In Memoriam

H. Paul Varley (1931–2015)

Barbara Bennett Peterson, March 2017

Historian of Japan

H. Paul Varley. Courtesy Center for Japanese Studies,  University of Hawai‘i at Manoa H. Paul Varley died at the age of 84 on December 15, 2015. A professor emeritus at both Columbia University and the University of Hawai‘i, Varley was born on February 8, 1931, in Paterson, New Jersey, to Herbert Paul Varley and Katharine L. (Norcross) Varley. From 1952 to 1954, he served in the US Army during the Korean War and was stationed in Japan. Living there set him on his career path as a historian of Japanese language and culture.

Varley received his BS from Lehigh University in 1952, his MA from Columbia University in 1961, and his PhD from Columbia in 1964. He married Betty Jane (Geiskopf) Varley in 1960 and began his career as a historian at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in 1964. After an invitation to return to Columbia in 1965, he remained at his alma mater for the bulk of his early career, as a scholar of Japanese history in the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture. In 1994, Columbia honored Varley with emeritus status.

Contemplating early retirement, Varley had accepted the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s invitation to become the Sen Sōshitsu XV Distinguished Chair of Traditional Japanese Culture and History on a visiting basis, from 1991 to 1993. This became a permanent appointment after Varley retired from Columbia. The prestigious Sen Chair was associated with the Urasenke School of Japanese Tea Ceremony. In his 10 years at the University of Hawai‘i, Varley taught seminars on Japanese culture, the history of the way of tea, the history of the samurai, and Japanese civilization until he retired again in 2004.

Varley was an internationally recognized expert on early Japanese culture, giving lectures and attending conferences throughout the United States and abroad. In 1996, the government of Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Star, Gold Rays with Rosette for his work in spreading understanding of and appreciation for Japanese culture. He appeared in a series of videos sponsored by the East Asian Institute at Columbia University to educate teachers and colleagues about Japan. Always an entertaining speaker, he wove stories of Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the Tale of Genji, and The Pillow Book with tales of the samurai and narratives from Japanese picture scrolls. In Hawai‘i, he was a member of the Association for Asian Studies, the Konnichi Kai, and the Japan Society, as well as a member of the board of the Japanese Cultural Center. In New York, he served on the board of the Urasenke Tea Foundation.

Varley’s groundbreaking books engaged multiple audiences. The Ōnin War: History of Its Origins and Background with a Selective Translation of the Chronicle of Ōnin (1967), Imperial Restoration in Medieval Japan (1971), Samurai (with Ivan and Nobuko Morris, 1970, 1971, and 1974), Japanese Culture (1974), A Chronicle of Gods and Sovereigns (a translation from Japanese of Jinnō Shōtōki of Kitabatake Chikafusa, 1980), and Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu (with Kamakura Isao, 1989) were all published during his career at Columbia.

His best-known book is Japanese Culture, which has appeared in four editions. This work began with the “high culture” of early Japan and proceeded through the postwar and contemporary periods; it included analysis of religion, visual arts, literature, theater, philosophy, landscaping, and such ceremonies as the way of tea. With his wife and photographer Joe Shulman, Varley had traveled to Japan in 1971 to take the book’s photo illustrations, helped by a grant from Columbia’s East Asian Institute. Japanese Culture described and explained valuable concepts such as the kami, Shintoism, the magatama, haniwa, torii, the military elite, the importance of the Ise shrine, Amaterasu, the introduction of Buddhism, the Code of Bushido, and songs of the biwa hōshi (traveling singers/historians) for serious scholars and introductory students alike. Varley’s writing was clear, well researched, accurate, and always fascinating. Teaching at the University of Hawai‘i during summer sessions, he contri­buted to the Honolulu Aca­demy of Arts’ 1986 catalog of Japanese paintings from the Muromachi period (1392–1568), titled Of Water and Ink(with Watanabe Akiyoshi and Kanazawa Hiroshi).

After becoming the permanent Sen Chair, Varley published Warriors of Japan as Portrayed in the War Tales (1994), for which he made all of his own translations from the Japanese original texts and offered introductory historical settings for the tales. The war tales (or gunki-mono and senki-­mono) recount stories of battles from the 10th to the 17th centuries and are based on real events. Calling the tales “literary histories,” Varley explained Japan’s samurai from the standpoint of “how they fight, what they think, what their weapons, armor, and other battle accoutrements are, what customs and personal relations govern their lives, [and] who their heroes are,” as the book’s introduction says.

Outside of academia, Varley entertained in other ways. With his proficiency in close-up magic, he served as president of the Society of American Magicians’ New York area chapter from 1983 to 1984. He relaxed from the rigors of his heavy speaking, research, and writing schedule by playing the piano. In a marriage of over 50 years, he and Betty Jane enjoyed daughter Sharyn Hennen, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Varley retired from the University of Hawai‘i in 2004, was awarded emeritus status, and later returned to New Jersey in his final retirement.

Barbara Bennett Peterson
University of Hawai‘i (emerita)


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