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Miriam Rom Silverberg, 1951 - 2008

UCLA scholar wrote about modern Japan

April 09, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Miriam Rom Silverberg, a UCLA professor emeritus of history celebrated for her writings on modern Japan and known for infusing scholarly research with wit and humor, has died. She was 57.

Silverberg died March 16 at Kindred Hospital in Los Angeles from complications of Parkinson's disease, a relative said.

Silverberg's scholarship is often required reading for those studying modern Japan. She has written about militant Japanese women, Japanese popular culture and Nakano Shigeharu, the poet and cultural critic. She encouraged the study of colonialism through the lens of the intimate, everyday interactions between the colonizer and the colonized.

"She was extremely avant garde theoretically," said Sondra Hale, a longtime friend who is a professor of anthropology and women's studies at UCLA. "She was going in all kinds of new directions in a very pioneering way."

Published last year, Silverberg's book "Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times," examines the nation in the early 20th century, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The era was marked by a self-consciously modern ethos that, Silverberg argued, challenged state ideology and expansionism. The book, which one author wrote was "destined to be a classic in Japan scholarship," exemplified her mission as a scholar.

"My goal in my work is to ask new questions and to encourage students and my readers to do the same," she said in a profile on a UCLA website. "At a time when disciplinary boundaries and established traditions in area studies are being questioned, we have an opportunity to reflect on why and how we should look at the past, in dialogue with scholars in Japan."

Born Jan. 19, 1951, in Washington, D.C., Silverberg moved with her family to Tokyo at age 9. Her father served as the labor attache at the U.S. embassy in Japan. She remained in Japan through high school and learned to speak Japanese fluently. In 1979, she earned a master's degree in history at Georgetown University and five years later earned a doctorate in Japanese history at the University of Chicago.

Silverberg's influences included the Japanese scholar Fujita Shozo and Americans Tetsuo Najita, Harry Harootunian and John Witek. In 1989, she joined the faculty of UCLA, where she encouraged students to ask tough questions and see the resonance of history in today's events.

"As someone who ended up in Japan not be choice, but by fate, I attempt to make use of my own history and heritage to teach and to write with nuance," she said on a UCLA website.

Determined not to become a dry academic, she read Hollywood gossip columns, was a movie buff, and could move easily from "high theory to talking about U.S. popular culture," Hale said.

"It was absolutely a delightful aspect of her character. Even though she was one of the most prominent historians of modern Japan, she had this very light side."

In 1990, Silverberg published "Changing Song: The Marxist Manifestos of Nakano Shigeharu," which received the John King Fairbank Award for East Asian history. The work "demonstrated the extraordinary power of literature and history when freed from their arbitrary disciplinary homes," said her friend James Fujii, who is an associate professor of Japanese literature at UC Irvine.

"It remains a peerless example of how to read literature as social critique," Fujii wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

From 2000 to 2003, Silverberg also served as director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Women.

The center was host to a leading Japanese feminist who spoke about "comfort women" and the sexual slavery imposed by Japanese men upon Korean women during World War II. The speaker "gave us insight into Japanese life and the censorship that denied the pain inflicted on the enslaved women," Silverberg said in a 2001 article in the Daily Bruin, UCLA's student newspaper.

Silverberg's work has also appeared in several collections. "The Modern Girl as Militant" appears in "Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945," published in 1991, and "The Japanese Waitress Sang the Blues" is in "Gendaa no Nihonshi" ("A Japanese History of Gender"), from 1995.

Years ago, a tumor forced Silverberg to undergo brain surgery. Later, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

In 2005, Silverberg retired from UCLA. With the help of former students and friends, she finished her final book.

Silverberg is survived by a brother, a niece, a nephew and cousins.

A memorial celebration of Silverberg's life will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at UCLA's Royce Hall 314.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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