A beloved University of Oregon professor as well known for her kindness to students as for her exemplary scholarship died unexpectedly Nov. 2 following a stroke. Yoko McClain, professor emerita of Japanese language and literature, was 87.
"She was the guiding force that built our program into one of the top two or three in the country," said Stephen Kohl, UO associate professor emeritus of Japanese language and literature. “She was always seeing the best of everything and when things were not the best, she would work to make them better."
Kohl has worked closely with McClain since 1972, when he joined the UO faculty. He described her as a mentor and role model whose example influenced her colleagues as well as her students.
"She taught me a great deal about how to teach," he said. "In thinking back, one of the things she told me that really stood out was this: 'No matter how you feel, make sure your classes for tomorrow are all prepared before you go to bed. You’ll think that you can do it in the morning but tomorrow will be too busy.' Her point was, don't wing it. Be prepared. That kind of discipline was an important part of her makeup and she brought that out in her students as well."
McClain was born Yoko Matsuoka in Tokyo, Japan, on Jan. 1, 1924. She graduated from Tsuda College, a Japanese women's college, in 1945 and worked as a translator during the American Occupation following World War II.
Her life changed when she received what is now known as a Fulbright. She arrived at the UO as an international student and found work as a student receptionist for the UO art museum, today’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. She remained closely involved with the museum throughout her life. In August, she was honored with the museum’s Gertrude Bass Warner Award in recognition of her dedication and commitment.
"Yoko McClain was an incredible woman with grace and generosity," said Larry Fong, curator of American and regional art for the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. "She had this charming manner of challenging your ideas or prejudices with honesty. With uncommon character she was determined to shape from her experiences in war-time Japan a vision of what she in fact became—an open-minded, contemporary woman."
McClain taught Japanese at the University of Oregon from 1964 to 1994, when she became professor emerita. She continued to write extensively and frequently lectured in Japan, Europe, and the U.S.
Her maternal grandfather was the writer Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), known as the "Mark Twain" of Japan for his novels, short stories, and poetry. She followed in his literary footsteps with a dozen books and numerous articles in Japanese and English, from scholarly critiques to the acclaimed "Handbook of Modern Japanese Grammar."
In 2003, she was commended by the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs for promoting mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S. She received the College of Arts and Sciences' Alumni Fellows Award the same year. Her UO degrees include a bachelor's in French (1956) and a master's in comparative literature (1967).
Her late husband, George Robert McClain, collected Japanese prints and she donated a selection to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in his memory. She is survived by her son Ken of Eugene, a physician at the University Health Center; a sister, Mariko Hando of Tokyo; and one grandchild.
The family requests that remembrances be sent to the UO Foundation on behalf of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the UO Office of International Affairs, or the Japan America Friendship Fund.