Hattori Shirō 服部四郎

(May 29, 1908 – January 29, 1995)



Shiro Hattori (1908-1995)

Shiro Hattori, the Japanese linguist famous for his studies of Altaic languages and The Secret History of the Mongols, passed away of pneumonia in a hospital in the city of Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on January 29, 1995. He was 86 years old.

He was born in 1908 in Kameyama, Mie Prefecture, in Central Japan. In the University of Tokyo he studied Altaic languages, including Mongolian, Turkish and Tatar, under Prof. Katsuji Fujioka. Upon graduating from the university in 1931 he was appointed assistant in his alma mater. In 1933 he was sent to Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia on a scholarship. In Harbin he stayed with a Russian refugee family and quickly learned how to speak the language. Then he stayed with Tatar families in both Harbin and Hailar, and with the Mongols in the Hölön Buir region, equally effectively studying their languages. While in Hailar he married Mrs. Hattori, a Mishar Tatar lady.

On his return to Tokyo in 1936 he was appointed lecturer, and in 1942 associate professor, in the Department of Linguistics of the University of Tokyo. In 1943 he received his doctor’s degree. The dissertation was published in 1946 directly after the end of the World War II, in a booklet form entitled A Study of Mongolian Transcribed in Chinese Characters in the Secret History of the Mongols. He was promoted to full professorship and chairmanship of his department in 1949.

In 1950 he was invited as an exchange professor to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he taught Japanese and Altaic languages. In that summer he travelled the East Coast. In Arlington he visited Father Antoine Mostaert, who arranged to have Prof. Nicholas Poppe, then staying in Washington, DC, visit Hattori in his hotel. Later Hattori reminisced about the meeting in a review of Poppe’s Khalkha-Mongolische Grammatik: “This great scholar, whom I had known for a long time only through his books and articles, whom I had believed I was never to meet in person in this life, was sitting in front of me and talking to me! I could not help ruminating on the incredible reality and being profoundly marveled at man’s destiny. It may not be superfluous to record that our conversation was carried in Mongolian in the first hour and in Russian in the following 3 hours.” In Baltimore he met Urgunge Onon and Gombojab Hangin for the first time. In the next year he had another meeting with Poppe, who with Rev. Dilowa Khutugtu was staying in Berkeley to help Ferdinand Lessing in compiling his Mongolian-English Dictionary.

He retired as professor at the University of Tokyo in 1969. In 1972 he was elected Member of the Japan Academy. In 1983 he received the Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies, or PIAC Gold Medal. When the medal was presented to him by the PIAC Secretary General Denis Sinor in the sultry Haneda Memorial Hall in Kyoto, he thanked for the award by saying: “I interpret this to be an encouragement for me to continue my study of the The Secret History of the Mongols, which I consider to be still incomplete.” In the same year he was decorated with an Order of Cultural Merits, the ultimate honor for a Japanese scholar.

Hattori was handsome, fair of skin and tall. He was warm toward all honest scholars regardless of age or sex, always ready to listen to what they had to say, but impatient with insincere, feigning of scholarship. Altogether, he was truly a great man.

(Hidehiro Okada)

(Source: Permanent International Altaistic Conference Newsletter No. 23, June 1995, p. 5–6)