A professor’s love affair with Japan and its language.
Seidensticker (Tokyo Rising, 1990, etc.) traces the origin of his lifelong engagement with Japanese culture to a crucial decision taken during WWII. Just graduated from the University of Colorado, he at all costs wanted to avoid being an Army grunt. So he joined the Navy’s Japanese language school instead and became a Marine, carrying books and dictionaries in his rucksack during the invasion of Iwo Jima. From there he moved on to Japan and stayed for years. Seidensticker is not a flashy or emotional writer. He states explicitly that this is not a personal history per se but rather a memoir about his connection to things Japanese over the course of his life. The resulting quirky tone can frustrate with its elusiveness, but on occasion it offers delightful, well-timed insights, as when a flat discussion of a boring but esteemed teacher ends with the author realizing that everyone else in the class is as bored and miserable as he is. Seidensticker also conveys a wonderfully unadulterated sense of place. He clearly loves his native Colorado, whose mountains are described with a gusto he never voices with regard to the natural attractions of Japan. There, his energy is devoted to loving characterizations of people, especially the writers he’s translated: Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. Unfortunately, passages featuring these writers often become bogged down in turgid discussions of the Cold War’s influence on Japanese intellectual life. Although those familiar with the intrigues fostered by the Congress for Cultural Freedom will find new material here, in that Seidensticker is concerned with Asia, lay readers will be confused, and in hindsight, Congress seems a tempest in a teapot not worth the space it gets.
Japanese scholars will devour this testament by one of their own. Others may find it a half-readable curiosity.