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A lesson in Japanese language and literature

9 October 2017
From Japan to Australia, spans a lifetime of learning

Honorary Associate Professor Sakuko Matsui has dedicated her life’s work to the study of Japanese language and literature.

Honorary Associate Professor Sakuko Matsui divides her time between Australia and Japan, as she continues her work transcribing and publishing 18 volumes of the 32-year diary of Hirao Hachisaburô (1866 – 1945), a Japanese businessman, politician and philanthropist, who established the Konan School and University, of which she is a graduate.

“I’ve been involved in the project for 13 years”, she explains. “We just finished volume 15 in June. It’s going to take two more years. Until it is finished, I need to maintain this lifestyle of half my time in Japan.”

Now aged 84, Professor Matsui spent 41 years as a lecturer and professor at the University of Sydney, joining the Department of Oriental Studies in 1961 and retiring in 2001.

“I came from Kobe to Sydney on a Japanese cargo ship, and was seasick for nine of the 11 days of my voyage,” she recalls. “When I arrived, I went straight to the Women’s College. I loved living there. People were so good to me, not only at the Women’s College, but also at the University and in general. I found Australian people very nice.”

Professor Matsui lived at the Women’s College for 10 years. She recalls, “It was hard for Australian students to make Japanese friends in those days, so I started holding a Japanese speaking night every month. At first, my students were meeting a few Japanese, but eventually, I had 100 people coming.”

She came to Sydney by invitation of Professor AR Davis, Head of the Department of Oriental Studies, and Dr GW Sargent and Mr BC McKillop, lecturers in Japanese. Inspired and assisted by them, she taught modern Japanese novelists, and translated and published some of their works while publishing her own PhD thesis on Japanese novelist, Natsume Sôseki (1867–1916).

“I taught the history of Japanese literature – ancient, medieval and early modern in a cycle over three years,” she says. “I even taught Japanese oral tradition. But I was much more interested in Japanese literature.”

In 2016, Professor Matsui was honoured for her work by the Japanese Government, which awarded her The Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays, in recognition of promoting Japanese language and Japanese studies. Her former student, Professor Emeritus Hugh Clarke, was also awarded an Imperial Medal.

“I was very pleased and proud,” she says. “All the good things I have received while working at Sydney are thanks to my students.”

She would like traditions to be upheld and the study of Japanese literature and culture to continue to flourish at the University.

“I have established a prize for undergraduates and a scholarship to enable students to travel to Japan during their postgraduate studies in Japanese culture. I have also decided to leave a bequest to the University to support research in the study of Japanese literature,” she says.

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