japan in the 20th century—the way it transformed from an isolated, feudal and relatively poor country into one of the world’s great economic superpowers.
What excited you about the world of education?
I love that education is about awakening our inner passions, and empowering people to use their minds and experiences in the best way possible. I also love that, as an academic, you get to do so many different things. It’s not just standing in front of a classroom and grading papers. There are research, service, administration, and public-facing elements as well. There are a variety of ways that one can leverage experience and knowledge of Japan to reach and inspire different audiences. It’s been a very rewarding path to pursue.
It sounds like Ezra Vogel’s guidance had a transformative effect on you.
He was a mentor throughout my career and was incredibly generous of spirit. He had an extensive network of connections in the U.S. and Asia and helped many students like me get in touch with the right people. He didn’t consider any of it a debt that had to be paid back. His generosity has always been something I’ve tried to learn from. As I work with people who are beginning their careers in academics or administration, I try to approach them with the selflessness that Ezra exemplified in his life and interactions with others.
What advice would you offer to young people who are looking for mentors in the U.S.-Japan space?
Don’t be shy about asking people for help. A lot of young people today hang back and don’t want to impose. When it comes to seeking advice about career development, connections with Japan and the U.S relationship with Japan, the people I know in the field are thrilled to offer advice, introductions, and insights. Professionals in the U.S.-Japan space are very motivated—if you spend your life working with Japan, you want others to follow on that path as well, and you will bend over backward to help those who show interest.
When I speak at events, I encourage people in the audience to get in touch with me if there’s anything I can do to help them. And when people take me up on that offer, I am just thrilled. I’m always willing to invest time and extra effort in helping people do what they want to do. If there are programs I can recommend, connections I can make, or articles or periodicals I can point to, I’m happy to do it.
What advice do you have for people who are established in the U.S-Japan relationship, and who want to give back as mentors themselves?
Mentorship is a key part of our legacies in this field, and an important way to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship. Right now, we’re beginning to realize that the U.S.-Japan relationship can be greatly enriched with diverse voices, and that leadership positions should represent a broader set of experiences. Seeing mentorship as part of your professional responsibility can really help develop the diverse voices we need.
Can you elaborate?
We need to engage with communities in the United States that have not felt welcome or comfortable in the world of U.S.-Japan relations. We need to help them come to the fore. I challenge those who are established in the U.S.-Japan relationship to find ways to reach out to communities of color—to African-American and Latino communities, to indigenous peoples—and to find ways to engage them with Japan. And I challenge my colleagues to encourage people from those communities to enter the academy, try for State Department jobs, and attend graduate school.
How did you translate your childhood interest in Godzilla into lectures, coursework, and a book?
I started using Godzilla in my undergraduate classes not long after I began teaching in the 1990s. Students loved it and responded well, largely because no one thinks they’re actually going to learn anything substantive from a giant monster movie. The truth is that Godzilla can teach us a lot about Japanese history, society, politics, economics, and U.S.-Japan relations.
The original Gojira came out in 1954. In 2004, a colleague and I organized an international conference in Lawrence, Kansas to celebrate its 50th anniversary. We had a two-day symposium with scholars from around the globe, a film festival, art exhibitions, plays. It was a huge amount of fun and got lots of media attention. Everyone thought it was amazing—all of these scholars coming together to study a cheesy movie starring a man in a rubber suit! As part of the planning process, I’d been talking to publishers about sharing the papers from our conference. One of the editors told me that his boss wanted to commission a book on the Godzilla series.
And they asked you to write it?
Originally, they wanted a big-name journalist, but I sat down one weekend and wrote what would become the introduction to Godzilla On My Mind. I just talked about my lifelong love affair with Godzilla, back to the time in elementary school when my mother made me a Godzilla costume for Halloween. A few days later, my editor friend called and said, “Bill, I’m sitting here with my editor in chief and we’re laughing our heads off because we love that introduction so much. Write the darn book now.”
It was a great opportunity to share something I care deeply about. The book ended up speaking to many people who didn’t realize there were others who shared their love for Godzilla. It also opened the door to a deeper appreciation of Godzilla and Japanese popular culture in this country. I’ve written or edited eight books on Japan now, and I’m humbled that Godzilla On My Mind has outsold all the others combined.
What did you think of the latest string of Godzilla movies?
I thought the 2014 Godzilla was very good. It brought the best of the Japanese Godzilla movies together with 21st-century Hollywood movie-making in a nice way. The middle movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was sort of a car wreck because it tried to deal with climate change in a superficial way. But the most recent one, Godzilla vs. Kong, was a great movie for this moment in world history. We don’t need sophisticated didactic narratives. We need to see a big monkey and a big lizard fighting it out, and at the end, coming together to beat up a robot. How great is that?
Your writings, speeches, and interviews all show a great sense of humor—how would you describe the role that comedy has played in your life and career?
Over the course of my career, I’ve found that it’s important to bring a sense of humor to everything you do. Of course, there are important matters you can’t laugh about. But once you step away from the things we often take so seriously, there’s usually something to smile about, too. I’m a perpetual optimist, and I think that having a sense of humor can keep you thinking good thoughts, even at the toughest of times.
Humor is incredibly important in education, too. Just because something is significant and difficult doesn’t mean you have to always approach it with gravity. Humor is a great way of engaging people and getting to deeper truths, as long as your humor does not come at the expense of others.
Why is the U.S.-Japan relationship important, and why should people consider contributing to that relationship through their careers?
Even in the interconnected, globalized society we live in today, I continue to be struck by how little many Americans know about the larger world. We can be deeply enriched by learning about Japanese popular culture, history, politics, and social organization, and paying attention to how the country deals with significant issues like demographic change, an aging society, pollution, and sustainability. To face global challenges, we need to be true citizens of the world and participate in conversations beyond our circle of friends on Facebook or Twitter. Contributing to the U.S.-Japan relationship is a great way to do that.