Friday, December 24, 2010


Between books and in those times when a wistfulness for Japan wells up turning my thoughts sentimental, more often than not I feed the nostalgia with a few pages from one of the several old ‘living and working in Japan’ books tucked into my shelves. This time it was the late Edward Seidensticker’s journal of his time working on the translation of the tenth century Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji.

For specialists, Seidensticker’s commentary on the translation process is of some interest, but his journal of this time, Genji Days, published in 1977 is much, much more than a record of his putting the classical Japanese of a long and complex novel into English. For most of us the tidbits and items of daily life sandwiched between his record of translation is the delicious nugget at the journal’s heart.

For those unfamiliar with the preeminent scholar of Japanese studies, Edward Seidensticker translated most of the great names in modern Japanese literature, including Mishima, Kawabata and Tanizaki. He has been called the best translator of Japanese that has ever lived. Apart from that, he was also an extremely witty man with a sharp eye for all around him, and a remarkable fluency in describing it. Mr Seidensticker died in 2007 following a fall near his Tokyo home.

Genji Days is full of interesting (fascinating, unusual, racy) observations or commentary on personal experience. Seidensticker first went to Japan in 1948 as a diplomat. He lived there on and off for the next fifty-nine years, dividing his time between Tokyo, Honolulu and mainland US. During his years in Tokyo he moved fluidly between levels of society, having drinks with the rich and famous one night, and trading jokes with laborers in a lower class dive the next. His writing is full of that color and range.

TUESDAY, JULY 7, 1970: In the late afternoon I ventured timidly into a barbershop and my!—such treatment as I did get, such an assortment of wetters and driers and steamers and perfumers, all for a thousand yen. I felt alternately as if I were enthroned and as if I were being guillotined. With such attention to look forward to, how could one possibly become a long-hair?

WEDNESDAY, JULY 26: Kaoru took me to a most extraordinary place, a “host club.” The clientele is female, and its needs are seen to by boys. The clientele, this particular evening, consisted of rather frowsy ladies of a certain age. The boys were all excessively pretty, and their masochism seemed quite open—and I suspected many of them of being boys from the band. I was fascinated, and at the same time repelled, and I suppose the most curious thing is that I felt nothing in the least erotic about the scene before me.

MONDAY, JUNE 26, 1971: Speaking of scents, in the new instructions on how we should comport ourselves in this our Shûwa Residence is an admonition that we refrain from farting in the elevator.

Down to the spicy lotus breezes to await Bill Sibley. He arrived just as I was about to be propositioned by a tart. We (Bill and I, not the tart) went and had a beer nearby.

THURSDAY, JULY 5: Having an evening to myself, I spent it wandering around Ueno. The lotuses, most powerful symbol of high summer, are coming into bloom. In a month I will be gone. I sometimes seem to tire of Tokyo and its frantic stir; but I regret the passing of each Tokyo day, the dwindling supply of Tokyo days, all the same.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America