Edward Seidensticker

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.


* 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.