SOAS University of London

John Sargent: Obituary

10 July 2013
John Sargent

John Sargent, who died of cancer in Trieste on 10 July, was a valued member of the SOAS staff for three and a half decades. He had first come to SOAS as a research student in 1962 after gaining a First in Geography at Leeds University; and he embarked on the study of Japanese under Frank Daniels, Charles Dunn, Pat O’Neill, Stanley Weinstein and Yanada Seiji before spending more than a year in Japan collecting material for his PhD thesis on the historical geography of Nagoya. During his final examinations at Leeds he had impressed the external examiner, Professor Charles Fisher, and when Fisher became the first head of the newly established Geography Department in 1965, John was appointed as Fellow in Japanese Geography. He became Reader in the 1970s and subsequently succeeded Fisher as head of department, serving in that position for seven years. In the 1980s he served as chairman of the Japan Research Centre and for a long time represented SOAS on the Japan Foundation Endowment Committee. Apart from the disproportionate amount of administrative duties and committee work that he undertook, he was a regular lecturer to schools and other outside bodies in an era when SOAS was relatively less well known, especially to prospective undergraduates, and needed  to raise its profile. Without these commitments he would undoubtedly have published more than he did; but when he was less burdened in the 1990s, he wrote one book, Perspectives on Japan, and co-wrote another, Geographical Studies and Japan. His writing was notable for its clarity of thought and expression and its careful organisation.

It should also be noted how far John's academic interests and knowledge went beyond Japan and geography. He had a deep knowledge of European history, economics, and politics.  He was able to (and did) teach on China and Korea at times. In Japan he was known amongst the geographical academics of the day as the key geographer of Japan in Britain.

John was an excellent colleague. He believed fully in inter-departmental cooperation and accepted without hesitation requests to act as second examiner for other disciplines such as Japanese history and politics. For many years he gave guidance on relevant aspects of geography to the History Department’s Research Methods seminar. When he retired from SOAS in 1999, the tributes paid to him at his leaving party left no doubt that he had given his time generously to his colleagues and that his advice and encouragement had been valued, particularly by younger members of his department. His good-humoured, down-to-earth style and dislike of cant and pretentiousness may have owed something to his northern background - he was born and raised in Penrith - ,and his pipe-smoking habit contributed to his avuncular  manner. He was himself free of any sense of self-importance, as can perhaps be seen in the story he told of hearing a (past) Director exclaim, as he left the latter’s office after a meeting: “When is that man going to finish his thesis!”  These characteristics remained constant throughout his whole time at SOAS. Almost the only respect in which he changed was his figure: having once been rather skinny, he filled out noticeably after his marriage to Maryam in 1971.

Soon after his retirement John moved to Trieste, where Maryam had family connections, and he found his new environment congenial. In a January 2001 letter he wrote: “Life here is gentler, more civilised, and far less stressful (as we found it anyway) than in England. There are numerous and surprising ways in which Italy resembles Japan: there is more supportive ‘groupism’ than in England; the family, though weakening, remains a key institution; and people (with some notable exceptions) seem more considerate of one another’s feelings.”  Unfortunately, the health problems which had begun to trouble him in his last years at SOAS increased, but he maintained a link with Japan through translations for Japanese institutions and publishers, and he was able to pursue such hobbies as photography, food, art and music. He retained fond memories of SOAS, especially of some of the striking characters to be found in the Senior Common Room in his early days there. His brain lost none of its sharpness and it seems ironic that what stood out in recent correspondence was the fact that his recollections of recently deceased ex-colleagues  were so clear and detailed.