Kim Schuefftan (1936–2021): Editor, Writer, Collector

By the time SWET was founded in 1980, Kim Schuefftan had already been an editor at Kodansha International (KI) for 14 years. Then in his mid-forties, he was one of only a handful of senior editors in the flourishing English-language book publishing industry in Japan.

Schuefftan was hired by KI in 1966, and he put his writing skills and knowledge of art and craft to work on a variety of books, from those culled from the parent company’s extensive backlist to new acquisitions. Most of the latter books required considerable development and adaptation to present often complex and nuanced Japanese concepts to a Western audience. He knew how to do them justice without “dumbing down.” Even books translated from the parent company’s back list required extensive reorientation. Schuefftan worked on many groundbreaking titles that not only helped establish KI’s reputation but also introduced new facets of Japanese culture to the world, including Kaiseki: Zen Tastes in Japanese Cooking (1972), The Unknown Craftsman (1972), Hamada Potter (1975), Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art (1980). Many of these are still in print today.

In 1989, after 23 years at KI, Schuefftan became a freelancer. His veteran eye was widely respected, and editorial assignments were soon forthcoming. He was editor of Ikebana International’s three-times annual magazine, wrote for ANA’s inflight magazine Wingspan, and provided editorial services for the International Society for Educational Information, among other clients. He also continued to edit the manuscripts of individual authors and was instrumental in seeing a number of new works published.

Among wordsmiths who contributed to the English-language writing community in Japan, Schuefftan was a memorable figure. He possessed deep technical and aesthetic knowledge of crafts and art, which he also collected with great enthusiasm—pottery, rugs, textiles, ethnic curiosities. He was curious and conversant in many fields. His advice and professional help were sought for projects relating to crafts, music, food, traditional culture, and more. He could be charming, gracious, and generous. Memorably, his humor leaned toward the droll and purposely nonsensical. He was known for opening his conversations with a piece of random whimsy calculated to elicit a chuckle and tear the listener away from whatever humdrum had preceded it. At times, he could be demanding, and he sometimes clashed with colleagues and authors over the content of a manuscript. He rewrote texts to his own muse.

Even before arriving in Japan, Schuefftan lead an interesting life. He grew up mostly in California among artistic types. Many of his parents’ friends, and some family members, were artists and musicians. His parents ran a workshop that produced ceramic figurines in the Santa Monica, California area. It was there that he received a solid grounding in clays, kilns, and craft. He attended the Ojai Valley School in his elementary years. In his teens, his mother remarried, and at 16 he traveled to Israel and spent four months in a kibbutz. Despite his Jewish upbringing, he realized that Israel and the kibbutz lifestyle did not suit him. He developed a streak of defiance against strictures of any kind—religious or otherwise—that followed him throughout his life.

Later, he entered Reed College in Portland, Oregon, initially as a biology major but he found the sciences unpalatable. He later entered the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied cultural anthropology. His love of music over a broad spectrum—from jazz and blues, folk to madrigals, to Baroque to opera to Prokofiev—flourished in this stimulating university community. That love must have helped him get a part-time job at a record shop on Telegraph Avenue, where he learned even more from the veteran keeper of the shop.

After graduating from UCB, adventure took Schuefftan to Tokyo. There, he attended International Christian University, intending to study Japanese. His interest soon strayed from his ongoing studies to the real world. He landed a coveted position at NHK as a writer and editor. In hopes of getting a children’s book he’d written published, he went to Kodansha International, founded three years earlier, and ended up getting a job offer in addition to a publishing contract. (See also “Kim Schuefftan and the Heyday of Culture Books,” based on a talk given by Schuefftan to SWET in 1999.) He enjoyed the firm confidence of executive director of KI Nobuki Saburō (see SWET Newsletter, No. 118) and worked with many of the Japanese and non-Japanese editors still active today.

