Seidensticker’s Passing

I’m not one of those Japan scholars who came to the field as a Japanophile1 , and my preferred literary reading tends to speculative fiction, humorous verse and historical adventures. I’m almost certainly the wrong person to comment on Edward Seidensticker’s passing, but I’ll do until someone better comes along.

If you’ve studied Japanese history, literature, culture or society, the odds are extremely good that you’ve read something translated by Seidensticker. I’ve assigned his works before, particularly Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain and the abridged Tale of Genji. I’ve read a lot of the other Kawabata and Tanizaki he translated, and it always seemed to me that he was a sympathetic and faithful translator, but a final judgement would have to come from people who know the original works and the process of literary translation more intimately than myself.

I have to admit that I’ve never read Seidensticker’s memoir, so I can’t tell you much more about his life, etc. I can say, though, that his work is one of the great foundation stones of my own career. Not that I drew on his scholarship or ever met the man, but his accessible translations were fodder for hundreds of thousands of students, and the interest they raised sustained the growth of Japanese Studies.2

  1. nor as a Japanophobe. Just curious, really.  

  2. There’s an interesting argument to be had, perhaps, over whether cultural or economic factors are more important in area studies. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other except to note that they promote very different kinds of scholarship and that we have usually had in Japanese studies a reasonably good balance.  

1 Comment

  1. “Edward Seidensticker first traveled to Japan in September 1945, a month after the end of World War II, to serve as a diplomat in the U.S. occupation of Japan” (reads the Associated Press Obituary). Wrong.

    Ed’s first post as a Foreign Service Officer was New Haven. He spent the summer of 1947 at Yale, and then an academic year at Harvard. In point of fact, Seidensticker’s first glimpse of Japan was of Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Tokyo Prefecture as a Fifth Division Marine Corps language officer in February 1945. But let his Tokyo Central (memoirs, publish by U Washington Press in 2002) round out the tale: “I was told not to stand there like the fool I unquestionably was but to get to work on a foxhole. Only a few feet away was a conspicuous and macabre object. It was a bare Japanese arm, raised from a heap of litter as if in some last gesture of exhortation and defiance. The rest of the corpse was under the heap.”

    Seidensticker’s duty in late 1945 was to spike guns on the (then) Tsushima islets.

    The Korean Peninsula is visible from the (now) Dokdo islets.

    Sincerely, Richard Thompson, Honkuk Academy of Foreign Studies, Yongin, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, Tel:31-332-0700

    I particularly remember one time visiting him when there was a typhoon and Ed was in the hospital following one of his hip surgeries. Yamaguchi-san, stopped in on one of his frequent visits, as was Donald Keene.

    I last visited Ed March 28, 2007. We went cherry blossom viewing next to the pond, and to a Japanese restaurant adjacent. The ladies having lunch next to us were wearing kimono. Some of the sashes and cumberbuns were particularly striking, and were commented upon by both Ed and me; loud enough so they could hear. Ed repeated some of our praise in Japanese, since the first comments had at least drew their attention.

    Ed’s short term memory was bad. I had to repeat three times over that I was on a visa run. Yet he repeated a long passage from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland from his other (long term) memory bank. This was about one month before he fell, hit his head and lost consciousness for the duration.

    On another visit ten months previously, Ed had fallen down in the street, so that I had had to grab him. We went to the store to buy a cane with four prongs after that experience. He wanted neither a walker nor a wheelchair, as he said with some emphasis. In the last two years of his life, his arms were stronger than his legs. Yet he complained that he wasn’t taken out of the house nearly enough.

    His accident could easily have happened at any time.

    It was he who read Kawabata’s speech in English at the Swedish Academy.

    Edward George Seidensticker was born February 11, 1921, in Castle Rock, Colorado. At eighty six years of age, I suspected that Ed would not see too many more cherry blossoms when I viewed same with him March 28, 2007.

    Seidensticker translated Murasaki’s classic novel Genji Monogatari (1976). He has also translated modern novels: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles (1955) followed by The Makioka Sisters (1957), Yukio Mishima’s Decay of the Angel (1974), and Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1956; revision, 1989), Thousand Cranes (1959), House of the Sleeping Beauties (1969), The Sound of the Mountain (1970), and The Master of Go (1972).

    His principal publications other than translations include Japan (1961, in Life World Library), Kafu the Scribbler (1965), Genji Days (1977), This Country, Japan (1979), Low City, High City (1983), Tokyo Rising (1990), and four novels set in Japan, starting with Very Few People Come This Way (1994).

    Seidensticker received the National Book Award for Translation in 1971 for his translation of Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain. A biography and bibliography are included in New Leaves: Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Edward Seidensticker (1993).

    Awards bestowed upon Sedensticker included the following universities’ honorary doctorates: the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado, and the University of Hawaii. He also was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (1975), Kikuchi Kan Prize (1977), Goto Miyoko Prize (1981), Japan Foundation Prize (1984), and Yamagata Banto Prize (1992).

    It was he who read Kawabata’s speech in English at the Swedish Academy.

    Seidensticker attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with a degree in English in 1942, and he thereafter attended the Navy Japanese Language school. He chatted with Admiral Chester Nimitz while both were stationed in Pearl Harbor. He saw service as a Marine Corps Second Lieutenant, notably at the Battle of Iwo Jima, as mentioned above. Seidensticker took an M.A. degree in Japanese at Columbia University in 1947. He undertook further study at Harvard University 1948, and at Tokyo University, 1950-55. He taught 1955-59 at Sophia University, Stanford University 1962-64, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 1966-77, and at Columbia University 1977-1986.

    Stories abound. A queer shavetail with a carbine in a foxhole at Iwo Jima, he went on the become an ex officio judge of the annual poetry contest at the Japanese Imperial Court. Seidensticker gave up an appointment as the Soshitsu XV distinguished professor of Japanese culture and history at the University of Hawaii in 1991, rather than sign the then-obligatory loyalty oath. “If you have any evidence I am disloyal to the point of breaking a law, try me for treason,” he emphatically stated. Ed said that those who administer the oath “assume you are guilty of disloyalty until you declare your innocence in an oath.” Hawaii voters, through a plebiscite in the Hawaii State Election of 1992, reserved the oath of office to certain eligible officers, mostly higher-ups; thus effectively killing the loyalty oath, at least for State of Hawaii employees.

    Ed Seidensticker, 1921-2007: “But be contented when that fell arrest/ Without all bail shall carry me away” ~(Shakespeare’s 74th sonnet).

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