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Irwin Scheiner
In Memoriam

Irwin Scheiner

Professor of History, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

One of Irv Scheiner’s students describes his office as the “crossroad of the department,” where “everyone wanted to linger.” Well, yes. I was next door for the latter decades of his tenure – Irv joined the faculty in 1963 and retired in 2006 – and took routine lessons in charisma. People came for the laughter, the grin, and (once upon a time) “the somehow comforting aroma of cigar smoke.” Mostly, they came for the conversation in our only real salon. It turned on department politics and on succor (Irv was the person you sought in distress). Mostly, it turned on writing.

Uncanny in the reach of his reading and the precision of his recall, Irv inspired students with “shock at the passion he brought to our discussion of ideas and awe at the intellect on display,” instilling in them “a respect verging on reverence for the art of history writing.” But our own work summoned his deepest reserves. He read it so tirelessly, and responded with so rare a combination of “warmth and acuity,” that he set the standard for intellectual generosity. Colleagues across fields and students at every stage learned in Irv’s office to write, and hence to think, better. As a friend from graduate school discovered when finishing his dissertation, “Irv was one of the best readers and interlocutors I would have the privilege to know.” He did push hard (through third and fourth drafts), with a “vigor and restless energy” that moved from mind to body (“now rocking back hands behind the head, now lurching forward”). He also had a stare – the “Scheiner look” – that rose reflexively at a “half-baked thought.” Yet this “democrat of the intellect” (who “delighted in good debate” and “declined to pull rank”) always sent us from his office feeling “elevated” by his respect. Again, his friend from graduate school: a “characteristic willingness to listen,” coupled with humor and humility, made Irv a “hedge against the excesses of gravitas” and “its academicized morbidities.” 1

Irwin Scheiner was born in Queens, NYC, on May 22, 1931. (He never quite left: “Nothing was better than hearing him pronounce ‘moral dilemma’ in his Queens accent.”) He died, just after his ninetieth birthday, on May 29, 2021. His father, an immigrant from the Kraków area (in the country recognized since 1918 as Poland), owned a store in Far Rockaway, a beach town where Irv once worked as a cabana boy. His mother was a political activist and his grandmother, to whom Irv was especially close, a cook at Ratner’s, the legendary restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Irv graduated from the even more legendary Bronx School of Science and Queens College, majoring in history (B.A. 1953). His interest in Japan, first kindled in college by the occasional comparative reference, was enriched by a visit there while serving in the army in Korea. Following his discharge, Irv began graduate study – and training in the Japanese language – at the University of Michigan, where he received his Ph.D. degree in history in 1966.

Three years earlier, Irv had already been recruited by Berkeley during a breath-catching talent hunt that would multiply the size and define the quality of the history department. The cohort of the ’60s, over forty in number, formed intense bonds rooted for many in durable friendship. Irv was at its core. He treasured his colleagues and found a life-giving calling in the department.

Irv’s first book, Christian Converts and Social Protest in Meiji Japan (UC Press, 1970), grew out of his dissertation. In what comes closest in his published work to autobiographical reflection, Irv muses over the challenge in remarks offered in 1997 at the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies:

I was forced to consider the radical ideological effects upon Meiji Japan of the conversion to Protestant Christianity of a samurai elite. Even before discussing this problem, I had to examine the effective and functional significance of tradition upon individuals facing a social debacle and a value crisis. Radical transformation and adept adaptation, Marx and Weber came together for me in writing my book. 
(Irwin Scheiner, Marx vs. Area Studies: Social Science Illusions)

