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Terasaki Center Celebrates Career of UCLA Japanese History Professor Herman Ooms

 Scholars from as far as Tokyo and Toronto converged on Royce Hall on Saturday to celebrate the career and retirement of UCLA Japanese History Professor, Herman Ooms. The Terasaki Center hosted the all day event, which included a symposium with presentations by Ooms’ current and former advisees, three discussion panels, and a dinner. Over 60 guests guests attended.

The symposium panelists, who included Ooms’ colleagues as well as former advisees and students from across the country, presented their current work in panels titled “Practice,” “Ideology,” and “Symbolics,” respectively. Their presentation topics ranged from ancient Japanese religious art (from Jan Goodwin and Joan Piggot from USC) to post-colonial Seoul (Todd Henry, UCSD), to 15th century Okinawan ideology (Mark McNally, University of Hawai). 

Professor Ooms joined UCLA’s History department in 1987, where he has lectured on such wide-ranging topics pre-modern Japanese History as well as social theorist Pierre Bourdieau. Upon completing his MA in Philosophy in his home country of Belgium, he first travelled to Japan in 1962, enrolling at the University of Tokyo, where he attained a second Master’s, this time in Anthropology of Religion. Since conferring his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1973, Ooms has published several books that extensively explore ideology and culture in the Tokugawa-era, as well as politics in ancient Japan. On Ooms’ breadth of scholarship, his fellow UCLA Japan Historian, Professor William Marotti said, “When I came to UCLA in 2006, I had already been teaching Herman’s Tokugawa works for a number of years. But I recall being floored to discover that he had moved backwards in time some 800 plus years to take on an entirely different set of materials and historiographical challenges. To me, that’s the mark of a creative historian.”

After a keynote presentation and address by University of Toronto’s Tom Kierstead, Ooms’ former students, who now teach at universities across the country, took turns humorously recalling their own experiences meeting with Ooms in his office and in seminar. One recounted how Professor Ooms, having given him a passing grade on his French exam, proceeded to tell him, “‘I don’t want you to think that you can read French now,’” punctuating Ooms’ fastidiousness with language. The speeches also underscored Ooms’ significant contributions to his field, and University of California Irvine’s Serk Bah Suh praised his lasting influence on the emerging face of Korean Studies.

Another of Ooms’ former advisees, University of Minnesota’s Hiromi Mizuno, who organized the symposium, remarked on Ooms’ legacy, saying “He has mentored a large number of students and created a lively community of committed scholars.” Mizuno is optimistic that he will continue to research and publish well into retirement: “Now that he has the ‘second tenure,’ and more time to focus on his research and writing, he'll be producing a book not at the one-book-a-decade pace but at the one-book-per-five-years pace!”

   Terasaki Center Director Hitoshi Abe also stopped by the event to pay tribute to Ooms in a toast, “He has had a remarkable and prolific career, and his retirement calls for special recognition. The Terasaki Center is very happy to celebrate Professor Ooms and his legacy today.”      

After the ceremony, Ooms reflected on his career, his academic community, and the evening: “After a career of studying Japan for fifty years, I deeply feel the extraordinary privilege I was granted throughout my adult life to fully pursue a vague desire I fostered as a teenager in Belgium. The symposium brought home, vividly, memorably, and unforgettably that for half of these years, spent here at UCLA, I was blessed with wonderful students who, through this reunion, made clear that we form an extended family.”