Frank Gibney, 81; American Expert on Japan

Times Staff Writer

Frank B. Gibney, a journalist, editor and businessman who played an influential role in post-World War II America as an interpreter of Japan and its culture, died April 9 of heart failure at his Santa Barbara home. He was 81.

Gibney was a member of the Navy’s elite corps of Japanese translators, interpreters and code breakers who were vital to efforts to end World War II. He interrogated prisoners at Pearl Harbor and other Pacific battle areas and served as a combat translator who helped to capture Col. Hiromichi Yahara, the chief Japanese military strategist on Okinawa.

He went on to become a correspondent and editor at Time and Newsweek and an editorial writer at Life magazine. He wrote 11 books, including “Five Gentlemen of Japan,” which gave many Americans their first real understanding of a country that was widely viewed as dangerous and mysterious.


“Japan was the enemy. He made them into people,” said Ezra Vogel, an Asia scholar at Harvard University who knew Gibney for 40 years.

“After World War II, Frank was one of the first to clearly describe Japan to Americans,” said Douglas G. Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, who considered Gibney to be America’s greatest interpreter of Japan and the Japanese.

“Frank was unique,” Erber added, “because he never shied from criticizing Japan, even if his criticism ruffled feathers among Japanese government and corporate leaders, most of whom were his close personal friends.”

Gibney also was founder and editor of the Japanese and Chinese editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica. His 1992 book “The Pacific Century” provided the blueprint for an award-winning 10-part PBS series broadcast in 1993.

He also wrote books about white-collar crime, Poland and the U.S. space program. He gained some notoriety in 1965 as editor of “The Penkovsky Papers,” by Oleg V. Penkovsky, a former Soviet KGB agent executed in 1963 for passing secrets to the West. The book’s authenticity was later questioned by Kremlin officials as well as some Western experts after Gibney acknowledged that the CIA provided some of the source materials.

In the days before he died, he was dictating sections of his nearly completed history of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for Viking.


“The extraordinary thing about Frank is that he wrote a great book in the early 1950s and was still going strong 50 years later,” Vogel said. “He had a deep perspective that came from studying history and business and politics and was able to communicate it well to the public. I don’t know anyone with the same combination of energy, upbeat attitude and humor [that] Frank had.”

The son of a restaurateur, Gibney was born in Scranton, Pa., and grew up in New York City. He excelled in debate and won a four-year scholarship to Yale University, where he majored in the classics.

In 1942 he became one of 1,000 men and women plucked by the Navy from Harvard, Yale and other elite institutions to learn Japanese in a crash course at the University of Colorado. That group would produce what Pomona College professor David Arase described as the godfathers of Japan studies in the U.S., and included Donald Keene, an internationally renowned translator of Japanese literature, and Robert Scalapino, who founded the University of California’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

Gibney had little interest in Japan before Pearl Harbor. “It was one of those cases where the Navy said, ‘Oh, you study Greek? That’s excellent, you must be good at languages,’ ” said Gibney’s son, James, an editor at the New York Times.

Gibney went on to spend most of the war interrogating Japanese prisoners. That experience “created the skills and talents he used the rest of his life,” said Chalmers Johnson, a longtime friend who taught Asian politics for 30 years at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.

He called Gibney “one of the last of the great Japanese linguists trained during World War II by the U.S. Navy.”


“A wartime prison camp would seem an odd spot to learn a strange country’s culture, particularly when its armies were still in the process of writing one of the bloodiest and most brutal chapters in modern history. But that is where I came to know the Japanese,” Gibney wrote in a 1997 article for Time magazine in Asia.

He worked for two years at a POW camp across from Pearl Harbor called Iroquois Point. In addition to asking prisoners about war industries, regime leaders and military strategy, he and the other interrogators spent time with their captives discussing personal histories and attitudes toward the war.

In a 2004 article for The Times, Gibney described an almost collegial relationship between the prisoners and their interrogators.

One day, when a senior intelligence officer called the camp, he was told that the executive officer “was in Honolulu checking Japanese books out of the library for prisoners and that the duty officer was playing volleyball in Pen Eight.” The caller then demanded to know to whom he was speaking. “ ‘This is Maj. Yoshida,’ came the heavily accented answer,” Gibney recounted. “Thereafter, regulations on POWs’ movements were tightened a bit.”

Gibney kept in touch with some of the prisoners after the war through reunions at a sushi restaurant operated by one of them.

Years later, he edited and wrote an introduction and commentary for “The Battle for Okinawa,” a 1995 book by Yahara, the senior Japanese staff officer in charge of what became one of the bloodiest encounters in the Pacific during the war.


Gibney remained in Japan as part of the U.S. occupation.

“I was a small human bridge between Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s conquering army and a puzzled but receptive Japanese public,” he wrote years later.

In 1947, Gibney joined the staff of Time as a foreign correspondent and later headed Time-Life’s Tokyo bureau.

He covered the Korean War and was one of the first Americans wounded, when a blast on a bridge near Seoul shattered the windshield of the jeep he was riding in.

In 1953 he published his first book on Asia, “Five Gentlemen of Japan.” In profiling a farmer, a former vice admiral in the Imperial Navy, a newspaperman, the foreman of a steel mill and Emperor Hirohito, Gibney offered an intimate glimpse into postwar Japanese society.

He knew each of his subjects personally, except for Hirohito, and portrayed even the emperor in familiar terms: “a slightly stooped, mustached gentleman of a middle age, wearing a crushed brown hat.”

Elizabeth Gray Vining, former tutor of Crown Prince Akihito, Hirohito’s son, praised the book’s “keen and careful analysis” in a New York Times review. “Their portraits are drawn with sympathy and insight; none of them is caricature,” she said of Gibney’s profiles of the five men.


In the early 1960s, Gibney worked for what he would jokingly refer to as “the four Hs” -- Hugh Hefner and Huntington Hartford.

He was briefly editor of a Hefner venture called Show Business Illustrated but left when he realized that Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, wanted more show than business in the magazine.

Gibney went on to become publisher of Show magazine, a sophisticated if short-lived Hartford-backed publication that touted among its successes an undercover expose of the Playboy bunny world by Gloria Steinem.

In 1966 he became president of Encyclopaedia Britannica in Japan and completed the Japanese edition in 1975.

The following year the Japanese government awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Third Class, for his work in cultural affairs.

A few years later, it bestowed the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class.

He was vice chairman of Britannica’s board of editors when the Chinese edition was unveiled in 1986. The first non-Marxist reference work allowed in China, it sold 50,000 copies in its first month.


Both the Japanese and Chinese editions “played a major role in the days before [the Internet] in bringing Western information to both countries,” Harvard’s Vogel said.

In addition to his son, Gibney is survived by his third wife, Hiroko Doi, of Santa Barbara, and six children: Alex Gibney of Summit, N.J.; Margot Gibney of Oakland; Frank Gibney Jr. of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Thomas Gibney of Placerville, Calif.; and Elise Gibney and Josephine Gibney of Los Angeles.