Edward Seidensticker

By Janet Pocorobba, with an introduction by Donald Richie

Dr. Johnson famously remarked that he who is tired of London is tired of life. Dr. Seidensticker, who resembles the great Londoner in possessing a superb style and some fairly immovable opinions, spends half of each year in Tokyo -   the city of which he is the finest historian - and he has never tired of it. In this he resembles another literary man - the Japanese novelist Nagai Kafu. In "Kafu the Scribbler" (1965) Seidensticker has not only written one of the greatest books on Tokyo but one of the very finest books on Japan itself. Kafu records all the changes in the city, has fairly permanent opinions about them, but in the process remains both engaged and aware - interested. As does Edward Seidensticker. Donald Richie

Edward Seidensticker

Seidensticker's experiences in Japan span over fifty years. He was a newly graduated English major from the University of Colorado at Boulder when World War II broke out. In June 1942, the Navy Japanese Language School moved to Boulder. Seidensticker enrolled immediately, graduating fourteen months later with a burgeoning command of Japanese that - unbeknownst to him - would become the basis of his academic career as a translator of Japanese literature, including Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, Kafu and the arduous "The Tale of Genji." "There it was, right in front of me," says Seidensticker of the school. "It was a wonderful way to get through the war." He eventually trained with the Marines and arrived in Kyushu in September 1945, one month after the war ended.

Seidensticker returned to the US for graduate school and the Foreign Service, coming back to Japan - this time to Tokyo - in 1948. He pursued more studies at Tokyo University in Japanese literature, and from there became immersed in academic life. In the 1950s, he taught at Sophia University for four years, but began to grow tired of Japan. An offer from Stanford in 1962 lured him back to the US. After Stanford, he taught at Michigan and Columbia, from which he retired in 1985. Although his work has kept him in the US, he has spent at least part of every year in Japan since his first visit to Tokyo in 1948. Coupled with his historical expertise, Seidensticker can offer an authoritative insight into the changes Tokyo has experienced over the past hundred years.

Books courtesy of Tuttle Publishing
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of GenjiThis version of the universally acknowledged masterpiece has become the definitive translation, described as "the fullest and most accurate English version of the Japanese classic." It contains a dozen chapters selected by Seidensticker from early in the original text with an introduction explaining the selection. "The Tale of Genji," written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, is considered to be the world's first novel and concerns the love of Prince Genji and life in the imperial court of Kyoto. It is "a lively and astonishingly nuanced portrait of a refined society where every dalliance is an act of political consequence, a play of characters whose inner lives are as rich and changeable as those imagined by Proust. Chief of these is 'the shining Genji,' the son of the emperor and a man whose passionate impulses create great turmoil in his world and very nearly destroy him." (The Reader's Catalogue)

Western Winds
Change, of course, has largely meant modernization and modernization has meant Westernization. From the earliest years after the Meiji Restoration of 1865, foreign products and ideas have flooded Tokyo. But the Japanese appetite for things Western has waxed and waned, says Seidensticker. "It goes in cycles. Of course, there were times when Western things were officially frowned upon and every attempt made to squelch them. This happened during the 1930s and '40s. It was a huge contradiction at the time because that meant squelching German things and they were big pals with Germany. So they tried to squelch English and American things, but it didn't work." Was there a backlash? "That's not really the word for it. What was underground came up again. It never stopped, although it tried to. Then in 1945 it all came to the surface again."

Westernization has meant not only the import of goods and services, fashions and styles, but also individuals. Tokyo has had a varied expatriate community since the city opened up, although the make - up of that community has changed. "The nature of foreign community has changed utterly. The original meaning of the word gaijin, 'foreigner,' meant European and American, but the word is changing because the population has changed. Now, foreigners in Toyko include Filipinos, Bangladeshis, other Southeast Asians, Africans and, of course, Koreans, who were always a matter apart."

