Edward Seidensticker

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While flipping through newspapers that had piled up through the last two weeks, I spot a small item just before turning the page*: Edward Seidensticker has died. Actuarially this cannot be a huge shock -- he was born in 1921 -- but it is a loss.


Seidensticker is usually described as one of the great translators of Japanese literature into English. That he certainly was. His translations of Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country and other books were generally credited with helping Kawabata become the first Japanese winner of the Nobel prize for literature. He also did important translations for the man who should have won the prize, Yukio Mishima, including the last volume of Mishima's unforgettable Sea of Fertility four-volume saga. (And, yes, the Tale of Genji and so on.)


I met Seidensticker half a dozen times for meals and drinks in Tokyo in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was urbane, arch, ever-amused in a cosmopolitan way. That tone comes through in his under-appreciated nonfiction books about Japan itself -- histories of Tokyo like Low City, High City and Tokyo Rising, and an archness-incarnate book about living as a foreigner in Tokyo: This Country Japan.


Although he would be the last person to describe himself as typical of anything, he illustrated two larger trends. He learned Japanese to serve as a Marine Corps translator during World War II, part of an important generation of American scholars, businessmen, journalists, and diplomats who became Japanologists thanks to wartime experience. And, to be careful in phrasing a point he did not publicly discuss, after the war many Western homosexuals found the Japan of the Fifties and onward a more comfortable and attractive environment than their homelands at that time.

He was a talented, honorable, and accomplished man.

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* This is something that never happens when you're reading newspapers strictly online. Yes, there are many other means of unexpected discovery on the internet, but they're different from the same process with actual newspapers. Subject for another day: why online access is indispensable but in some ways worse than what it is replacing.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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