Sakuko Matsui: A wonderful life

Image of the Australian Pavillion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai

Just one day before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, a much less well-known raid took place, 300kms to the east, on Nishinomiya. The residents were not surprised: in common with most Japanese cities, the US Air Force had repeatedly firebombed the area. Among those who heard the planes approach that summer evening was 12-year-old Sakuko Matsui.

“There were literally dozens of firebombs and they fell all over my house,” she remembers. “We had an underground shelter for the whole family in our garden, but of course you couldn’t stay in it once the garden started to burn. We squatted near our house and neighbours gave us some wet blankets that we held around ourselves.”

Their house was totally destroyed, yet it could have been much worse: her family survived, and her father had saved their precious books by burying them. Sakuko recalls fishing out a charred copy of the Pocket Oxford English Dictionary from and taking some comfort from it: she loved studying English.

The war ended soon after, and the altered landscape of occupied Japan made it easy for Sakuko to expand her English studies. She became an academic and went on to devote her life to the study of languages and literature, first as an English scholar in Japan and then as a lecturer in Japanese at Sydney University. This year, Dr Matsui – an honorary associate professor in the School of Languages and Cultures – celebrates 50 years of association with the University.

Sakuko first received the offer to come to Sydney in 1961 while she was a young scholar at Konan University in Kobe. “My former colleague Geoffrey Sargent wrote to my professor saying that if I was still interested in studying English, Australians spoke English, and I could study English literature at Sydney University while teaching Japanese,” she says.

She immediately decided to take up the offer (“Australia is better than Hokkaido, my mother said”). After a rough, 11-day voyage, the ship docked at Woolloomooloo and she collected her six large boxes of books, including her precious dictionaries, from the pier. She was picked up and taken directly to the Women’s College, where she would live for the next decade.

“There I was secluded and probably protected, because anti-Japanese feelings were very strong at that time,” she says, recalling that friends had been turned away from hotels due to lingering resentment over Japan’s treatment of Australian prisoners-of-war. “But at Women’s College people were so nice. I was a member of the senior common room, and it was a wonderful life. We ate our meals at the high table and had a formal dinner every night, with a gown.”

She stayed much longer at Sydney than her initial three-year appointment, eventually rising to become head of Japanese Studies before retiring in 2001. Sakuko’s classes were tiny at first, she says, “but as the economic and trade relationship developed, Australia’s interest in Japan grew.” After 1970, the year of the Osaka Expo, the popularity of Japanese rose sharply. Her department became one of the largest language departments of any Australian university, with more than 300 students enrolled.

As well as language classes, Sakuko also dedicated herself to research and teaching on modern Japanese novelists, especially Natsume Sōseki, on whom she wrote her PhD thesis, and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, whom she has translated into English. It sometimes saddens her that her students’ passion for Japanese literature and culture has not kept up with their passion for learning the language: “Our teaching used to be very academic and most students coped with it well, but now students want more practical lessons.” In recent years, she has also witnessed Australia shift its gaze away from Japan towards China, although she believes the cultural ties between Australia and Japan will remain strong.

Ask Sakuko whether she made the right decision coming to Australia, rather than the UK or US as she originally wanted, and her response is swift. “I have made many good friends here, and I might have done the same if I had gone to England or America, but I think Australians are easier to make friends with. They are more culturally open-minded. For instance, while Americans are perhaps more interested in America, Australians – just like us Japanese – are always interested in what’s happening outside their country.”

On Sunday 20 March, Sakuko Matsui will celebrate her 50 years of association with Sydney at a lunch with friends, former students and colleagues at Women’s College. To attend, please email as soon as possible.