Translating in the spirit of samurai

Tokugawa heir apparent speaks of blue-blooded family line's, own colorful past

by Angela Jeffs

Iehiro Tokugawa arrives at the publishing house Kobunsha, for which he works on occasion as a translator, accompanied by his Vietnamese wife. He is all in black; she is in blue jeans with a waterfall of shining hair down her back, and very lovely too. Speaking in fluent English, he extends his hand to introduce himself as potentially the 19th shogun in the Tokugawa family line — should Japan ever have use again for a new-style feudal lord with an American accent and an international marriage, that is. “You will remember that Ieyasu Tokugawa established his power base in Edo in 1603,” he begins, clearing his throat nervously. “My family then ruled until the Meiji Reformation towards the end of the 19th century.”

He explains that the last and 15th shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa tried hard to reform the outdated shogunate regime but proved unsuccessful. After offering his resignation to the emperor in 1867, he went into retirement and lived until 1913 out of the public eye, taking photographs and fishing.

“Yoshinobu was a very interesting man. Bright. Sensitive. But unpredictable, as intelligent people often are. He had a tendency to flip flop. Do I flip flop?” After a smile chases across his face he replies dead pan: “No, I’m more on the dim side.” To which everyone in the room falls about laughing.

He explains that Yoshinobu opted out of the Tokugawa family — something many people fail to realize — leaving a gap in terms of inheritance. Which is where history could be said to get just a little bit complicated.

“A deal was struck between Tokugawa family members — of whom I have to say there are many — and a 6-year-old was appointed. This was my great-great grandfather, Iesato. He was sent to the U.K. at age 16, and stayed 10 years. He returned in 1903, thoroughly Anglophiled, entered the Diet when both houses had power, and five years later was appointed president of the House of Peers.”

Under the prewar (Meiji) constitution, the only fixed post was that of the emperor. Iesato had to be elected to his post, which after his initial appointment he managed to do five consecutive times over 30 years. He died in 1940.

“My father’s background is rather more complicated,” Tokugawa continues, “coming as he did from the Matsudaira clan of Aizu, today located in Fukushima Prefecture.”

The Dominion of Aizu was loyal to both the Bafuku and the Imperial Court. This was quite logical at the time because the Bafuku was loyal to the emperor and the emperor was pro-Bafuku. When Aizu swore allegiance to the new government, many of those in control had axes to grind.

Stripped of their lands, the Matsudaira clan was exiled to Aomori, “close to where the plutonium recycling facility is now.” The family lived in great poverty until eventually forgiven, and the clan chief — former daimyo — made a viscount in the newly established aristocracy.

Tokugawa finds such matters, and the fact that the son of this Matsudaira — his patriarchal great-grandfather — became a diplomat and married a Nagashima (one of Japan’s four great daimyo houses) enormously interesting. “There were all sorts of arrangements going on. It seems to me that the old and new regimes were not that different when all is said and done.”

This great-grandfather rose diplomatically through the ranks to become ambassador to Great Britain and the United States, as well as vice-minister in the Foreign Ministry. As such he was a very important figure in Anglo-U.S. relations, serving with Shigeru Yoshida, one of the four prime ministers of the immediate postwar period.

“It was his son who married a grand-daughter of Iesato Tokugawa. She was my grandmother.”

Yes, he agrees, it would be a good idea to get it all down on paper. Especially since there are diaries (kept by both Iesato and a chief retainer of the Tokugawa household) that detail the daily goings on of all the important figures of the Restoration Period. “From what I have read, it seems to me they were all behaving like a bunch of frat kids, out to create mischief. Of course, when you look at the political scene now, especially with Bush and his cronies, it’s not so different.”

Such observations are not surprising considering his international upbringing. At age 6, he moved from Shibuya, where he was born (“growing up in a large gloomy house feeling like a rat running around trying to survive”) to New York — “Hence my American accent!” His father, who was in shipping, was transferred to Long Island, where the family stayed three years.

“How was it in America? Wonderful. Fun. I went to a public school just across the road from our house. Quite a change from Gakushuin, which is as posh as you can get in Japan.”

Re-entry was a nightmare. Aged 9, he hardly spoke Japanese. Nor could he write kanji. Back in Gakushuin, he might have sunk, but for his mother’s efforts to help him catch up, so consolidating a love of telling stories, a talent for writing.

Why then would he choose to study economics at university? (Keio, of course, which he nonetheless describes as going from posh to even posher.) Because money is what makes the world go around, of course. After graduating (“remarkable, because I couldn’t understand economics at all”), he went to the University of Michigan to do a master’s in the same subject. “It was still incomprehensible, but I never questioned any other direction.”

He entered the United Nations as a trainee economist (amazing how helpful a name can be) and after starting work in the agriculture and trade division, found his perspective changing. He spent time in Hanoi, which is where he met his wife; there was also a happy period in Rome. Then after five years he went back to school to study political science, a time he describes as “also very happy. Who would not be at Columbia (University) in Manhattan?” Again his return to Japan was a let down. “My parents weren’t pleased to have this strange element roaming around the house. They sent me to a mountain hideout in Gotemba.”

At this point his wife interjects, defending her in-laws and saying he is being unfair. But he says, no, that is how it was.

Living in isolation, he translated a book published in the U.K. for the young adult market. But no sooner had he finished it than the project was canceled. “I cried. I did. It had been pretty boring to do too — the first time I have ever read a book and fallen asleep.”

So he struggled on, frugally, reading, reading, reading, until in desperation — missing his girlfriend — he moved to Thailand, where she joined him. “It was cheap to live. I could have first pick of new titles for possible translation in Bangkok’s wonderful Kinokuniya bookstore. Most important, we could get married, live in peace.” His wife has been a strong influence, he admits with a wry grin. “For one thing I used to be so unkempt. She encourages a cool image, insisting I wear black to make me look thinner.”

Now they are back in Shibuya, living next door to his parents, but never talking to them. It’s a pity, because their No. 1 son is one of the sweetest, most self-deprecating men imaginable. And his wife is bright, charming and 100 percent supportive. Iehiro would make a great professor, making complex economic issues easy to understand; as for students, they’d surely blossom in the light of his enthusiasm and droll sense of humor. “The only problem would be in having to grade them!”

As for saving Japan from its current state of dispirited stagnancy, he has ideas. (Such a pity that most are “off the record.”) In the meantime he is readying for a trip to New York to do some research, look for books as possible projects.

Titles that match the quality and importance of Tokugawa translations to date are: “New Paradigm for the Financial Markets” by George Soros, “China — A Fragile Superpower” by Suzan Shirk, and Ian Johnson’s “Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China” (“a truly wonderful book”).