George H. Kerr

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  • Born: 1911
  • Died: 1992

George H. Kerr was one of the leading English-language scholars on the history of Okinawa. His 1958 book Okinawa: The History of an Island People (now available in a revised edition, published in 2000) remains the only full survey of Okinawan history available in English. Kerr also published a number of notable works on Taiwan.

Born in Pennsylvania, he is said to have made friends in college with a number of students of East Asian descent, and from these interactions gained an interest in East Asian history. After completing a Master's degree at the University of Hawai'i in 1935, he received a subsidy allowing him to travel to Japan. There, while continuing his studies in Japanese history and culture, he gained an expertise in art and antiques. Kerr then took a job as a middle school English teacher in Taipei, beginning in 1937; there, he happened to meet and speak with a number of professors from Taihoku Imperial University, who inspired in him an interest in Okinawan history and culture. Once World War II broke out, he became a commissioned intelligence officer in service to the US military, heading the Formosa Research Unit associated with the US Navy Naval School of Military Government and Administration at Columbia University.

As a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserve, he penned an essay entitled "Sovereignty of the Liuchiu Islands" in which he asserted that Commodore Perry and other agents of the United States actively, intentionally, chose to treat the Ryukyu Kingdom as an independent kingdom in their interactions with Ryukyu in the 1850s, and that the post-WWII American Occupation of Okinawa was, in an important sense, a return to that friendly stance, opposed to Japanese colonialism and supportive of Okinawan distinctiveness, decolonization, and autonomy.[1]

Following the end of World War II, he served for a time as vice consul at the US consulate in Taipei. He was a vocal critic of the Guomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), and after the KMT violently suppressed popular protest in the 2-28 Incident of 1947, Kerr returned to the United States. He returned to Okinawa by 1952, however, surveying sites and monuments across the archipelago and producing Ryukyu Kingdom and Province before 1945, a survey of Okinawan history meant to serve as a textbook for use in classrooms in Okinawa under the USCAR Occupation government.[2]

He then worked for the Hoover Institution at the University of Washington for a time, and contributed to a study of the US military administration of the Ryukyu Islands, producing his first book on Okinawa in 1956. He also oversaw another such study, the Ryukyu Cultural Survey, in 1960 to 1962.

Kerr donated numerous books, documents, and photographs to the University of the Ryukyus Library over the course of the 1950s to 1980s. These continue to be maintained today at that university library as the "Kerr Collection" (Kerr bunko).

Kerr died in Hawaii in 1992, at the age of 81.


  • Display panel, University of the Ryukyus Library.[1]
  1. Tze May Loo, Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa's Incorporation into Modern Japan, 1879-2000, Lexington Books (2014), 150-151.; Kerr, "Sovereignty of the Liuchiu Islands," Far Eastern Survey 14:8 (1945), 96-100.
  2. Loo, 154.