In 1990, he and his partner, artist Sekiji Toshio, moved to Shimonita, Gunma prefecture. There, in an old farmhouse deep in the hills, he lived the free life of a “remote” professional long before the coronavirus pandemic came along to free many more of his colleagues from the office. He traveled to Tokyo regularly to tend to business, stock up on books and CDs, and shop for some of his favorite foods. Equipped with a computer, an Internet connection, and low-cost telephony, Schuefftan continued to support himself by editing, rewriting, and writing, often under pseudonyms. In the autumn of 2018, at the age of 83, Sekiji suffered a near-fatal accident and he moved into an assisted living facility. Schuefftan was left without his best friend and partner of four decades.

Earlier, Schuefftan had formed a close friendship with author and Japanese food expert Nancy Singleton Hachisu, a resident of the nearby Kodama area of Saitama. He provided advice on writing and handling of photographs for her books. As the challenges of age undermined Schuefftan’s freewheeling lifestyle, Hachisu gradually began extending various kinds of help. With her support, he moved out of the increasingly dilapidated minka and into a comfortable old-style house in Kodama. There, he lived happily for a year and a half with his three cats, continuing his work, puttering in the garden, and enjoying the society of friends and acquaintances. He considered himself fortunate to have someone close at hand to advocate for him when he was hospitalized, deal with the Japanese senior care system (kaigo), and arrange the other details his condition required. When his heart finally gave out, he was at home, with his cats to comfort him and friends living nearby. 

Kim Schuefftan passed away on May 22, 2021. He was eighty-four.

SWET invites memories of Kim Schuefftan to be added here. Please send to SWET

 

Filmmaker Marty Gross, an old friend, let us know that he posted an obituary, along with some photos, at the Leach Pottery website https://leachpotteryblog.com/2021/06/02/kim-schuefftan-former-arts-editor-at-kodansha-international-publishers-has-died/

Excerpt:

Kim was the editor of The Unknown Craftsman by Yanagi Soetsu and Hamada: Potter by Bernard Leach, both essential texts in the history of the Mingei Movement and The Leach Pottery. He was also responsible for important books on New Mexico potter Maria Martinez, and many more on Japanese textiles and cuisine.

He was not the author but he was the driving force behind the preparation, design and realization of these works. The books Kim Schuefftan worked so hard on had a profound and lasting impact on thinking about crafts in the 20th century and beyond.

During his long career in Japan Kim maintained passion for his work and for crafts. He could be cantankerous and prickly while trying to get everything “just right” but his committment to crafts was unwaivering. He regularly got into trouble with his publishers for overspending, especially when he insisted that the two books by Yanagi and Leach be finished with handmade “momigami” paper covers and handscreened with Japanese lacquer.

Bernard and Janet Leach had long associations with Kim Schuefftan who helped them in many ways during their visits to Japan. It was Kim, I believe, who suggested that Bernard write Hamada: Potter as a tribute to his great friend. In 1973 Kim visited St Ives to work with Bernard on the editing of Hamada: Potter. With Bernard’s eyesight failing, Kim read passages of the text aloud and suggested revisions as part of their editorial collaboration. 

On this same visit to St Ives, using a Super 8 movie camera for the first time, Kim filmed scenes of the activities at The Leach Pottery. Several years ago he gave me this unseen footage from which I made a new film, adding commentary by John Bedding. We call this film, A Visit to The Leach Pottery, 1973.  Kim became very emotional upon hearing that the film was shown online as a special presentation during the 100th Anniversary Celebrations of the Leach Pottery last year. 

Kim cherished the memories of the years he spent working with Janet and Bernard and felt they were a highlight of his career. 

In 1973 Kim encouraged Bernard and Janet to visit the small lacquer-making town of Wajima on the West coast of Japan. Presented here are photographs from that trip along with two more recent photos.

(from email to SWET received June 6, 2021)

Comments:

Thank you, Marty for your quick and juicy inside look at the workings of a fairly complex and very quixotic man.  His death took us by surprise and leaves many questions about his fascinating life and accomplishments in Japan.  You answered many of them.  Thank you.  He was an impossible and wonderful, sweet and cantankerous man and I am not alone in thinking that life will not be the same without him!!!

By Amy Katoh on June 6, 2021



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