Edward Seidensticker

Last updated
Edward G. Seidensticker
Edward G. Seidensticker, Fall 2006
BornFebruary 11, 1921
Castle Rock, Colorado, U.S.
DiedAugust 26, 2007 (age 86)
Tokyo, Japan
OccupationTranslator of Japanese Literature; Writer; Author

Edward George Seidensticker (February 11, 1921 – August 26, 2007) was a noted post-World War II scholar, historian, and preeminent translator of classical and contemporary Japanese literature. His English translation of the epic The Tale of Genji, published in 1976, was especially well received critically and is counted among the preferred modern translations. [1]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Japanese literature literature of Japan

Early works of Japanese literature were heavily influenced by cultural contact with China and Chinese literature, often written in Classical Chinese. Indian literature also had an influence through the separation of Buddhism in Japan. Eventually, Japanese literature developed into a separate style, although the influence of Chinese literature and Classical Chinese remained until the end of the Edo period. Since Japan reopened its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western and Eastern literature have strongly affected each other and continue to do so.

<i>The Tale of Genji</i> classic work of Japanese literature

The Tale of Genji is a classic work of Japanese literature written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early years of the 11th century. The original manuscript no longer exists. It was made in "concertina" or orihon style: several sheets of paper pasted together and folded alternately in one direction then the other, around the peak of the Heian period. The work is a unique depiction of the lifestyles of high courtiers during the Heian period, written in archaic language and a poetic and confusing style that make it unreadable to the average Japanese without dedicated study. It was not until the early 20th century that Genji was translated into modern Japanese, by the poet Akiko Yosano. The first English translation was attempted in 1882, but was of poor quality and incomplete.


Seidensticker is closely associated with the work of three major Japanese writers of the 20th century: Yasunari Kawabata, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima. His landmark translations of novels by Kawabata, in particular Snow Country (1956) and Thousand Cranes (1958), led, in part, to Kawabata being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. [2]

Yasunari Kawabata Japanese author

Yasunari Kawabata was a Japanese novelist and short story writer whose spare, lyrical, subtly-shaded prose works won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first Japanese author to receive the award. His works have enjoyed broad international appeal and are still widely read.

Junichirō Tanizaki Japanese author

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki was one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature, and perhaps the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Sōseki. Some of his works present a shocking world of sexuality and destructive erotic obsessions. Others, less sensational, subtly portray the dynamics of family life in the context of the rapid changes in 20th-century Japanese society. Frequently his stories are narrated in the context of a search for cultural identity in which constructions of "the West" and "Japanese tradition" are juxtaposed.

Yukio Mishima Japanese author

Yukio Mishima is the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, model, film director, nationalist, and founder of the Tatenokai. Mishima is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, but the award went to his countryman Yasunari Kawabata. His works include the novels Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the autobiographical essay Sun and Steel. Mishima’s work is characterized by its luxurious vocabulary and decadent metaphors, its fusion of traditional Japanese and modern Western literary styles, and its obsessive assertions of the unity of beauty, eroticism and death.


Early years

Seidensticker was born in 1921 on an isolated farmstead near Castle Rock, Colorado. His father, also named Edward G. Seidensticker, was the owner of a modest ranch that struggled financially during the 1920s and early 1930s. His mother, Mary E. Seidensticker (née Dillon), was a homemaker. Seidensticker was raised Catholic and was of German, English and Irish heritage. By high school, cognizant that he was neither athletic nor mechanically adept, he began to slip away during spare time to read Dickens and Thackeray, among others. He found Tolstoy most to his liking, the works of Mark Twain the least. He was one of the only two students in his graduating class at Douglas County High School to go off to college, the other being his older brother, William. [3]

Castle Rock, Colorado Home Rule Municipality in Colorado, United States

Castle Rock is an affluent home rule municipality that is the county seat of Douglas County, Colorado, United States. The most populous municipality of the county, the community's population was 48,231 at the 2010 United States Census, with an estimated population of 55,747 as of 2014. It is named for the prominent, castle tower-shaped butte near the center of town. Located midway between Denver and Colorado Springs, Castle Rock is part of the Denver metropolitan area and the Front Range Urban Corridor.

Charles Dickens English writer and social critic

Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.

William Makepeace Thackeray novelist

William Makepeace Thackeray was a British novelist and author. He is known for his satirical works, particularly Vanity Fair, a panoramic portrait of English society.