The blend there of intellectual and social history, informed by highly disparate sources, became the hallmark of an oeuvre that includes the masterful “Socialism, Liberalism and Marxism in Japan” (written with Peter Duus for Volume 6 of the Cambridge History of Japan, 1988). Irv increasingly found a focus, however, in the peasant rebellion and agrarian thought of the early modern period. Among many persistently generative articles, his readers invoke as seminal “Benevolent Lords and Honorable Peasants.” This essay, in Kären Wigen’s words, “points to the Biblical covenant between God and his chosen people to capture the mutuality of a relationship between parties of grossly unequal power.” It appeared in Japanese Thought in the Tokugawa Period (Scheiner and Tetsuo Najita, eds., Chicago, 1978), a volume pioneering in its attention to both a field slighted in anglophone research and the transformative work of Japanese scholars (whose contributions were published in translation). A similar commitment to disseminating Japanese scholarship animates Modern Japan: An Interpretive Anthology (Macmillan, 1973), a still startlingly inspired collection of essays with copious representation of Japanese colleagues.

Across his distinguished career, Irv received every major grant in the field (a long litany, beginning with a Fulbright). He was also appointed as a fellow of the Davis Center at Princeton, the Reischauer Institute at Harvard, and the Humanities Institute at Chicago.

An inexhaustible servant of the department, the campus, and the profession, Irv was long a member of the UC Press Editorial Committee, a (record-setting) chair of the Center for Japanese Studies during the 1980s and 1990s, and the mainstay of search and personnel committees. But, for many of us, his immortal contribution was creating and editing a series at the UC Press called “Twentieth Century Japan: the Making of a World Power.” Between 1992 and 2011, nineteen titles appeared in the series. Those books and their authors are lodestars in our field. Notably, among the field-defining contributors are six scholars whom Irv mentored in graduate school: Andrew Barshay (now on the faculty at UCB), Takashi Fujitani (Toronto), Jeffrey Hanes (Oregon), Mark Metzler (Washington), Stephen Vlastos (Iowa), and Kären Wigen (Stanford). They belong to several generations of students, now teaching across the country, who carry on the Scheiner legacy. These are the people, of course, who dominated the scene at that “crossroad” known as Irv’s office.

Any account of his service must hearken back, however, to the beginning. Irv arrived at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement and, early on, wrote with Robert Middlekauff “A Note on the Academic Senate’s Powers and Student Discipline” (November, 1964). There the authors urge the Senate to resume the responsibility for student discipline that, originally vested in the faculty by the state legislature, had been transferred to the University President in 1921. The Senate itself ceded the responsibility, since the time-consuming work was “generally unserious” (centering, as it did, on pranks). “But now,” write Scheiner and Middlekauff, “discipline is no longer an affair of little importance.” Because it involves speech and political activity, “which enter the area of educational policy where the Senate holds important powers,” the faculty should again insist on authority over disciplinary decisions. Here is history in the service of principle, intervention in the service of just process. Constants in Irv’s life.

Irv had the sublime good fortune to live in a “blended family” of deeply loving members who were close enough geographically for weekly gatherings. His joy in them all suffused his conversation. They include his wife, Margaret Chowning, professor of history at UCB, and two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, to Betsey Scheiner: Ethan Scheiner (professor of political science at UC Davis) and Jessica Scheiner (senior human services analyst for the county of Santa Cruz). They also include his step-daughters, Polly Bowser Klescewki (an occupational therapist) and Sarah Bowser-Rael (a physical therapist). They gave Irv eight grandchildren. Ethan and wife Melanie Hurley are the parents of Casey and Serena; Jessica and husband Joe Rois are the parents of Dash and Posie; Polly and husband Derek Klescewski are the parents of Finn and Cody; Sarah and husband Scott Rael are the parents of Talia and Emiko. Irv is also survived by two sisters, Zona Scheiner and Phyllis Mentle.

Mary Elizabeth Berry
Class of 1944 Professor of History Emerita

1The friend is Harry Harootunian (professor emeritus at NYU). The other quotes come, in the first paragraph, from Marcia Yonemoto (now at Colorado) and, in the second paragraph, from former students Jeffrey Hanes (Oregon), Stephen Vlastos (Iowa), Kären Wigen (Stanford), Sungyun Lim (Colorado), and Takashi Fujitani (Toronto). The third paragraph quotes MY again.