Mark Ross Bookman, PhD (1991–2022)

Mark Ross Bookman, historian and activist, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on December 16, 2022, in his apartment in Tokyo. His passing creates an enormous gap in the Japanese studies and disability academic and activist communities.

Mark was born on April 20, 1991, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, sixteen weeks prematurely. He was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative condition at the age of eight, and received a heart transplant at the age of ten. Due to the immunosuppressive medications he took during his childhood, he learned early how to social distance, and he wrote in his dissertation that this experience led him to a lifelong interest in Japan. A fan of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Full Metal Alchemist, Mark studied for two months at Waseda University during the summer of 2008 on a Japan-U.S. Youth Exchange Scholarship. In 2012, he returned to Japan to study at Sophia University on a program sponsored by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). By this time, Mark was using a wheelchair, and this personal experience began a lifelong advocacy of universal design and accessibility in both public and private spaces in Japan and the United States.

Graduating from Villanova University summa cum laude with a major in global interdisciplinary studies in 2014, Mark was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to study Buddhism in Japan at Toyo University in Tokyo. During this time in Japan—unlike his previous experience, this trip was marked with accessibility hurdles—he wrote that his life was “like a puzzle,” with many different pieces that needed to fit together properly so he could achieve his personal and professional goals. Mark began to shift away from historical, philosophical, and religious studies in Japan and move towards disability studies. He embarked on a MA and then PhD program in East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 after receiving a Geo L. Harrison Doctoral Fellowship. In 2018, he was the recipient of the AAS Council of Conferences Panel Prize and the Penn Prize for Graduate Student Teaching Excellence. Also at UPenn, he directed his energies to making his campus a better place for disabled students: he was instrumental in launching a mobile web app called AMP (accessibility mapping project), a digital interface for mapping physical and social barriers on college campuses. This project exemplified Mark’s generosity of spirit, as he wanted his hard-won experiences to better the lives of future students at UPenn and elsewhere.

Mark won a Japan Foundation Doctoral Scholarship to study at the University of Tokyo for 2018-19, and there he did the archival and interview research that resulted in his 2021 dissertation, Politics and Prosethetics: 150 Years of Disability in Japan, supervised by Dr. Jolyon Thomas. Ambitious in scope with finely grained detail, Mark unpacked this history through the disciplinary lenses of history, public policy, and legal studies, bound together by critical approaches from disability studies. During the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics he was busy as an in-demand accessibility consultant for Paralympic preparations. He also contributed frequently to the Japan Times on issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on vulnerable populations in Japan. He consulted widely with not for profit and other organizations such as the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI); the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism; the Committee for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and Special Envoy to the Secretary General of the United Nations on Disability and Accessibility, and Accessibility Standards, Canada. Mark’s 2019 TED Talk, “Paralympics as Possibility,” brought his ideas about the contributions disabled people make to society to a wider appreciative audience. In 2021, he joined the University of Tokyo as a Postdoctoral Fellow at its Institutes for Advanced Study and was also appointed as an inaugural member of the newly established International Committee of Japan Society for Disability Studies.

The year 2022 started with many career highs for Mark: he had articles accepted by the Journal of Japanese Studies, Disability Studies Quarterly, and Japanese Studies, and wrote forthcoming chapters in collected volumes from the University of Hawai’i Press, Hong Kong University Press, and Routledge. He won an award for his advocacy work, the HandsOnTokyo Ideathon for Disability Inclusion Excellence. In September, his father visited him in Tokyo for the first time since the pandemic began, and together they worked on filming a documentary on Mark’s remarkable life with others, including the eminent disability studies Professor Nagase Osamu of Ritsumeikan University. Mark was elected to the Association for Asian Studies’ Diversity and Equity Committee, to the Disability History Association’s board of directors, and to the Society for Disability Studies’ board of directors. He was on his way to a tenured position at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, where he was a visiting researcher. His dissertation manuscript had been accepted for formal consideration by a prestigious UK academic press just two weeks before his death. It is with these accomplishments that we remember Mark’s inestimable talents; his colleagues are committed to seeing through his in-press works to extend his intellectual legacy.

A bright young scholar and committed activist, he is also remembered as an empathetic and genuinely caring friend. Mark had an amazing ability to convey real personal warmth through videotelephony and messaging platforms: during the pandemic, he maintained strong virtual relationships with friends and family. He had a talent for nurturing relationships that grew and deepened despite distance. Those of us who benefited from his good humor, his determination and his deeply caring nature will miss him dearly. He was predeceased by his mother, Debby, and is survived by his father, Paul; his stepmother, Wasna Dabbagh; his sister Rachel; his fiancée Fangdan Li; and by a diverse and expansive community of activists and researchers who were deeply touched by his research, generosity, and kindness.

— Submitted by Carolyn Stevens, Monash University

A simple memorial service for Mark Bookman will be held on Wednesday, December 21 from 6pm at Sophia University, Yotsuya Campus. All are welcome to attend in person or online (via Zoom). Please join his colleagues and friends to share memories of and inspiration from Mark.

Date: Wednesday, Dec 21st
Time: 18:00, doors open at 17:30 (Tokyo time)
Location: Sophia Campus (room to be decided)
Zoom: Memorial for Mark Bookman

Time: Dec 21, 2022 05:30 PM Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo
Join Zoom Meeting:
Meeting ID: 959 8323 5730; Passcode: 256061