Seidensticker wanted to attend an East Coast university, but because of his family's financial situation he grudgingly enrolled in the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was assumed that he would study law, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and several uncles, but he chose economics, then switched to English, a choice that displeased his family. In June 1942, he graduated with a degree in English.

East Coast of the United States Coastline in the United States

The East Coast of the United States, also known as the Eastern Seaboard, the Atlantic Coast, and the Atlantic Seaboard, is the coastline along which the Eastern United States meets the North Atlantic Ocean. The coastal states that have shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean are, from north to south, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

University of Colorado public university system in Colorado, USA

The University of Colorado system is a system of public universities in Colorado consisting of four campuses: University of Colorado Boulder, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, University of Colorado Denver in downtown Denver and at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. It is governed by the elected, nine-member Board of Regents of the University of Colorado.

Boulder, Colorado Home rule municipality in Colorado, United States

Boulder is the home rule municipality that is the county seat and the most populous municipality of Boulder County, Colorado, United States. It is the state's 11th-most-populous municipality; Boulder is located at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 5,430 feet (1,655 m) above sea level. The city is 25 miles (40 km) northwest of Denver.

U.S. Navy Japanese Language School

As the 1940s unfolded, the U.S. Navy began to expand its Japanese Language School, then located at the University of California at Berkeley. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, an invitation was issued to shift the school to the University of Colorado. The navy was amenable because the forced relocation of citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry was underway along the West Coast, and most of the program's instructors were in danger of being caught up in the expanding net. By the middle of 1942, the school had completed its move to Colorado. Among those who came east to Boulder with the program was student Donald Keene. Seidensticker, who had been seeking a way to manage through the war without being drafted, saw the Japanese Language School as a solution. [3] He traveled to Washington, D.C. for a school-admittance interview, the first time he had been east of the Chicago, and was accepted. Upon completion of the 14-month intensive program, he was able to read a Japanese language newspaper, albeit with some difficulty. The "Boulder Boys," whom the men who attended the language school were fondly called [4] (a handful of women later joined the program as well), were given the choice of becoming officers in the navy or Marine Corps. Seidensticker selected the Marines due to an abundance of "boyish romanticism." [5]

University of California public university system in California

The University of California (UC) is a public university system in the U.S. state of California. Under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the University of California is a part of the state's three-system public higher education plan, which also includes the California State University system and the California Community Colleges System.

Berkeley, California City in California, United States

Berkeley is a city on the east shore of San Francisco Bay in northern Alameda County, California. It is named after the 18th-century Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley. It borders the cities of Oakland and Emeryville to the south and the city of Albany and the unincorporated community of Kensington to the north. Its eastern border with Contra Costa County generally follows the ridge of the Berkeley Hills. The 2010 census recorded a population of 112,580.

Pearl Harbor Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor is a lagoon harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, west of Honolulu. It has been long visited by the Naval fleet of the United States, before it was acquired from the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S. with the signing of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. Much of the harbor and surrounding lands is now a United States Navy deep-water naval base. It is also the headquarters of the United States Pacific Fleet. The U.S. government first obtained exclusive use of the inlet and the right to maintain a repair and coaling station for ships here in 1887. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941, was the immediate cause of the United States' entry into World War II.

War years

Seidensticker received basic training with the Marines in North Carolina, after which he was shifted to Camp Pendleton on the West Coast. It was in California that he first encountered Japanese prisoners of war, with whom he was to practice his Japanese. Late in 1944 he and his language-officer colleagues were transferred to the Hawaiian Islands and Pearl Harbor. They were given duties to translate captured documents and to interrogate prisoners of war, a task Seidensticker found increasingly distasteful. In February 1945, Seidensticker was boarded on a ship bound for Iwo Jima. He was not among the first waves of troops to land during the battle, but before long, found himself on the beach "loaded down with dictionaries." [6] By then the gunfire had ceased as the Japanese had retreated north to bunkers and caves. Later, he reminisced in his memoirs that while he may have been in danger a few times, he had little awareness of being afraid. Near the end of his deployment, after the island had been declared "secure," he climbed Mount Suribachi, the site of Joe Rosenthal's iconic flag-raising photograph. He was then rotated back to Hawaii. During that stay, the Atomic Bombs were dropped and the war with Japan came to an end. Although Seidensticker was deeply unsettled by the dropping of the bomb, he approved of Truman's decision. In his memoirs, he noted, "Had I been at Harry's Desk, I would have made the decision he made. The important things were to get the war over and to save lives; and that more lives, American and Japanese, were saved by the bombing than were destroyed by it seems the next thing to certain." [7]

