Thursday, December 28, 2017

The man who gave me Japan

Edward Seidensticker was diminutive in stature, but he was a giant.  I didn’t know it at a time when I took his class in Japanese literature at the University of Michigan in 1966. When he walked into the classroom for the first time—I think there were just seven or eight of us—seeing how unlikely, how un-towering he looked, I thought that I had made a grave error. I was thrown, too, by his choked, somewhat agonized way of speaking. But soon I got over that. I got over that as soon as I started listening.

What knowledge. What authority. I knew nothing—and I mean nothing—about Japanese literature. I didn’t even know there was any such thing. I certainly didn’t know that Edward Seidensticker was one of the great translators of Japanese literature. His major opus, the translation of The Tale of Genji—the great majority of which was done when he was at Michigan—was still to come, ten years later. I didn’t know that he was a friend of Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Prize winner. And that, by all standards, he was one of the great scholars of Japanese literature in the world. I learned all that later.  In his class, we studied Japanese poetry and prose from the earliest days until the present.

So, we read Arthur Waley’s translation of the eleventh century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu that Professor Seidensticker would later translate. We also read excerpts from Sei Shonagon’s tenth century Pillow Book. Professor Seidensticker talked about these books as if he had personally known the authors, andwho knowsmaybe he had. He could tell us everything about them, and did. But for me, who, somewhere, knew he wanted to be a writer, who wanted to throw his lot in with that calling, it was the Japanese poetry that Edward Seidensticker taught and discussed that grabbed me—then and still—by the heart.

Now here was this somewhat agitated, perspiring, highly intense little man telling us about a compilation of Japanese poetry called the Man’yoshuThe Book of Ten Thousand Leaves, as he translated the title. This was Japan’s greatest book of poetry, compiled sometime in the middle of the eighth century, in which there were poems from the fourth century to the eighth. In his half agitated, half shy way, Edward Seidensticker revealed the great voices of the Japanese poetic past. I can still remember the names fifty years later that he spoke: Akahito, Yakamuchi, Okura and Otomaro.

Poems from the Man'yoshu
But the poet who I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to is Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. When Professor Seidensticker spoke of him, he got a faraway look, as if he were transporting himself back to the end of the seventh century when Hitomaro lived.

“Hitomaro was one of Japan’s six poetic saints,” Professor Seidensticker said, “and many think—as I personally do—that he was the greatest of all. We don’t know anything about him, except that he was married and had a child. It appears that he was married twice. There are poems by the wife of Hitomaro written after his death. But it was about his first wife that he wrote so movingly and memorably.”

He had the Man’yoshu in Japanese as well as in English, and sometimes he would read us the Japanese first and then the translation. He did this with Hitomaro, and I wish I had the transliteration of the poem, because I would print it here for you to read, even in this foreign tongue, the better to feel that moment when Professor Seidensticker read the Japanese words and, finishing, simply said,”Wonderful.” The poem he read from was “After the Death of His Wife.” He read the passage first in Japanese, next in English:

In the days when my wife lived,
We went out to the embankment near by
We two, hand in hand
To view the elm-trees standing there
With their outspreading branches
Thick with spring leaves. Abundant as their greenery
Was my love. On her leaned my soul.
But who evades mortality?
One morning she was gone, flown like an early bird.

“Now,” he said, “if that doesn’t move you, there’s little I can do for you.”

Even then, as a punky college junior, I knew he was right. What Kakinomoto Hitomaro—and his vessel, Professor Edward Seidensticker—taught me was that this man with his “sleeves…wetted through with tears,” as Hitomaro writes in his grief, could reach across 1300 years and touch me lastingly. If, I thought, I could never write nearly as well as Hitomaro, maybe I could stand in his shadow, and that would be enough.


  1. Oh Richard, I loved this post! I'm just finishing my biography, FLOWER DIARY: MARY HIESTER REID PAINTS, TRAVELS, MARRIES & MANAGES A THREESOME, and her final painting is called "Elm Tree Shadows." If there is a way that I can fit in "After the Death of His Wife" by Hitomaro I will. Thank you, thank you for reaching out!

    1. My pleasure, Molly! I'll be eager to see your book.