Richard King Beardsley was born on December 16, 1918, in Cripple Creek, California. He received both his bachelor's degree (1939) and Ph.D. (1947) from the University of California at Berkeley.
Beardsley served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, serving as a naval language officer in Hawaii, Guam, Iwo Jimo, and Chingtao. After receiving his Ph.D. from Berkeley, he briefly joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota. A few months later, he accepted an appointment in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Michigan as an instructor. He stayed at Michigan for his entire professional career, rising through the ranks, and was appointed as an assistant professor in 1947, associate professor in 1953, and professor in 1960. He was one of the core faculty for the Center for Japanese Studies at the university, founded in 1948, and served as its director from 1961 to 1964, 1973 to 1974, and 1977 to 1978. He also served as acting chairman of the Department of Anthropology from 1971 to 1972.
Beardsley's most well-known publication was Village Japan (University of Chicago Press, 1959), a study of the Japanese rice-growing village of Niiike, written with John W. Hall and Robert E. Ward. It was based on studies the trio conducted while in residence at the University of Michigan's field station in Okayama, Japan in the early 1950s. Beardsley returned to the area in 1973 and 1974 to conduct follow-up studies, about which he was preparing a book at the time of his death. Beardsley also co-authored Twelve Doors to Japan (McGraw-Hill, 1965), a general introduction to Japanese culture, with John W. Hall. He published a number of articles on various facets of the ethnography and archaeology of Japan, as well as several resources for the study of Japan.
While most of his field studies focused on Japan, Beardsley's early archaeological fieldwork took place in central and northern California and Mexico. He also received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1958 to conduct an ethnographic study in Valencia, Spain. Beardsley also studied several Japanese-American communities in the United States.
Beardsley was a strong advocate of increased understanding of Japan in the United States. He participated in a number of programs about Japan for the University of Michigan Television Center. He was active in the Project on Asian Studies in Education (PASE), an initiative developed by the Center for Japanese Studies to assist in the development of Asian Studies curricula at the high school and college levels. He was well-respected in Japanese and American academic and public circles and instrumental in furthering relations between the university and Japanese corporations through his participation in the East Asian Capital Campaign.
Beardsley and his wife, Grace, had three children. He died on June 9, 1978, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
(Additional information on Richard K. Beardsley may be found in the Center for Japanese Studies records, available at the Bentley Historical Library.)