Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller writes on a chalk board in Japanese during his time abroad in Japan as an undergrad. As an adult Rockefeller would be a major figure in American and Japanese relations.
As a college student with a passion for Japan, John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV ’58-’61 postponed his studies at Harvard for three years to study and do service there.
This first experience with hands-on volunteer work would cause Rockefeller to continue pursuing service opportunities, from the State Department to the Peace Corps. His passion for service would shape his career by leading him to the mining town of Emmons, W.Va., as a member of the Volunteers in Service to America program.
“Because of my time in Emmons, I found my cause in wanting to help West Virginians,” Rockefeller says.
Rockefeller, who has now served as a U.S. Senator from West Virginia for 26 years, has spent the rest of his career serving in a variety of political roles in the state.
LOOKING TO JAPAN
Even before enrolling at Harvard, Rockefeller had already developed an interest in Japan, possibly sparked by family trips taken during his childhood years, speculates Rockefeller’s roommate Pierre N. Leval ’59.
On campus, Rockefeller pursued this interest by concentrating in both Far Eastern Languages and History, but Leval says Rockefeller was more passionate about helping Japan outside the setting of academia.
“During his sophomore and junior year, he was not terribly interested in what was going on in his classes,” says Leval, who now serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Instead, Rockefeller “was interested in actively helping in Japan.”
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Japan was still recovering from World War II and was very reliant on the international community in its efforts to reestablish itself.
“At the time, there were almost no American civilians in Japan,” Rockefeller says. “I decided to go take an intensive Japanese language course ... and travel across the country.”
For three years, Rockefeller postponed his studies at Harvard to assist in Japan. Rockefeller says the experience provided him with “a wonderful perspective that few Americans were able to get at the time, and it only furthered my interest in East Asian Studies.”
THE WORLD OF POLITICS
But beyond his interest in Japan, his time at Harvard also impacted Rockefeller’s political views, shaping the student who “didn’t really care about politics” into a future U.S. Senator.
Rockefeller entered college a Republican, largely due to his family’s political views, Rockefeller says. But that would soon change.
“I became a big fan of President Kennedy, and when he ran against Nixon, it solidified my support and my place as a Democrat,” says Rockefeller, who is now the only elected Democrat in the traditionally Republican Rockefeller dynasty.