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Joyce Irene Ackroyd (1918–1991)

by Nanette Gottlieb

This article was published:

Joyce Irene Ackroyd (1918-1991), professor of Japanese, was born on 23 November 1918 at Newcastle, New South Wales, second child of locally-born parents Alfred Walter Goldsmith Ackroyd, architect, and his wife Constance, née Lloyd. Educated at Newcastle and Parramatta High schools, Joyce attributed her lifelong interest in Japan to a childhood fascination with the East and an intellectual curiosity sparked by later history studies at school. Japan’s art, its language and ‘arcane script,’ and its samurai tradition attracted her most (Queensland Art Gallery 1990, 1). Not being permitted to study Japanese at the University of Sydney on a teacher’s scholarship in 1936, because of lack of demand in secondary schools, made her determined that Japanese culture and language would one day be taught in Australian schools. Meanwhile, she graduated with honours in English and history and a major in mathematics (BA, 1940; DipEd, 1941).

While teaching mathematics at a Sydney boys’ school, Ackroyd studied Japanese part time at university. She lectured in Japanese at the University of Sydney (1944-47), and then went to Cambridge University, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on the Confucianist Arai Hakuseki (PhD, 1951). Visiting Japan for the first time in 1952 as the inaugural Saionji memorial scholar, she studied at Keio and Tokyo universities for two years. From 1952 to 1956 she was a research fellow at the Australian National University, after which she became senior lecturer at Canberra University College (1956-59) and associate professor in Japanese at the ANU (1959-65). On 12 May 1962 at the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, she married Frank Warren (John) Speed, a military historian in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU.

In 1965 Ackroyd was appointed foundation professor in the new department of Japanese language and literature at the University of Queensland. ‘When I went to Queensland in 1966,’ she later recalled, ‘students flocked to Japanese as an escape from the seeming irrelevance of European languages’ under the then mandatory Arts language-study requirement (Ackroyd 1986, 13-14). An aptitude test had to be administered to cut 280 intending students down to a more manageable 120.

Giving her inaugural lecture, Ackroyd stressed the importance of the study of Japanese language and literature in meeting Australia’s need to understand the Japanese people better. To this end, in 1967 she convinced the Queensland government to establish Japanese classes in six metropolitan high schools on a trial basis. She later wrote textbooks for use in schools. Before retiring in 1983, she also inaugurated a ground-breaking, professionally accredited, coursework postgraduate degree in Japanese interpreting and translation.

Appointed OBE in 1982 for her services to education, Ackroyd was elected to the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1983. Japanese honours included the Yamagata Banto Prize (1983) for outstanding publications introducing Japan’s culture to the world, and the Third Class Order of the Precious Crown for furthering relations between Australia and Japan, also in 1983. Her best-known books are her annotated translations of the autobiography of Arai Hakuseki, Told Round a Brushwood Fire (c. 1979), and of his Tokushi Yoron, Lessons from History (1982).

Known throughout the university for her often prickly personal style, Ackroyd could be dictatorial on occasion, but her tenacity and determination enabled her to achieve much for her discipline, in particular pushing through the introduction of the teaching of Japanese in Queensland schools. The Japanese department she established became one of Australia’s largest and strongest. Survived by her husband, Ackroyd died on 30 August 1991 at Auchenflower and was cremated. In 1990 she had been the first woman to have a building on the University of Queensland campus named after her.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Joyce. ‘Japanese Studies: Then and Now.’ Japanese Studies 6, no. 1 (1986): 13-18
  •  Alumni News (University of Queensland). ‘40 Years of Promoting Australian and Japanese Ties.’ 16, no. 1 (1984): 6-7
  • Queensland Art Gallery. The Joyce Ackroyd Gift: Japanese Woodblock Prints and Decorative Art Objects. South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1990
  • University News (University of Queensland). ‘Japanese Studies Pioneer Saw Benefits of Her Labour.’ 18 September 1991, 4.

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Citation details

Nanette Gottlieb, 'Ackroyd, Joyce Irene (1918–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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