As he prepares to leave Kansas University, Takao Shibata reflected on a three-year tenure during which he encouraged students and faculty to broaden their horizons.
Shibata has served as the first chancellor’s lecturer, a three-year position that he assumed following a career in the Japanese foreign service. He said he first became connected to KU after serving as the Japanese consul general in the U.S. government’s Kansas City consulate.
In his position, he delivered several lectures each semester on a wide range of topics, mostly focused on East Asia, in classes and public settings.
He also taught a graduate seminar each semester that met in the chancellor’s guest house, where he’s lived while staying at KU. He reflected on his time here in an interview last week in a bright sitting room on the first floor of the rock house built in the 1930s.
Shibata said that while American students’ minds are very flexible, they often lack knowledge of history — particularly world history.
“They don’t have a historical perspective,” he said. “Current affairs has to be seen in a historical perspective.”
Shibata said, for example, while discussing the current global economic crisis during a recent forum, he noticed quite a bit of emphasis on current happenings, such as the global economic summit, without much discussion of the past.
“Issues you are confronting did not just happen today,” he said. “It is a result of some of the things you have done.”
Elaine Gerbert is an associate professor of Japanese literature in the department of East Asian languages and cultures, and a former director of the Center for East Asian Studies at KU who worked with Shibata during his time at the university.
She described the first chancellor’s lecturer as a true gentleman, refined and distinguished, who drew upon his vast array of real-world experience to help students understand their world a little better.
“It’s been great,” she said. “He’s been a breath of fresh air.”
Before becoming consul general, Shibata worked in Africa and parts of East Asia, and worked on agricultural issues at the United Nations.
Though an economist by trade, he said he felt that a wide breadth of knowledge was key to understanding an increasingly complex world.
Shibata encouraged all his students to develop a proficiency in a foreign language — speaking another language unlocks a corner of your mind, he said. Shibata said he’s found that he expresses himself differently when speaking English and Japanese.
He said he hoped the university could continue the chancellor’s lecturer program under a new chancellor and potentially bring in other foreign diplomats to teach and speak at KU.
Shibata said he will return now to New York City to join his wife, who works on African issues for the United Nations.
He said he’s glad to have spent time at KU, and has enjoyed working with students — even though he suspects that some of them may not always complete the assigned reading all of the time.
“They know how to express themselves,” Shibata said of American students, and they are intellectually curious. “If they find that they don’t have this knowledge, they can easily accept that, and then seek this knowledge.”