William Minoru Tsutsui

This story was originally published on May 10, 2015, in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2015/may/10/william-minoru-tsutsui/

By Ron Wolfe

CONWAY — The big man on campus looks to another big mover-and-shaker for tips on how to make a gigantic impression.

Newly inaugurated Hendrix College President Bill Tsutsui (“suit-sooey”) stands tall as an expert on the Japanese movie monster Godzilla. Tsutsui wrote the book on his favorite saurian, Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Before he wrote the book, he had to prove two things to the skeptical publisher. First, that he knew the subject up and down to the exact number of the lizard’s toes. Second, that he could write understandably in spite of a doctorate in history.

“When I was 9,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “I wanted to be Godzilla. I wanted to drag my big reptilian feet through a crowded city.”

The book proceeds to find history, metaphor and meaning in the wake of Godzilla’s destruction, and winds up with a dozen small-type pages of academic notes.

“I still get letters about it,” Tsutsui says. The Godzilla book towers “10-to-one” over sales of the other books he has written or edited, such as Banking Policy in Japan and Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan.

The list goes on to eight books, but Godzilla keeps moving, too — more than 60 years of Godzilla movies as recent as last year’s subaqueous Godzilla, and more to come.

Tsutsui, 51, keeps watch from his third-floor office at Hendrix, overlooking the tree-shaded campus of red bricks and blooming azaleas.

He came to Hendrix from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he had been dean and professor of history at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. The largest of SMU’s seven schools encompasses 16 departments and 275 faculty, more than twice the size of Hendrix.

“At SMU, I could know all the faculty,” he says, “but I couldn’t know all the students. I knew the best students, and I knew the worst students. Here, I know all the students.”

The office is home to the college president’s collection of Godzilla action figures, partly because his wife won’t allow these dozens of toys around the house. Hendrix professor of English, poetry teacher and Tsutsui bride of 26 years Marjorie Swann confirms the ban. She cites the old wisdom that “In marriage, three is a crowd,” and her own extrapolation, “A marriage that includes a giant, radioactive lizard is really crowded.”

Mostly, the office array is to teach something he learned about himself, Tsutsui says — something he’d share with the college’s 1,400 students.

“It’s important to me that people accept me for who I am,” he says. “A job would be terrible if you didn’t have any fun at it.”

He looks the part of the high-level academic executive, complete with silvered hair, a file in his hand labeled “Finance Committee,” and the slim gray suit he lost 100 pounds to wear.

He lost the poundage in 2013-2014, and runs to hold his weight to 170 pounds. Pictures of him online show the Godzilla-like “Old Bill,” he says. Old Bill’s doctor gave him a scare talk about blood pressure, and besides, “I was a blob.”

He cites no atomic-powered weight-loss secret, just exercise and eating right. “I saw results, I felt better, and it just happened.”

But Godzilla precedes him like the world’s most undeniable public relations man. Introductions seem hardly necessary. Everybody who knows Godzilla knows something about Tsutsui.

Students come to him with all sorts of odd interests, he says. Theirs can’t be any stranger than his, after all. He understands things that might be awkward to bring forward.

If the president so openly likes Godzilla, then what’s peculiar about wanting to investigate, say, the scientific value of fungus? What’s wrong with taxidermy? He says go for it. But do it to high standards.

Saturday, he will preside over his first Hendrix commencement ceremony at 9 a.m. in the college’s Wellness and Athletics Center.

“For me, this is the perfect place to go to college,” he says. If more people don’t think of Hendrix and Arkansas as tops for higher education, “we have to change that.”

GODZILLA VS. THE HO-HUM

Tsutsui joined Hendrix about a year ago, and was inaugurated in April. Accepting the ceremonial chain of office, he is the 11th president of the more than 130-year-old private college affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

Besides regular class assignments, the Your Hendrix Odyssey program requires students to make up their own studies. “Artistic Creativity” and “Service to the World” are among the program’s six categories.

The new president called for new ways to make Hendrix more accessible and diverse and less expensive. He spoke to an outdoor audience of students and alumni, and to one extra-large supporter — Godzilla the inflatable, on loan from a car lot.

Hendrix board of trustees Chairman David Knight co-chaired the search committee that named Tsutsui as the best of 120 applicants.

“He met all of the criteria the search committee was looking for in a president,” Knight says. “He is very intelligent, has exceptionally strong academic and teaching credentials, is a staunch advocate for the liberal arts [and] understands the financial and administrative aspects of running a college.”

Tsutsui brings high energy and people skills to the job of doing exactly what he promised, the chairman says.

“Bill’s top achievement so far involves the implementation of three related programs,” Knight says. First, “the Hendrix Arkansas Advantage guarantees that the college will meet 100 percent of the financial need of incoming Arkansas students.”

The program’s offer of scholarship, grant and loan money is to high school seniors who meet standards including a 3.6 or higher grade point average.

Also, the chairman cites “new scholarship programs in partnership with KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena, and with the League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC].”

The Knowledge Is Power Program is a college preparation network of public charter schools in areas the program defines as “underserved.” The partnership calls for Hendrix to recruit and enroll four to six KIPP alumni each year.

The agreement with LULAC provides three new scholarships for Hispanic students.

