Cover photo for Herman Ooms's Obituary
Herman Ooms Profile Photo

Herman Ooms

May 16, 1937 — December 14, 2023

Herman Ooms

May 16, 1937 — December 14, 2023

Los Angeles

Herman Ooms, professor emeritus of Japanese history at UCLA, died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of December 14, 2023, at his new board-and-care group home in Sherman Oaks, California. He had not been in good health for some time, especially in the years just before and after the death of his wife of 47 years, Emily Groszos Ooms, in August 2021, but he never lost his sense of humor or his interest in the world.

Herman was born on May 16, 1937, in Meise, Belgium, the eldest of five sons. His father, Joseph Ooms, was a teacher in the primary school in Meise that Herman and his brothers attended. Early in Herman's childhood, Joseph had served as an officer in the Belgian Army and had spent three months as a prisoner of war in Germany. Herman’s mother, Maria Debuyser, took care of the home and the family. At age eighteen, after completing his studies at a Jesuit high school in Brussels, Herman joined the Jesuit order himself. He spent two years in the novitiate program at the abbey in Drongen, a small village near Ghent, and studied Latin and ancient Greek for two years in Wépion, near Namur. After earning a master’s degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, Herman traveled with the Jesuits to Japan, where he earned a master’s degree in the anthropology of religion from the University of Tokyo in 1962. It was in Japan that he began learning his fourth modern language. (His first three were Flemish, French, and German; his fourth was Japanese, and English would be his fifth.)

Herman left the Jesuits in 1969, and three years later he received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago. While teaching at the University of Illinois Chicago, known as Chicago Circle, he met Emily Groszos, who would become his wife in 1974. In 1987 Herman joined the History Department at UCLA and moved to Los Angeles with Emily and their growing family. Renata was born in 1985, Jonathan in 1990. Despite the difficulties of traveling with young children, Herman and Emily made a number of trips with Renata and Jonathan to Belgium to visit Herman’s family and to Japan for research, sightseeing, and visiting with the friends they had made while living in Japan together for several years in the early 1980s.

Herman was “a prodigious scholar and a gifted teacher,” as his longtime friend and colleague Anne Walthall describes him. During his twenty-five years at UCLA, he taught classes on a wide range of topics, from premodern Japanese history to the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, and published books that explored ideology and culture in the Tokugawa era and politics in ancient Japan. His first book, Charismatic Bureaucrat: A Political Biography of Matsudaira Sadanobu, 1758–1829, appeared in 1975; a decade later came Tokugawa Ideology: Early Constructs, 1570–1680. A Japanese translation of his second book, Tokugawa ideorogii, won the Watsuji Tetsuro Culture Prize in 1992. His third book in English, Tokugawa Village Practice: Class, Status, Power, Law, published in 1996, received special recognition from the Herbert Jacobs Book Prize Committee of the Law and Society Association and was later translated into Japanese. His fourth book in English, Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650–800, appeared in 2009. Emily, who was a published scholar of Japanese religion before she left academia to pursue a career in education, was an intellectual companion to Herman and often served as the first reader and editor of his books.

At a 2013 celebration of his career, an all-day symposium held at UCLA’s Terasaki Center, Herman’s colleagues and former advisees and students presented their work and paid tribute to him as a scholar and mentor. His student Nadia Kanagawa, now at Furman University, recently wrote to Renata and Jonathan that when they lost touch in the last years of Herman’s life, she missed his “wit and sharpness, as well as his warmth.” She added, “I always knew I could trust him to tell me if there was something real in any piece of work I gave him.” Another student of Herman’s, Emi Foulk Bushelle, now at Western Washington University, writes that she changed her focus to Tokugawa intellectual history during her first quarter of graduate school “because of how Herman taught the class and infused it with his own enthusiasm for the topic.” As she worked with him on her dissertation, “he was always so supportive and open-minded and so generous with his time and intellect.” Herman’s closing remarks at the symposium provide an excellent glimpse into his professional life: “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 many 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.”

Neighbors from Colina Glen, the faculty community where Herman and Emily lived for more than three decades, remember camping trips at McGrath State Park in Oxnard, picnics, dinners, hikes, get-togethers in the clubhouse (Herman and Emily had some dazzling dance moves), and conversation on a very wide range of topics. He served a term as board president of the homeowners’ association—a thankless task. Renata and Jonathan’s memories of childhood include the bike adventures Herman took them on, the breakfasts he made without fail (pancakes every Saturday morning, waffles every Sunday), the elaborate playhouses he built out of cardboard in the garage, and the fun they had on summer trips to visit their Belgian family. Even as his hearing began to fade after his retirement, Herman became increasingly interested in art, which he was happy to talk about with neighbors taking classes through UCLA Extension or the Plato Society, and maintained his interest in foreign movies. His neighbors and many others who knew Herman well were struck by his sense of humor and his intellect. A close friend of Emily’s who met Herman in 1974 says that Herman was one of the funniest people she knew. “I think his deep knowledge of so many languages made him alert to all of the ‘pun possibilities’ in any remark,” she writes. “He had perennially twinkly eyes and was always willing to appreciate others’ humor. At the same time, his intelligence and breadth of knowledge made him a serious conversationalist. Time with Herman was always well spent.”

In the last years of his life, despite growing difficulties with his memory, Herman maintained that sense of humor. His sweetness, too, was apparent in his relationship with his young granddaughter, Emi. (It might have been because he always pointed out the birds outside the window that her first word was “bird.”) His caregivers found him an exceptionally caring and fun-loving person. 

Herman was preceded in death by his youngest brother, Alex, and his wife, Emily. He is survived by his two children, Renata and Jonathan; their spouses, Ned Perkins and Laura Griebenow; his three-year-old granddaughter, Emily Fay (“Emi”) Perkins; his brothers Hugo, Eric, and Luc and his sisters-in-law Maria, Sonia, Ingrid, and Clara; 14 nieces and nephews; and many grandnieces and grandnephews. 

A memorial service will be held later this year.

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