The elevator ride to the ninth floor left me woozy. I was already nervous. What if he turned me down?
“Enter,” he barked when I knocked on his office door. I pushed the door open just enough to squeeze through and met his gaze. His eyes, slightly magnified behind the thick lenses of his glasses, were icy blue.
Edward Seidensticker, the famed translator of both modern and classical Japanese literature, waved me in.
“Oh, hello Professor my name is Rebecca McCornac.”
Whew, so far so good. When I first met Professor Edward Said a year earlier I was so tongue-tied I couldn’t even say my name correctly. “My name is Beck, I mean Rebecca, uh, Copeland, no I mean McCornac.”
He stared at me like I was a lunatic.
“You don’t even know your own name?”
In my defense, I had just married that summer and was still adjusting to the change.
Said smiled when I explained my momentary memory lapse.
Now here I was before another literary luminary. Seidensticker terrified me. He was known to make students cry. In fact, all the famous professors back then made students cry. Women, men, it didn’t matter. They were equal opportunity terrorizers. I think they enjoyed it—almost as if they were competing with one another for the vials of tears shed.
When I squeezed myself into Professor Seidensticker’s office, my stomach still trying to catch up after the lightning fast ascent to the 9th floor, he smiled.
“I know who you are.”
Well, it would have surprised me if he didn’t. I was in his Genji seminar that semester at Columbia University, and there were only three of us in the room! Still, I didn’t want to presume.
“What may I do for you?”
“I wanted to ask you to be my dissertation advisor…I mean, if you have the time.”
He asked me about my proposed topic and when I told him I wanted to work on the woman writer Uno Chiyo, he placed his elbows on the desk before him and tented his fingers just under his nose, almost as if he had decided to take a moment of prayer. This worried me.
Uno Chiyo was not an obvious choice for dissertation research perhaps. Only one of her stories was translated into English, and she wasn’t as well studied as a writer like Tanizaki or Kawabata, both of whom Seidensticker had spent time with. Besides, few worked on contemporary writers at the time, preferring the subject of their study to be already dead, their literary corpus complete. And even fewer worked on contemporary women writers.
I don’t even remember the ride down on the elevator or the walk to the subway where I took the IRT back to my apartment near Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.
In the year that followed I secured a Fulbright-Hays grant and headed to Tokyo. I spent my days at the Nihon Kindai Bungakukan Library near Komaba Station reading through Uno Chiyo’s twelve-volume zenshū and the long list of journal articles and book chapters devoted to her. When I had collected enough material and began to draft chapters, I would meet Professor Seidensticker to share my progress with him.
He liked to meet at the Imperial Hotel.
“It’s not anything like the earlier one,” he groaned. “It’s not Frank Lloyd Wright.”
He would describe the splendor of the earlier structure as we walked from the glittering lobby of the hotel to the yatai stands under the tracks near Yūrakuchō. We’d find two open stools and there we’d sit, sipping beer and eating yakitori as he read through my chapter.
“You misspelled accommodate again.”
He was punctilious when it came to spelling and grammar.
“I don’t know why you can’t get it right. Two c’s, two m’s.”
Back in those days, I typed my chapter drafts on a portable Smith Corona electric typewriter. If I made a mistake I had to backtrack over the word with eraser tape or else use white out. I always got ahead of my hands, thinking faster than I could type. Mistakes were inevitable, awful, and everywhere. It was not difficult to annoy Seidensticker with my gaffes.
But he was incomparably kind to me, even when he was gruff. We never spent long on my drafts. He read them, grumbled a bit over my mistakes, and then told me to write more.
Once released, we turned to our beers and skewers of chicken. I still have the outline I shared with him, spotted with brown taré sauce.
Frequently he would note what I was wearing and compliment me. All my clothes were either secondhand or purchased in bargain shops. One day I wore a pale yellow dress with a flounce at the knee. It was covered in lavender dots and accented with a yellow and lavender striped tie. (I guess I thought it was attractive! When I try to describe it now, it sounds clown like.)
That’s a lovely shade of lavender,” Seidensticker said. “Lavender is my favorite color.”
It’s mine now, I wanted to tell him.
I like beautiful things,” he told me once. “And you are beautiful.”
We hadn’t even started drinking. I suppose his statement might have been kind of creepy. But I understood that he was not making a pass at me. Nor did he see me as “a thing.” He simply liked me. And, I liked him. I enjoyed our time together under the Yamanote tracks drinking beer.
Later, when my marriage hit the rocks, and I was faced with a decision: divorce or leave my tenure-track job to follow my husband in his career pursuit, Seidensticker supported my decision to do the latter. When I had the opportunity to return to the tenure track, Seidensticker was there to encourage me.
Over the years I would meet Professor Seidensticker whenever I traveled to Tokyo for research, usually in the summer. We would meet in front of the Mitsukoshi Department store and walk from there to a Chinese restaurant he enjoyed.
A number of years later, we shifted to an Indian restaurant.
As the years passed, Ed (by then I had grown almost comfortable calling him “Ed”) was unsteady on his feet. He walked slowly and with a cane. As the sidewalks were narrow, it was difficult for me to walk alongside him. Pedestrians would push passed us in a huff, elbowing me sharply as they did. I understood their frustration. But if only they knew that I was accompanying the famous translator of the Tale of Genji, the man who had assisted Kawabata Yasunari win the Nobel Prize in literature. To unsuspecting eyes, he and I were just annoyances.
Ed never entered the world of email. He and I communicated by letters, post cards, and phone calls. I still have the letters and cards he sent me. Now that I am a professor with graduate students of my own, I am amazed by his ability to keep up with these correspondences. I can hardly respond punctually to the emails I receive!
Ed’s feebleness led to a few hospital stays following hip replacements and other surgeries. I enjoyed visiting him in the hospital, bringing him books to read and the latest issue ofthe Economist, his favorite magazine. (He studied economics as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder before switching to an English major.)
We talked about the Yomiuri Giants, whom he hated, the summer sumō tournament and all the foreign wrestlers, gossip from Columbia University, and whatever else we happened upon. As much as I hated to see him in a hospital bed, I enjoyed the afternoons we spent together. In the past when we met in restaurants, we were usually joined by another friend or former student. In the hospital I had him all to myself. That is, until one of his neighbors came by to visit. The man who looked after him the most called him, affectionately, Seiden-san or when they joked, “Seiden-chan.” Ed was well loved. I enjoyed watching him interact with his neighbor, his defenses down, the crustiness that had terrified me for so long evaporated.
Ed fell in the spring of 2007 on his way into Ueno Park. He never recovered consciousness. I like to think of his spirit still lingering there, happily, over the traces of the Tokyo he loved so much. His ashes are interred at a Jōdō Shin temple in Bunkyō-ku. Ed does not have a separate grave but his name is memorialized on a stone, along with other citizens of the area.
His name stands out from the others that surround it, and yet, it also blends in. Like Ed. Walking forever the streets of Shitamachi.
Top photo of tree in bloom by Don Kawahigashi on Unsplash
Such a delightful story! And the images you’ve saved enhances its immediacy. I loved seeing your outline for your Uno Chiyo dissertation. And what a wonderful book that became. Thanks for this story! Jan
Thank you so much, Jan! I think that may have been the last outline I ever made. But I absolutely followed it!
What a touching, delightful memories of your onshi! What a kind adviser he was!
I belive everyone who loves The Tale of Genji loves purple color, as he did.
You are so right about the color purple. In fact, when he made that comment, Professor Seidensticker mentioned the Tale of Genji! I was so lucky to have been able to work with him! Thank you for your comment, Aki!