Apart from each individual's contribution to Tokyo's economy, society and culture, more than a handful of foreigners have made recognizable changes to the physical and metaphorical cityscape. Foreign residents have been credited, for example, with saving the Noh theater and invaluably assisting the cause of traditional Japanese music. One influential gaijin was the Dutchman Dr. E.A.F. Bauduin. "Ueno Park was the work of Bauduin. [Some] Japanese wanted to turn it into a university and he suggested a park. [The American architect] Frank Lloyd Wright was another man who made a big difference. Most of his stuff has been destroyed the only building left is the Jiyugakuen, a private school near Ikebukuro station. His influence can still be seen in a lot of buildings in Tokyo. And, of course, General MacArthur and his cohorts made a tremendous difference. Things have not been the same since."

As with other foreign observers who have lived through the rapid development of the last fifty years, it is the loss of beauty that Seidensticker most regrets. "Edo - in a restrained, monochrome fashion - must have been a rather beautiful town, but now it's very ugly." He most laments the loss of Lloyd Wright's original Imperial Hotel. "It's one of the tragedies of postwar Tokyo. It never should have happened. There are fragments here and there, the old bar remains, and the facade is in Nagoya, but it didn't have to be destroyed. And the reason was greed. They wanted to make more money off the land. A lot was destroyed in 1923 and 1945 and we can lament that, but they would've gone anyway. The Japanese don't preserve old things. They preserve traditions and art forms, but not objects.

"The conservation movement is just getting underway here and it's too late for places like the Imperial Hotel. It might save Tokyo station, though. They are thinking of restoring it to its prewar form. But if it was early enough to save some of those Queen Anne brick buildings in Marunouchi, [I'd] be happier. There's nothing left of the old Marunouchi but a few pieces."

Snow Country
Snow CountrySeidensticker's translation of Kawabata Yasunari's haunting novel of wasted love has been described as managing to capture the true voice of the author in the novel which was sighted as "outstanding" when Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chronicling the affair between a wealthy dilettante and the mountain geisha who gives herself to him without illusions or regrets, the book is dense in implication and exalting in its sadness. The translation conveys Kawabata's brushstroke suggestiveness and astonishing grasp of motive. At an isolated mountain hot spring, wealthy sophisticate Shimamura meets the geisha Komako, who gives herself to him without regrets, knowing that their passion cannot last. Shimamura is a dilettante of the feelings; Komako has staked her life on them. Their affair can have only one outcome. Yet, in chronicling its doomed course, one of Japan's greatest modern writers creates a novel dense in implication and exalting in its sadness.

North and South
As with so much in Japanese society, what you see is only a fraction of the story the real changes have taken place at a less obvious level. Neighborhoods have changed geographically, the city has expanded, boundaries have been redrawn.

Tokyo has long been divided roughly into two geographic regions: The "low city," or shitamachi, the "plebeian" flatlands east of the Sumida River, and the "high city," or yamanote, the "aristocratic" hilly areas west of the Imperial Palace. Today, Seidensticker prefers to run a dividing line from Ginza to Shinjuku and call each side north and south. "One hundred years ago, the Ginza and Nihombashi were the center of Tokyo as far as shopping and entertainment went. Nowadays, the newer satellite cities of Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Shinagawa, and Yokohama dominate. The Marunouchi still holds as the financial center, but the cultural heart has shifted from the low city into the hills. Aside from the museums and concert hall in Ueno, everything else is in the south."

One level lower, street life has changed. "One hundred years ago, the streets were alive with the calls of vendors. They still exist, but not in the numbers that were here even fifty years ago, when I came. People were out in the streets. There was more chatter and talk. The television and the automobile now keep people shut off from each other, especially in the summertime, which was when the streets were really part of home, when people spent their evenings in the streets." This is part of a larger shift in the sense of community, a shift augmented by Westernization. For example, before the war, the sento, or public bath, was a stable binding force. "Sento were once social and community centers. Nowadays, people have their own baths, so there are fewer sento and less need for them." Unfortunately, nothing has taken the place of the sento as a community center in the neighborhoods of Tokyo. "It's gone. The television set is the center of life now and, like the bath, each house has its own."

