Thomas Rohlen, a professor emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and a senior fellow emeritus at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), died on March 6, 2022. He was 81.

Tom Rohlen (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford News Library)

Rohlen was a beloved educator and a foundational figure in the development of many university programs and lectureships at Stanford. His academic interests spanned a wide array of topics within contemporary Asia Studies, with a particular focus on Japan and issues surrounding Japanese economics, education, and society.

“He was a terrifically charming, engaging person who knew an enormous amount about Japanese youth culture, spoke great Japanese, and was an excellent ethnographer,” said Martin Carnoy, a friend and colleague of Rohlen’s at the GSE.

Rohlen was born on Oct. 29, 1940, and grew up in Winnetka, Illinois. “My dad was passionately interested in people – what motivated them, how personal and cultural issues influenced their life focus, and how these influences impacted their conceptualization of fulfillment,” said Rohlen’s son, Duke. “This unrelenting quest to understand and help people was at the center of his personal, professional, and philanthropic choices and is what made him such an interesting, accomplished, and compassionate human being.”

Rohlen began his academic career as an undergraduate student at Princeton University in 1962. Following a stint in the U.S. Foreign Service in Japan from 1962 to 1965, he received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. His first academic appointment as a professor was at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Prior to coming to Stanford, he also spent time as a visiting scholar at the University of Hawaii, at the University of Toronto in the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and working with Edwin Reischauer, founder of Harvard’s Japan Institute and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, as the Reischauer Chair at Harvard University.

His expertise was recognized and appreciated by colleagues and students alike. “The program’s graduate students who worked with him benefitted richly from Tom’s skills in making them understand the cultural dimensions of different educational systems and from his masterful command of the research methods of cultural anthropology,” said fellow GSE Professor Hans N. Weiler. “To his students and his colleagues, he gave freely of his time and of his insights into the depths of Japanese culture and society.”

At FSI, Rohlen was instrumental in creating the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC), which was formally founded in 1983 as the culmination of the work of a visionary group of Stanford scholars committed to strengthening U.S.-Asia ties and addressing the need for a hub of interdisciplinary Asia research that bridges disciplines and looks at Asia in regional and global contexts. Rohlen’s longtime tenure at APARC reflected not only his deep expertise in Japan but his belief in the importance of the geopolitical relationship between the Asia-Pacific region and its relationship with the United States.

“Tom was a wonderful supporter of what we do at APARC,” said Gi-Wook Shin, Shorenstein APARC’s current director. “I always enjoyed the discussions we had over lunch and at other occasions and will miss him.”

Rohlen’s career at Stanford drew upon his experience in the U.S. Foreign Service in Japan, which informed both his research and his support for trans-Pacific initiatives to bring East and West together. In 1988, Rohlen took his leadership and institute-building skills back to Japan, where he served as the founding director of the Stanford Japan Center in Kyoto until 1990.

Throughout his career, Rohlen exemplified FSI’s mission to serve at the intersection of research, teaching, and policy. His background in government service is an early example of FSI faculty expertise based in both academic research and on-the-ground experience working in government and outreach.

Beyond benefitting from Rohlen’s academic professionalism and exemplary teaching, FSI has also been a grateful recipient of his tremendous philanthropy. Generous gifts from the Rohlen family helped establish the Oksenberg Rohlen Fund and the Payne Lectureship, which provide funds for distinguished visiting scholars at FSI. Additionally, the Thomas Rohlen Senior Fellow Fund supports a senior fellow at FSI who is typically focused on the political economy, trade, international relations, security, and politics of East Asia. Past fellows and lecturers of these endowments include Thomas Fingar, former deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis and chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO.

“Tom Rohlen was an honorable, creative, and straight-up kind of guy. He was also a complete joy to work with,” said former FSI Director Coit D. Blacker. “He was central to the establishment and subsequent development of all our Japan-centered programs during his long tenure at Shorenstein APARC. FSI – and Stanford – are better institutions because of Tom’s tireless efforts and remarkable generosity.”

Rohlen is survived by his wife Shelagh, his children Ginger, Katie, Duke, Brooks, Alison, and Michael, his stepchildren Karen, Jean, and Sarah, and 19 grandchildren.