California State of the United States of America

California is a state in the Pacific Region of the United States. With 39.6 million residents, California is the most populous U.S. state and the third-largest by area. The state capital is Sacramento. The Greater Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area are the nation's second- and fifth-most populous urban regions, with 18.7 million and 9.7 million residents respectively. Los Angeles is California's most populous city, and the country's second-most populous, after New York City. California also has the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles County, and its largest county by area, San Bernardino County. The City and County of San Francisco is both the country's second-most densely populated major city after New York City and the fifth-most densely populated county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs.

Iwo Jima Island of the Japanese Volcano Islands chain south of the Ogasawara Islands

Iwo To, known in English as Iwo Jima, is one of the Japanese Volcano Islands and lies south of the Bonin Islands. Together with other islands, they form the Ogasawara Archipelago. The highest point of Iwo Jima is Mount Suribachi at 169 m (554 ft) high.

Mount Suribachi mountain on Iwo Jima

Mount Suribachi is a 554 ft high mountain at the southwest end of the island Iwo Jima in the northwest Pacific Ocean, under the administration of Ogasawara Subprefecture, Tokyo Metropolis, Japan.

Occupation of Japan and foreign service

About a month after General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Tokyo to assume control of Japan, Seidensticker landed with the Marines at Sasebo, a naval base city in Nagasaki Prefecture. He was assigned duties disarming Japanese forces and disabling heavy weapons on the islands of Tsushima and Goto. It was during his few months at Sasebo that Seidensticker began to develop a deeper appreciation of Japan and the Japanese people. [8] In early 1946 he was sent to San Diego and discharged.

On his return to the United States, Seidensticker enrolled at Columbia University and took a master's degree in 1947 in what was then known as "public law and government." He joined the U.S. Foreign Service and, after further studies during a summer at Yale University and a year at Harvard, was placed in Tokyo assigned to the Diplomatic Section of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). In May 1950, roughly two years after he arrived in Japan, Seidensticker decided the Foreign Service was not his calling and he resigned on his own initiative. He had not been promoted while colleagues had, and had deemed himself not the salaryman type. Moreover, he sensed a "witch-hunting" in which bachelors were subjected to "peculiar rumors" and a skeptical eye. He also suspected his room at the Daiichi Hotel, his billet, was bugged. [9]

Scholar, educator, and latter years

After his short Foreign Service tenure, Seidensticker studied Japanese literature at the University of Tokyo on the GI Bill and later under a Ford Foundation grant. With the Ford fellowship, Seidensticker switched his focus from studying Heian literature to that of modern Japanese literature. In his remaining years at Tokyo University he read virtually the entire canon of modern Japanese literature. [10] By the mid-1950s, having exhausted the fellowship circuit, he found work as a lecturer of both American and Japanese literature at Sophia University. While Seidensticker enjoyed his time at Sophia, at the time it did not pay well and he took on a free-lance writing assignments and other part-time jobs. In 1954 he was contacted by Harold Strauss, the chief editor at the New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf about translating Japanese literature for Knopf, and was soon at work.

As the 1960s began to unfold, Seidensticker, growing weary of life in Japan and living life as an outsider, [11] began to consider returning to the United States. In 1962, when an invitation was extended by Stanford University to substitute for a professor on special assignment, he readily accepted and returned to the U.S. after having lived full-time in Japan from 1948 to 1962. Seidensticker taught at Stanford as professor of Japanese from 1962 to 1966. He then joined the faculty at the University of Michigan and remained there for 11 years before being drawn away in 1978 to join the faculty of Columbia University as professor of Japanese. He retired from Columbia in 1985 and was thereafter professor emeritus. During retirement he divided his time between Hawaii and Japan. In 2007, while taking a walk near Shinobazu Pond in the Ueno district of Tokyo, he fell and later died because of head injuries. He was 86. [12]


Seidensticker is widely regarded as one of the greatest translators of classic and modern Japanese literature into English. [13] His translations have been described as "brilliant" [14] and "elegant." One contemporary scholar noted that in Seidensticker's translations, "You could feel the emotions and nuances that the original writer wanted to convey." [15] He has even been described as "the best" translator of Japanese literature. [16]