Low City, High City Tokyo Rising
lowcity.jpg (14090 bytes)"Low City, High City" and "Tokyo Rising" together comprise Seidensticker's definitive history of Tokyo. The former documents the growth of the city from Edo times and the Meiji Restoration until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which left the "low city," or shitamachi, raised to the ground by fire. The latter explores the subsequent resurrection of Tokyo, through the firebombing of World War Two and the bubble years up to the 1990s. Seidensticker's style is detailed and diverse, recording everything from the smallest political changes to the broadest social trends. The distinguished Japan travel writer, Ian Buruma, said of "Tokyo Rising" in the New York Review of Books: "Seidensticker, to my mind the most distinguished living celebrator of Tokyo in the English language, is steeped in nostalgia... This elegiac mood is deepened by Seidensticker's wry commentary on the changes which continue to chip away at his great affection for the city. But then grouchiness about the present is inevitable in literary nostalgia... And, if expressed with sufficient wit, there is as much pleasure to be derived from grouchiness as from its concomitant desire to catch the shadows of the old before they fade forever..." Publisher's Weekly added: "[This] is much more than a portrait of Tokyo; in good measure, it is a serendipitous social history of modern Japan."

Eastern hearts

Digging even deeper, to Tokyoites themselves, naturally modernization and globalization have had effects both on the way people present themselves and the way people perceive themselves. Seidensticker sees the changes most in the role of women. Often in cultures, women are more conservative than men and play a greater role in preserving traditions. "Into the 1920s, women wore Japanese dress while men didn't. Traditional hairdos, too, were still prevalent. But now they wear wigs for weddings no one wears it naturally that way. Kimono, too, have been relegated to formal occasions."

These days it would seem that young women are leaders of change and innovation. High school girls rule the fashion scene and the birth rate is dropping to dangerous levels. "Today, women aren't more conservative than men. They used to be quieter today the decibel count is atrocious. Students now talk and use phones in class, both unthinkable 30 and 40 years ago. They would've been quiet - maybe asleep, but quiet."

It is this generation that is usually typified as the changing face of Japan. They are embracing ideals of independence and individuality more than ever. Seidensticker, though, is less certain. "Young people certainly look liberated these days, but I don't know. It might finally be happening. Everyone's always said, 'Japan is changing, look at the young people.' But I always said, 'Yes, but wait a few years.' When they're 40, they're what their papas were at 40."

Liberalization has not been smooth or linear, but it has deep roots dating back to the Meiji Restoration. "The Meiji period was very exciting. There must have been a huge sense of liberation after the repression of the Tokugawa shogunate. People look sentimentally at Tokugawa but it was a very harsh time when people were sat upon. Meiji was liberation an exhilarating, vigorous time. Japan set to work to catch up with the world and did a very good job of it. At the beginning of Meiji, Japan was an occupied country with extraterritoriality - where foreigners were tried by foreign courts - and at end of Meiji, it was a world power. That is a tremendous achievement."

There have been so many radical changes in Toyko over the past one hundred years, and yet there are many things that remain the same. "The change over the years hasn't been even. Modes of behavior don't change and they're most important. They're changing now somewhat - that's inevitable - but the pace of moral and customary change is surprisingly slow. Surface things change fast, but deeper things like morals, ethics, and manners don't. For example, the Japanese are a law - abiding, very moral people, and this has remained unchanged for over 100 years. There has been corruption, of course, but basically it is a conventional, fundamentally conservative society despite all the tremendous surface change."

Looking for direction
As we head into the year 2000, some people will invariably look fondly to the past and hold out for preservation. In the Meiji period, there was the Edokko, a native of Edo who lamented the changes in Tokyo and longed wistfully for bygone days. Is the Edokko spirit alive today? Seidensticker laughs. "No. The Edokko was a fictitious figure. Edokko was the old resin of the flatlands, or low city, of Tokyo. Even Tanizaki Junichiro - a great admirer of Edo and the Meiji of his upbringing - had great contempt for the Edokko." The Edokko may have been pining for the past, but was not necessarily poised to do much about it. "The Edokko weren't up and at it. It was the country people [who came to Tokyo] that made the new city, not the Edokko."