All together, these steps as taken by Tsutsui “will help increase diversity on campus while maintaining our traditionally high academic standards for admitting new students,” Knight says.

“Our Hendrix community is comprised of a lot of unique, creative individuals,” Knight says. “A Godzilla expert fits right in. “

GODZILLA VS. TEXAS

“Being an academic means you can’t have a hobby that you don’t want to study,” Tsutsui says. The fire-breathing lizard has been a thundering interest of his since childhood, a companion to his degrees from Princeton (doctorate in history), Harvard (East Asian studies) and Oxford University (modern Japanese studies).

He was smitten from childhood, from his first glimpse of the reptile-on-a-rage on TV at home in Bryan, Texas. The Godzilla book shows a photo of him at age 9, outfitted in a mom-made-it Godzilla costume that wowed nobody but him.

Born in New York, he grew up as the only child of parents who taught at Texas A&M University. Both had gone far out of their way for science. His father had been a Japanese naval commander in World War II.

“He was a pacifist his whole life,” Tsutsui says. The college leader is middle-named Minoru for his father. “He thought the war stole his youth. He thought science was the way to peace.”

Tsutsui’s father forbid him to speak Japanese even at home, wanting to keep the accent out of the boy’s voice. But still, the young Tsutsui had to wonder about his father’s experience.

Godzilla was his connection to Japan, and to all that he wanted to know about Japan. At age 11, he came back from a family visit to Tokyo with the prize he still keeps of a tin toy Godzilla. (“My deepest desire,” he writes.)

His English-German, “white as Wonder Bread” mother felt at home in New York City, he says, and “Texas was hard on my mother.”

“The pressure of doing a science project at my house was intense,” Tsutsui says. Early on, he ruled out a career in science as too intimidating. Economics? Market undriven. Lawyer? Case dismissed.

But as anyone might who attended Davy Crockett Elementary School in Bryan, he stuck with the identity of Texan-at-heart, complete with slow-smoked ideas about barbecue.

One of the new president’s goals is to try the famous barbecue in all of Arkansas’ 75 counties, and so to meet Hendrix alumni and prospective students across the state.

“Everybody can relate to barbecue,” he says.

A dozen plates under his belt so far, he has to be honest. He is a Texas brisket man. He’ll give Arkansas pork barbecue only another several dozen chances.

GODZILLA VS. GODZILLA

Tsutsui and his Canadian-born wife met in England at Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College, at a mixer for undergraduates, she says.

They were the only two drinking orange juice — she being a teetotaler, and he being wary of wine, and both “on the same nerdy wavelength.”

“Instead of dating like normal people,” Swann says, “we proofread each other’s theses.”

For a young man on the singles scene, “Godzilla is not a winner,” Tsutsui says. He kept his ponderous pal a secret for later in the relationship.

“Very late,” she says, “very late. I think we were engaged. I think I got the ring before the truth about Godzilla came out.”

Her office at Hendrix is in the same building as his, but distinct for being a “Godzilla-free zone.” In her regard, the lizard is not more than bait on the end of a fishing line. Her admiration goes to Izaak Walton, the 17th-century author of The Compleat Angler. She is the editor of the Oxford University Press’ new edition of the book.

He knows the original Godzilla has four toes per ground-shaking foot. Some of the monster’s later incarnations have three toes. Three toes signal a kinder Godzilla.

She knows that Walton’s fishing line was made of horsehair, and that his bobber was called a quill, made from a feather, but he also used a hackle: an artificial fly.

Most nights they devote neither to lizard toe-counting nor fly-tying (although she wants to learn) but to activities on campus. “There is so much going on,” she says.

GODZILLA VS. REALITY

Tsutsui’s Asian studies have taken him repeatedly to Japan — nearly one time too many.

In 2011, he was on a bus in Tokyo when the strongest recorded earthquake in the nation’s history rocked the island.

Hundreds of miles from the coastal quake and tsunami, “you could see the buildings move all around you,” he says. People ran terrified.

As news came of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, “of course, it reminded everyone of Godzilla,” he says.

Americans never quite got the message of the monster’s origin, Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1954, titled Gojira in Japan), Tsutsui says. Americans saw a goofy, altered version of the picture, but the real thing terrified Japanese audiences. Nuclear fear spawned the monster.

Tsutsui became the global news media’s man on the spot — part “expert on Japanese business,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education describes him, part Godzilla know-it-all.

Somebody had to say it: Real-life catastrophe in no way compares to a movie, except when it does. Human thinking, he wrote in Newsweek, “often turns to fiction to make sense of an overwhelming reality.”

GODZILLA VS. THE CYBER MONSTER

Tsutsui brought Godzilla to the classroom earlier in his career to teach Japanese history at the University of Kansas.

Seen a certain way, the movies chronicle postwar Japan from devastation to prosperity, back to economic troubles and concern over the environment. Movies show the changing skyline as Godzilla tramples it. The lizard does what he can to defend the Earth (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971), but people have to do the rest, and they have to be smart about it.

They need college — a place like Hendrix, Tsutsui says, “the future of liberal arts” in a world gone more-and-more online.

“Residential college is the standard by which all other college education is judged,” he says, “the gold standard in American higher education.”

When students come out of college ready to leave big footprints, good for them. “If they can do it with a guy who loves Godzilla,” he says, “all the better.”