Obituary of Michael F. Marra Print



Published March 3, 2011, 2:46 am in News, Campus Community


Japanese literature Professor Michael F. Marra dies at age 54

Colleagues remember Michael F. Marra for his passion for knowledge and devotion to students


Michael F. Marra
Professor of Japanese
literature, aesthetics and

Michael F. Marra, a professor of Japanese literature, aesthetics and hermeneutics, died Feb. 23 after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. He was 54.

Marra was a renowned international scholar of classical Japanese literature and aesthetics, and received a number of doctorate degrees in the field, including one at UCLA in 1988.

With a European education in classical and philosophical studies, Marra incorporated thinkers like Martin Heidegger into his interpretations of Japanese poetry, a skill few Americans could achieve, said J. Thomas Rimer, a professor emeritus at UCLA who served as Marra’s mentor during his graduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

This difficult combination was simply part of Marra’s passion for learning and teaching. In a February interview with the Daily Bruin, Marra said he hoped his teaching of hermeneutics, or the practice of interpretation, would give students another option for analysis and hopefully improve the world.

“(The) humanities’ major achievement in ability is that each of us (can) reduce the amount of violence at all levels,” he said in the interview. “(To) take it away is impossible because we are human beings but to reduce as much as possible … is important.”

His commitment to scholarship was also evident in his inquiring spirit. To fully comprehend Japanese literature, Marra gained a firm grasp on Japanese culture, history and Buddhism.

He was also known for his breadth of studies and became an expert in ancient and modern poetry, as well as medieval aesthetics, said Seiji Lippit, an associate professor of Asian languages and cultures and Marra’s colleague.

Related to his passion for knowledge was his staunch commitment to research and educational standards.

Whether concerned about department policy or the recruitment of graduate students, Marra would be engaged in the decision-making process and took these issues seriously, said David Schaberg, chair of the Asian languages and cultures department and Marra’s colleague.

Throughout his time at UCLA, Marra set a pattern of international collaboration with scholars from Europe and Japan, which allowed for conversations across cultural and linguistic barriers, Schaberg said. As a result, he helped the department to improve its study of classical Japanese poetry.

“Michael was happiest when he was at work,” Schaberg said. “This was his true calling.”

In 2008, Marra was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called sarcoma. After undergoing 11 rounds of chemotherapy, he was told that his disease was terminal. But despite the excruciating pain of his illness, Marra chose to teach until the very end, canceling only one class during the quarter.

“I think in some way, his interaction with students kept him going,” Rimer said. “It was extremely brave.”

Though Schaberg said he was concerned about Marra’s decision, he said he trusted Marra’s judgment and the support of his wife, Toshie, and doctors at UCLA.

“We wanted to give him a chance to do that last teaching,” Schaberg said.

To the end, Marra’s knowledge of Japanese culture affected his outlook on life and death.

“Death is never seen as a problem in Japan. … It is the expectation of what’s going to happen to you the very day that you’re born,” Marra said in the interview last month.

As a result, Marra’s final choice has resonated with his colleagues.

“I will want to be in the classroom as long as I possibly can,” Schaberg said. “I will have in mind (Marra’s) example.”

Marra was born in Turin, Italy in 1956. From the beginning, he had a strong interest in learning and communicated with notable Italian writers of the day including Natalia Ginzburg.

He also had a passion for languages and learned Greek, Latin and Sanskrit while in school. He even taught himself English to utilize the English-Japanese dictionaries for his studies.

He received his first doctorate degree in Japanese literature from the University of Turin in 1979 and then received a fellowship at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. He then came to the U.S. to attend Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his master’s degree in 1983.

Two years later, he married his wife Toshie, whom he had met in Japan. Toshie Marra is currently the librarian of the East Asian Library.

Marra then received two other doctorate degrees from Princeton University and UCLA, and held faculty positions in various Japanese universities and at USC. He returned to UCLA in 1993 to accept a teaching position in Japanese literature, aesthetics and hermeneutics.

He is survived by his wife, Toshie, and his mother, Anna.

Funeral services will be held today at 9:30 a.m. at Chapel of the Risen Christ in Culver City. Visitation will be held prior to the service from 8:30-9:30 a.m. at Holy Cross Mortuary in Culver City.

With reports by Andra Lim, Bruin senior staff.