Seidensticker won the National Book Award in category Translation for his edition of Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain (a split award). [17] He also translated The Decay of the Angel , the last volume of Yukio Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy, and several of Mishima's stories. Seidensticker translated Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters and Some Prefer Nettles and authored important criticism on Tanizaki's place in 20th-century Japanese literature. The New York Times obituary allowed the translator to speak for himself:

During his years in Japan Mr. Seidensticker became friends with many of the writers he translated, though the friendships were sometimes tested during the delicate diplomatic dance that is central to the translator’s art. As Mr. Seidensticker recalled in Tokyo Central, some writers required more dancing than others:
"Tanizaki wrote clear, rational sentences," Mr. Seidensticker wrote. "I do not, certainly, wish to suggest that I disapprove of such sentences; but translating them is not very interesting. There was little I felt inclined to ask Tanizaki about."
Not so with Kawabata. "Do you not, my esteemed master, find this a rather impenetrable passage?" Mr. Seidensticker recalled asking him, ever so gently, during the translation of Snow Country.
"He would dutifully scrutinize the passage, and answer: 'Yes,' " Mr. Seidensticker wrote. "Nothing more." [12]

The last work he supervised translating into English was You Were Born for a Reason on Japanese Buddhism. [18] [ failed verification ]


Seidensticker wrote widely on Japan, its people, as well as the city of Tokyo.

His first major non-translation work, "Kafu the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu, 1879–1959" (Stanford University Press, 1965), was a biography of Kafu Nagai, the Japanese writer who is noted for his sensitive depictions of the denizens of Tokyo's pleasure quarters. It was the first study to examine the life and works of Nagai to appear in any Western language. As the book includes a number of Seidensticker translations of Nagai's short stories and novellas, it is neither pure biography nor criticism. Seidensticker, to his lifelong regret, never met Kafū, even though there were opportunities to be introduced. [19]

In Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (1983) and Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake (1990), Seidensticker's two-volume history of Tokyo, he weaves a tale of cultural history of how the city was impacted by the advent of Westernization, and how it responded to the twin disasters of the 20th Century—the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the massive destruction incurred in World War II due to Allied bombing raids.

In his academic career, he is credited with being a teacher for his peers.

He published his autobiographical observations in Tokyo Central: A Memoir in 2001. A biography and bibliography are included in a commemorative work created by those whose lives he affected, New Leaves: Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Edward Seidensticker (1993).

After retirement, he divided his time between Honolulu and Tokyo, which he described as "the world's most consistently interesting city." [20]


Selected works



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  1. "The tale of Murasaki Shikibu," The Economist (London). December 23, 1999.
  2. Associated Press. "Leading translator of Japanese literature, Edward Seidensticker, dies in Tokyo," International Herald Tribune (Asia Pacific). August 27, 2007.
  3. 1 2 Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 3–12
  4. Watanabe, Teresa. "Godfathers of Japan Studies Take a Look Back" Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2000.
  5. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 24
  6. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 31
  7. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 34
  8. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 38–39
  9. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 57
  10. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 72
  11. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 108
  12. 1 2 Fox, Margalit (31 August 2007). "Edward Seidensticker, Translator, Is Dead at 86". The New York Times . Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  13. Fallows, James. "Edward Seidensticker" The Atlantic, September 3, 2007
  14. Gibney, Frank B. "A World Where Suffering is Unavoidable and Pleasure a Delusion” New York Times, December 19, 1976.
  15. Associated Press. "Prolific Translator Seidensticker, 86" Denver Post, August 27, 2007.
  16. Bowers, Faubion. "Twenty-five Years Ago: How Japan Won the War" The New York Times Magazine, August 30, 1970, p. 6
  17. "National Book Awards – 1971". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
    There was a "Translation" award from 1967 to 1983.
  18. Seidensticker's last work, supervising translation of a book Archived 2007-08-19 at the Wayback Machine
  19. Seidensticker, Edward. Tokyo Central: A Memoir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 142
  20. Parry, Lloyd. "Tokyo: The city that's stranger than fiction," Independent (London) June 25, 2000.
  21. University of Hawaii, honorary degree, Edward Seidensticker
  22. Japan Foundation Award, 1984

Further reading