Tribute to Professor Rikki Kersten 1960 – 2023

Professor Sandra Wilson (St Antony’s 1983-89) remembers Rikki Kersten (DPhil 1985; Junior Research Fellow 1990; SAM 1998 and 2002).

Professor Emerita Rikki Kersten was a distinguished scholar of modern Japanese history and politics, especially intellectual history after 1945. She died in Canberra on 21 December 2023 after a period of illness.

Rikki’s chief research interests were in ideas about democracy and fascism in Japan, historical and philosophical revisionism, and debates about apologies for wartime conduct. Her book on Maruyama Masao, perhaps the most prominent political theorist and political scientist of the post-war period, was published as Democracy in Post-War Japan: Maruyama Masao and the Search for Autonomy (Routledge 1996). It is a landmark study in the English-language literature on this complex thinker. Rikki had a secondary area of specialisation in Japanese security policy, including Australia-Japan security relations and the U.S.-Japan alliance. For many years she was a familiar and authoritative voice in media coverage of Japanese politics, security and foreign policy. At the same time, she maintained a long career in university administration.

Rikki was born in Wollongong in New South Wales. She did her Honours degree in Japanese history at Adelaide University, working in the latter stages with Dr Stephen S. Large. She worked for five years in the Australian diplomatic service, holding a post in the political section at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. In 1984, Rikki arrived at St Antony’s College to begin an MPhil and then DPhil with Professor Arthur Stockwin. During the course of her studies and in later years she spent considerable time in Japan, especially at the Institute of Social Science at Tokyo University and at Keio University.

Early in her academic career, Rikki was director at the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific at Sydney University, then professor of Modern Japanese Studies and Head of Japanese Studies at Leiden University. From 2006 she was Dean of the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University, and Professor in the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs. Rikki then spent seven years at Murdoch University in Perth, as Dean of Arts and later director of the Asia Research Centre, before retiring from full-time academic work and returning to her home in Canberra in 2020. At the time of her death she was excited to be planning a large new project, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, on the history of Japan-Australia relations.

Rikki was a generous friend and mentor who is sadly missed by her many colleagues and students  around the world. She is survived by her brother Tim, his wife Allye and their son Corin. A memorial service will be held in Canberra on 21 February 2024.

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