Atsuko Hirai, a professor, author and scholar of modern Japan who taught courses in history and Asian studies at Bates College for 25 years, died Monday after lengthy battle with cancer. She was 78.

Hirai was the Kazushige Hirasawa Professor of History at Bates College from 1988 to 2013.

According to her obituary, which is published in Friday’s newspaper, Hirai taught introductory and advanced courses in Japanese history.

She also taught specialized courses such as Japan in the age of imperialism, World War II in the Pacific, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, postwar Japan through film and literature, gender in Japanese history, and Americans in Japan.

Hirai was remembered by her colleagues this week as a witty and engaging professor who devoted her professional life to increasing understanding between Japan and the United States.

“The most fascinating thing about her …she used to joke that she was neither Japanese or American, but that she was a citizen of Japan Airlines, stuck at 35,000 feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” recalled Dennis Grafflin, professor of Chinese history at Bates College. “She really was someone born and raised in Japanese culture, but so much of her life was spent in American culture. So she didn’t really feel comfortable being either one.”

Hirai was born in Japan in 1936 and studied international relations at Tokyo University. Grafflin said she was one of only six women in her graduating class. She went on to earn a doctorate in government from Harvard University. Prior her appointment at Bates, Hirai was an associate of research at the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at Harvard. She lectured on the history and politics of Japan, her obituary said.

Hirai spent much of her life researching the history of modern Japan and the West, the state and pre-war liberalism in Japan, and women in modern Japan. She authored several scholarly articles and books including, “Individualism and Socialism: The Life and Thought of Kawai Eijiro (1891-1944),” published in 1987.

Her latest book, “Government by Mourning: Death and Political Integration in Japan, 1612–1912,” was published a few weeks ago by Harvard University. The book is a study of governmental edicts on mourning and related rites in Japan.

John Cole, the Bates’ Thomas Hedley Reynolds Professor Emeritus of History, helped edit the final draft of Hirai’s latest book. Cole said their colleagues gathered at Hirai’s house in late June to celebrate the release of her book.

“Finishing the book project gave her purpose,” Cole said. “There was a major investment of herself as a scholar and to see that come to fruition in her life was wonderful.”

Hirai was also remembered Thursday as an accomplished musician with a beautiful soprano voice. Throughout her career at Bates, she gave several concerts often accompanied by Bates artist-in-residence Frank Glazer.

Hirai loved to entertain and host dinner parties at her home in Lewiston.

“She was definitely one of a kind,” Grafflin said. “I admired the way she carved out this interesting and rewarding life for herself. In a world that really didn’t quite know what to do with her …time and time again along the way, she ran into total incomprehension. It doesn’t seem so odd now to be a young Asian woman academic, but in her generation they were few and far in between.”

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