Edward Eidensticker is a great link between the literature of Japan and the Western reader - his translations have been credited with one Nobel Prize - so it is not all that surprising that on a bitter-ice day in Washington his thoughts should turn to palm blossoms.
"I'm afraid I will miss them," he said at a recent Georgetown lunch during a visit here. Ah, so. The plum blossom, as everyone knows, is the flower of flowers for late winter, small, austere in purity and fleeting as a flower and should be, if one is to dream of it.
Seidensticker has the reflective scholar's face, the mouth and eyes and a bit tired with experience and thought, and he comes by his face honestly as one of America's best-known scholars of things Japanese. He won a National Book Award for his translation of "The Sound of the Mountain" by Yasunari Kawabata and has translated other works by that recent author.
He accompanied Kawabata to Stockholm when the author accepted his Nobel Prize. As someone observed at the time, it is hard to win a Nobel Prize for your book if the prize committee can't read it: hence, the importanceof a translator.
Seidensticker's most recent labors is an English version of "The Tale of Genji," the 11th-Century classic that to the Japanese is comparable to Shakepeare. Seidensticker'sees nothing amazing in the circumstance that a woman wrote the masterpiece, since he sees no reason women cannot write as well as anybody else.
In many ways, he said, "Gerji" is not only the world's first great novel, but is still unsurpassed in the authority and delicacy of its perceptions of character and motive - all within the general setting of courtly life.
The tale is about the various loves of Prince Genji, usually called "shinning," and before whom women were prone to prostrate themselves. He had "slightly decayed teeth" the story points out, but then magnetism is more than enamel.
To translate such a work well it is necessary to be spiritually sympathetic to a past that new seems remote.
Still, as an encyclopedia writer once observed, love is love and death is death, whether in medieval Japan or Anacostia.
Seidensticker is professor of Japanese at the University of Michigan, but will take off a year beginning in September to function as a resident expert on Japanese at Columbia University.
New York is "a dreadful place," of course, but so interesting that Seidensticker is ready to try living there.
He has no doctorate, a thing "I am very proud of." Learning consists of learning, not parchments, he thinks.
He was born in Castle Rock, Colo, in 1921 and never gave Japan a thought until World War II when he entered a Navy language school "to keep from getting shot at."
He learned Japanese, joined the Foreign Service and was stationed, surprisingly enough (for he knew the language well) in Japan. He as spent part of the year in Japan for many many years now. Doubtless influenced by the sparse plum blossoms, his own style of translation in plain and clean eschewing fleuristic touches.
At lunch he spoke with some heat against "Japanese intellectuals," who he considers have sat on the sidelines prophesying doom while bussinessmen and other sturdy flok have brought their nation to a high pitch of security and riches.
He paused to order a second cocktail since, as he reflected, he was on his way to talk with graduate students - usually an experience of quite moderated delight.
It is hard, he agreed, to speak of "Japan" as if were just one entity - look at "America" which is itself so large and various. He realizes the inaccuracy of great abstraction, but for purpose of brevity sometimes indulges in them:
"The only difference between Cambridge and Charlottesville," he said, to give an example of America, "is that in Charlottesville they are very polite and in Boston they're not."
In Japan, on the other hand, everybody is polite. "All through Japanese society," he said, "a prime rule is no to make anybody unhappy. I think that's good - it's what civilization is all about.
"And the way Japan has accomodated to industrialism - " he began, and paused in wonder."The usual way in the West means boredom and ugliness. But it has'nt led to either of those two things in Japan. I don't mean there isn't ugliness in Japanese industrial section, but I mean the lives of people in that industrial setting. Put it this way, they make of dirt something rather pleasing. We make it filthy.
If he feels one overriding thing about Japan, "it feels more gentle, softer to the touch." He marched off into the hard ice to do battle with the graduate persons.