The “Godfather” of Japanese Studies

Peter Berton grew up in Harbin, China, studied violin in Japan and moved to the U.S. to become an internationally known expert in Japanese politics and foreign policy.
ByPamela J. Johnson

Dapper in a formal tailcoat, Peter Berton stood between American and Japanese flags as he accepted the Order of the Rising Sun.

The Japanese government honored the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at USC with the award for his major contributions to Japanese studies in the United States.

“Dr. Berton is the godfather of Japanese studies,” Junichi Ihara, Los Angeles’ consul general of Japan, said during the 2010 ceremony.

Ihara lauded Berton for his many books and articles on Japanese politics and foreign policy, Japanese international negotiation style, Japanese socio-cultural and psychological characteristics, and the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia.

He praised Berton for launching the annual lecture series on Japanese art in 1988 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in memory of his late wife and mother of their two sons, Michele, who had a deep appreciation of Japanese culture and was a museum docent. The lectures sharing with the public the beauty of Japanese arts have succeeded for more than 20 years.

With the medal depicting rays emanating from the sun suspended from a red and white ribbon draped around his neck, Berton addressed the audience in Japanese and English.

The first person he thanked was his father.

“My father in 1926 had the vision and wisdom to leave Poland and seek an economic opportunity in China. His three brothers, their wives, his sister, their children, my maternal grandfather, my favorite 10-year-old cousin,” he paused fighting back tears. “Everyone on my father’s side was murdered by the Nazis. So, if my father hadn’t left Poland, I wouldn’t be here today.”


When receiving the Order of the Rising Sun honor, the first person Peter Berton thanked was his father: “My father in 1926 had the vision and wisdom to leave Poland and seek an economic opportunity in China,” Berton said. Photo courtesy of Peter Berton.

At his Beverly Hills home, Berton found among stacks and stacks of books — including his more than 100 publications — a 2001 pictorial album titled The Jews in Harbin, authored by the Heilongjiang Social Science Academy. The coffee table book describes Jewish life in the city established in 1898, when the Trans-Siberian Railway reached the border of Manchuria.

“What the book does not say is that the Tsarist government bribed a Chinese viceroy to build a Russian railway in China with French money,” Berton said.

Harbin was designated the ‘Paris of the Orient’ for the city’s European architectural style.

An only child, Berton was 6 when he and his mother moved to Harbin, one of the largest Jewish communities in the Far East. Berton’s father, Claude, arrived and established himself as an accountant and businessman, importing heavy woolens from Europe.

The Jews in Harbin shows the 89-year-old Berton as a confident-looking boy sitting front and center with his classmates in a Jewish elementary school.


Harbin is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang Province in northeast China. Harbin once housed one of the largest Jewish communities in the Far East. It reached its peak in the mid 1920s when 20,000 European Jews lived in the city. In the book, The Jews in Harbin, Peter Berton is featured (front row, middle) along with his classmates at Talmud Yeshiva. Photo courtesy of Peter Berton.

He remembers 1931 when he was 9 and Japan launched an attack on Manchuria.

“The Japanese came in on tanks and the retreating Chinese armies on Mongolian horses were dropping firearms left and right,” Berton recalled. “We kids picked them up and traded them. Can you imagine tanks against horses?”

In Harbin, Berton attended an English high school, modeled after schools throughout the British Empire. He then graduated from Y.M.C.A. College, established by American missionaries.

He played violin and graduated from The First Harbin Music Academy, where his teacher was Vladimir Trachtenberg, a pupil of the famous Leopold Auer in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. As a member of the first violin section in the Harbin Symphony Orchestra, he toured Manchuria, Korea and Japan.

After music school, Berton sought graduate education in the U.S., but couldn’t get a visa. His parents encouraged him to study violin with the world-renowned Alexander Mogilevsky in Japan.

As a member of the first violin section in the Harbin Symphony Orchestra, Berton toured Manchuria, Korea and Japan. After high school, he went to Japan and studied with the world-renowned Alexander Mogilevsky. Photo courtesy of Peter Berton.

That’s where Berton’s world changed. He became fascinated with the beauty of Japanese culture, art and calligraphy. He explored many aspects of Japanese culture. Studying martial arts, he earned a black belt in karate. His current Japanese garden and home — filled with Japanese artifacts, screens, swords, masks and paintings, including one of Mount Fuji, which he once climbed — are evidence of his passion.

In 1949, Berton’s visa arrived after 12 years. It wasn’t a student visa; he came to the U.S. as an immigrant seeking permanent residency. He immediately began graduate studies at Columbia University’s East Asian Institute. While there, he learned that the Library of Congress was looking for someone with language skills to oversee their Manchuria collection. Speaking several languages, Berton became a consultant for the Library of Congress one year after his arrival.

He became acquainted with USC as early as 1953, when Rodger Swearingen, a professor of international relations, invited his colleague Paul Langer and Berton to collaborate with him on a Ford Foundation–supported project on the Russian impact on Japan. 

In 1961, Berton returned to USC as professor of international relations and Asian studies and soon established the Asia Pacific area studies program, which he developed for the next 30 years. He also created USC’s first course on Japan.

Los Angeles is also where he met his wife Michele, who was born in Vienna, Austria, and was one of a few in her family who survived World War II. Of Jewish heritage, Michele’s parents, who perished in Auschwitz, sent her to live with a family in England a few months before the war’s onset.

Michele died in 1987 in Tokyo, Japan, while Berton was there as director of USC’s and other California private colleges and universities’ study abroad programs.

These days, Berton is finishing his latest book, From Enemies to Allies, a study of Russo-Japanese relations at the beginning of the 20th century. He doesn’t see well and uses the Zoomtext computer program to read aloud to him everything he writes and receives.

“The copy editor sent me a 21-page, single-spaced document, about 300 queries and comments, which together with my answers grew to 46 pages,” Berton groaned. “Now I’m bracing for the second round.”

He has written some of his life story and is compelled by the idea of writing a memoir.

“But,” he said, “I have one more book in-between.”

Read more articles from Dornsife Life magazine’s Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue