Eileen Kato, who died Aug. 30 at the age of 76, was one of the most remarkable Irish women of her generation. Kato was born in Bangor Erris, County Mayo, in Ireland in 1932.
She was a brilliant student and won numerous prizes and scholarships during her academic career. University College, Galway, the University of Poitiers, the Sorbonne in Paris and later Columbia in New York all recognized her abilities.
In Poitiers, France, she met the man who would become her husband, diplomat Yoshiya Kato, the love of her life. She came to live in Japan in 1958.
Kato translated mostly from Japanese into English, but also translated Japanese “waka” poems, Japan’s traditional poetic form, into Irish, and old and modern Irish poetry into English. Her translations are included in several seminal collections, including “Twenty Plays of the Noh Theatre.” She also published many scholarly articles on Irish and Japanese literature in such journals as Monumenta Nipponica.
Kato accompanied her husband during his diplomatic career to Bern, New York, Paris, Beijing, Cairo and Brussels. After his death in 1991, she was appointed as a “goyogakari” to Emperor Akihito, a special position on his private staff with duties similar to those of an adviser. She was the first person not born as a Japanese to be appointed to this post and she held the position for 15 years until her retirement in January 2007.
The Emperor and Empress Michiko are the patrons of waka and all members of the Imperial family write waka throughout the year. Eileen had a deep knowledge and understanding of the art and was an accomplished poet herself. She mastered writing waka in English and one of her duties was to assist in the translation of the waka of all the Imperial family.
While her reticent nature made her shun the limelight, it is hard to think of a more important person in the history of Japan-Ireland relations.
Kato loved Ireland, but she also loved Japan and “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” (“One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each”) was one of her favorite Japanese books.
Her favorite poem from this collection was by Ki no Tomonori: “Cherry blossoms on this quiet, lambent day of spring, why do you scatter with such unquiet hearts?”
Perhaps the reason she liked this poem so much was because she had such a deep sense of the frailty and transience of life.
With her passing, those who knew and loved her feel that her life was too short, like the cherry blossoms she so deeply loved.
Peter McMillan is an Irish poet, printmaker and translator. He is also professor at Kyorin University’s graduate and undergraduate schools teaching poetry, translation and ekphrasis (the graphic description of a visual work of art).