Mayo woman who became a member of the Emperor's staff

 

EILEEN KATO:Eileen Kato, nee Lynn, who has died aged 76, became one of Ireland's more remarkable exports, ending her life as one of the tiny handful of foreign advisers to Japan's imperial family.

A renowned translator and authority on Japanese poetry and theatre, she never lost her love of Irish culture and spent many years exploring its common elements with the language and arts of her adopted home.

Born in Bangor-Erris in 1932 and educated at the Ursuline Convent in Sligo, Eileen excelled at University College Galway where she graduated with first-class honours in French and Spanish in 1953.

She received an MA from the University of Poitiers in 1954 on a French government scholarship, then won another scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. While in France she met the man who would become her husband, Yoshiya Kato.

Eileen's marriage, only the second between a Japanese diplomat and a foreigner since the second World War, required special permission from Japan's conservative foreign ministry.

She came to live in Japan in 1958. Her husband's posting to the United Nations in New York in the 1960s made possible a second MA at Columbia University under Donald Keene, a towering figure in the study of Japanese literature. The two went on to enjoy a lifelong friendship.

Eileen developed a particular expertise in the Noh theatre. As a frequent member of the audience, she knew and was known to many famous Noh actors of recent decades; one said that he would always focus on Eileen because, unlike many in the audience, she never once fell asleep.

A brilliant translator, mostly from Japanese into English, she also translated Japanese waka, a traditional Japanese poetic form that preceded haiku, 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, Twelve Plays of the Noh and Kyogenand Traditional Japanese Theatre: an Anthology of Plays.

She also published many scholarly articles on Irish and Japanese literature in such journals as Monumenta Nipponicaand the Journal of Irish Studies.

Her true love was poetry and she had a particular devotion to WB Yeats. She told friends that the only naughty thing she did at school was to skip classes so that she could pay respects to Yeats's coffin when it passed by on its return from France to Ireland. Later in life she wrote an authoritative article on Yeats and the Noh theatre.

Eileen accompanied her husband on all his postings abroad. In Beijing she studied Chinese and, when her husband was ambassador to Egypt, she learned hieroglyphics. His unexpected death in 1991 meant that he never took up an appointment as ambassador to France - a tour of duty that would have been a fitting conclusion to a romance that had begun there so long ago. Throughout their lives they spoke French to each other in private.

After the death of her husband, Eileen was appointed as a special goyagakarito the emperor of Japan. Although by then she was a Japanese citizen, she was the first person not born as a Japanese to be appointed to this special position in the emperor's private staff, with duties similar to those of an adviser.

Eileen held this role for 15 years until her retirement in January 2007. The position required absolute discretion and, although she came to know both the emperor and empress as individuals, she never publicly discussed this association. Both are the patrons of waka, the Japanese traditional poetic form, and all members of the Japanese imperial family write waka throughout the year.

Eileen had a deep knowledge and understanding of the art and, as an accomplished poet herself, she may have been the only person to have successfully mastered writing waka in English.

That, of course, made her the perfect candidate to translate into English the wakaof the imperial family, which was one of her duties.

Proud of her birth and upbringing in the wild and majestic landscape of north Mayo, it was her destiny to move in high circles, yet her reticent nature made her shun the limelight.

Throughout her life she remained deeply private and humble, yet in the history of Japan-Ireland relations, it is hard to think of a more important person.

She leaves behind a stronger appreciation of traditional Japanese and Irish culture and their many common elements.

The last major event she attended in June was for the launch for a book on classical waka by Irish scholar Peter A. McMillan at the Irish Embassy residence in Tokyo. She mentored the project and wrote its afterword.

Travelling around Donegal this summer, McMillan wrote the following waka poem which he dedicated to her memory:

Seagulls on the shore

wailing in the autumn squall,

are you crying for the one you love

that you had to leave behind?

Eileen Kato: born March 23rd, 1932; died August 30th, 2008