Dr. Michitoshi Soga, Western Michigan University emeritus professor of physics, died March 3. He was 86.
Soga, a native of Japan, joined the physics faculty in 1968 and transitioned to a half-time teaching load in 1986 to serve part time as an administrative officer for what is now the Haenicke Institute for Global Education.
He retired from the faculty in 1993 after 25 years of service to the University, but continued to serve as an administrative officer for the Haenicke Institute for nearly a decade. Even after fully retiring, the Kalamazoo resident remained "on call" as a diplomat for WMU as well as Japanese students, alumni and institutions.
Soga began his professional career as a scientist, having earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Gakushuin University and a doctoral degree from Tokyo University of Education.
Before coming to WMU, he was a research associate for 10 years at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. During that time, he was a visiting scientist in the United States at the Argonne National Laboratory from 1961 to 1964 and at the Franklin Institute's Bartol Research Foundation from 1965 to 1968.
Soga specialized in nuclear as well as theoretical physics while teaching at WMU and wrote or co-wrote numerous journal articles. Some of his research was conducted in the University's Van de Graaff accelerator laboratory, and he spent the 1978-79 academic year in Japan studying and engaging in experimental and theoretical nuclear physics at the University of Tsukuba.
But throughout his entire tenure at WMU, Soga worked tirelessly to build relationships and linkages in Japan. He made a lasting impact on the University by setting up programs and linkages with higher education institutions in that country, hosting Japanese students attending WMU, and helping to build an extensive network of Japanese alumni.
He also worked—with the ever-present support and help of his wife, Ryoko—to build friendships throughout West Michigan with Japanese businesses and visitors, and was instrumental in founding the Battle Creek (Mich.) Japanese School.
Soga's legacy of bridge-building between his native land and WMU as well as the region was recognized in 2006 with the founding of the Michitoshi Soga Japan Center in the Haenicke Institute. The center promotes research to advance knowledge about Japan and is a community resource for students, scholars, governmental entities, civic and corporate leaders, and the general public.
Many of the University's hundreds of Japanese alumni were instrumental in helping to establish the center, which benefits from the Japan Friends of WMU endowment begun in 1996, and traveled to campus to celebrate its opening.
"My fondest wish is that the founding of the Japan Center will lead, some day, to the establishment of a Japanese studies major at WMU," Soga said during the celebration. His dream was realized six years later in fall 2012, when the University began offering a major as well as a minor in Japanese.
Soga has received numerous honors for his international work, including a Foreign Minister's Commendation in 2010 from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This commendation recognizes the outstanding achievements individuals and groups make in international fields and acknowledges their contributions to the promotion of friendly relations between Japan and other countries.
Among other recent accolades, Soga received an honorary doctorate in 2009 from Japan's Josai University, which chose WMU to be the first university outside of Japan it would partnered with in the exchange of students.
Wilson "Bill" Woods, retired associate dean of the Haenicke Institute who worked closely with Soga, commented at the time that Soga was a man of gentle bearing but firm determination in spreading the word of cross-cultural understanding.
"From the day he began his work in international education on our campus, he has set an example for his colleagues in how to interact with people from foreign lands," Woods said. "His unofficial title as 'Ambassador to Japan' was earned many times over. Generations of students studying in Japan, and Japanese students studying in Kalamazoo, owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Soga."
Similar sentiments were expressed in 2003 by Dr. Howard Dooley, a former head of international affairs at WMU, when a delegation of Japanese alumni returned to WMU to help the University celebrate its 100th anniversary. The group also came to campus to honor Soga and brought along a check to add to the Friends of WMU endowment.
"For 35 years, Michi was 'grandfather' to all the Japanese students who came to WMU," Dooley said during the delegation's visit. "He made welcome virtually every visitor from Japan who came to Kalamazoo to attend WMU or for business with Upjohn and other business organizations. Our friends in Japan revere Dr. Soga—as do we—and their gifts also signal their special affection for him."
A public memorial service is set for 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, April 21, on campus in Room 1910 of Sangren Hall. A reception is expected to follow in Sangren's atrium.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Soga Japan Center. To make a gift in Soga's memory, visit mywmu.com/sogajapancenter.