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Ivan Morris was born in London, of mixed American and Swedish parentage, to Ira Victor Morris and Edita Morris. He studied at Gordonstoun, before graduating from Phillips Academy. He began his study of Japanese language and culture at Harvard University, where he received a BA. He received a doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He wrote widely on modern and ancient Japan and translated numerous classical and modern literary works. Ivan Morris was one of the first interpreters sent into Hiroshima after the explosion of the bomb.
Dr Morris served on the faculty of Columbia University from 1960 to 1973 and was chairman of Columbia's Department of East Asian languages and Cultures from 1966 to 1969. In 1966 he was elected a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford. He was one of the founders of Amnesty International USA and was the first chair of its Board of Directors from 1973 to 1976. He was a friend of Yukio Mishima; he wrote The Nobility of Failure partly to place the circumstances surrounding Mishima's death in historical context. The book is dedicated to Mishima's memory.
- Nationalism and the Right Wing in Japan: A Study of Postwar Trends, Oxford University Press, 1960.
- The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Alfred A. Knopf 1964
- Dictionary of Selected Forms in Classical Japanese Literature Columbia University Press, 1966
- The Tale of Genji Scroll, Kodansha, 1971.
- The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975
- Life of an Amorous Woman by Ihara Saikaku, Unesco/New Directions Books 1963
- The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, Oxford University Press, 1967
- As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (Sarashina Nikki), The Dial Press 1971.
- The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, by Yukio Mishima. Knopf, 1959
- The Journey, by Jiro Osaragi, Charles E. Tuttle, 1967
- Fires on the Plain, by Shohei Ooka, Martin Secker & Warburg 1957
- Modern Japanese Stories, Charles E. Tuttle, 1962
- Masao Maruyama, Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics, Oxford University Press 1963
- Japan, 1931–45: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism?, Heath, 1963
- The Pillow-Book Puzzles, Bodley Head, 1969
- Madly Singing in the Mountains: an Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, Walker, 1970