As Tokyo continues to expand into the next century and beyond, it can only be Tokyoites who determine the pace of change while preserving the past. Being Tokyoites too, the foreign community will no doubt continue to thrive while remaining a steady element in the city's future. Where Tokyo is one hundred years from now will depend on the twists and turns of history. "Some people see the seeds of 1945 in Meiji. I don't share this view at all. History is not that determinate. To say that from 1865 there was a string of events leading to 1945 is foolish. That's not the way history is." There is something optimistic about Seidensticker's statement. History is slippery and change inevitable. That the best thing we can hope to do is remain engaged and aware of the changes so that we can understand where both we and our city are going in the next hundred years.

349: Where there's a will
What will WiLL think of next?
348: Let it snow
Get the inside scoop on three of Japan's best ski resorts
347: Change of Scenery
Commune with nature this fall in Tokyo
346: The Filth and the Fury
Director Julien Temple and his film No Future
345: Retro fit
Tokyo brings retro to the runway
344: Future fortunes
Fotune telling and superstition
343: Women in the lead
Sharp-minded businesswomen climbing to the top
342: Market Value
Expert advice on finding buried treasure
Pottering around
Ceramics trade secrets
341: Screen Test
13th Tokyo Internatioanl Film Festival
340: A walk in the woods
Escape to the mountains in Kanto
339: A good sport
Olympic sports you can try in Tokyo
338: The red mile
Cruise Hakone's strip of car museums
337: Art in the city
Take a tour through Tokyo's artscape
336: Pulp Fiction
Architecture genius Shigeru Ban
335: Pick a fight
Karate, the most popular martial art
334: Summer Haunts
Tokyo's haunted houses
333: Man of the rising sun
Graphic design guru Tadanori Yokoo
332: Taking it to the streets
The inside story on Tokyo's street performers and vendors
331: Monk for a day
Shadowing Sojiji's monks
330: Changing Tides
Spotlight on Okinawa and the G-8 Summit
329: I want my MP3
Downloadable music to everyone's ears
328: Getting Gatten
Welcome to NHK, Japan
327: Mountain High
The significance of Mt. fuji to Japanese culture
326: The Sounds of the Summer
Outdoor music extravaganzas in Japan
325: The Parent Trap
How to survive (and even enjoy) your parents visit
324: On the mark
Get the lowdown on the famous "no brand brand" Muji
323: In the hot seat
The Japanese love affair with the loo
322: Working it out
Find a gym that will fit you to a T
321: Behind the Scene
Detour off of Harajuku's beaten paths
320: Searching in vein
What your blood type does and doesn't say about you
319: Get a move on
Useful advice to get you moving along
318: Can't buy me love
A modern approach to arranged marriage
317: Diary of a Repatriate
Stepping back into your old life
316: Jazzin' Tokyo
Explore the high notes of the Tokyo jazz scene
315: In and Out of Fashion
Tokyo's latest spring and summer fashion collection
314: Tee time
Take a swing at golfing in Japan
313: Lights... computer... action!
The future of film could be film-less
312: The Winner Takes It All
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311: The hunt is on
Hunting for a home in Tokyo
310: The Ale Trail
The perfect pint for St. Patrick's Day
309: Head Up!
Headhunters help navigate your way
308: I have a theme...
Theme bars and cafes in Tokyo
307: Love unclassifed
Finding your mate through the  classified ads
307: Get Educated
Educational opportunities for foreigners in Tokyo
School Daze
International education for kids
305: True Dub
How Princess Mononoke learnt to speak English
304: New heights in architecture
Contemporary architecture in Tokyo
303: Get Festive!
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302: First Trains
Expand your late night experiences in Tokyo
300: Edward Seidenstickers
Tokyo's finest historian