Ralph Friedrich (1913–1982)*: Poet, Editor, Translator
On April 27, 1982 Ralph Friedrich, poet, senior editor at Weatherhill, and dean of English-language editors in Japan, died of heart failure at St. Luke’s International Hospital, Tokyo, where he was undergoing treatment for an ulcer. He was 69.
Ralph was a high school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, his hometown, until he joined the army during World War II. After completing the grueling 50-week intensive Japanese course of the U.S. Armed Services Training Program, he was sent to Japan as a language officer. During the Occupation he served as Education Officer for Tochigi prefecture. With the end of the Occupation, he was transferred to GHQ, in Tokyo.
Already a discerning theater and opera buff, Ralph became an ardent kabuki fan, and he came to regard Japan as home. In order to remain in his adopted country, he resigned his commission as a U.S. army officer and became a civilian employee of GHQ, a position he held until 1959, when he joined Charles E. Tuttle, the pioneering English-language trade publisher in Japan.
One of Ralph’s earliest contributions at Tuttle was as English-language editor for Florence Sakade’s famous kanji book, A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese. Many of the books he edited while at Tuttle are classics in their fields: Raymond Bushell’s Netsuke Handbook, Evelyn McCune’s The Arts of Korea, Helen B. Minnich’s Japanese Costume, and Hugo Munsterberg’s Ceramic Art of Japan. He also worked with Meredith Weatherby and Florence Sakade on Andrew Nelson’s The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, one of Weatherby’s last Tuttle projects before founding John Weatherhill, Inc.
Ralph joined Weatherhill as editor in 1964. During his 18 years there he continued to edit classics: Laurance Roberts’s A Dictionary of Japanese Artists, Elise Grilli’s The Art of the Japanese Screen, Lorraine Kuck’s The World of the Japanese Garden, Teiji Itoh’s Imperial Gardens of Japan, and Fujio Koyama’s The Heritage of Japanese Ceramics. While working on these and a host of other books, he also acted as general editor for the monumental 31-volume Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art series. Beginning in 1975, he worked half time at Weatherhill, mentoring young editors, editing books that interested him, and continuing to supervise the Heibonsha series.
A masterly editor, Ralph cut through syntactic Gordian knots and rooted out infelicities and language abuse with a sureness and ease that won him the lasting gratitude of authors, translators and colleagues alike. His impeccable command of the niceties of syntax, grammar and usage, coupled with his unerring memory, vast store of general knowledge, and poet’s sense of language were keenly appreciated, especially by young editors who were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with and learn from him. Though a quiet, unassuming person, he was unyielding in his insistence on the highest professional editorial standards, and he strongly influenced all who worked with him. His deshi and colleagues—now working for every major English-language publisher in Japan—are continuing efforts he began. Thus Ralph Friedrich’s contributions to English-language publishing here cannot be measured simply in terms of the outstanding books he edited but must also be valued in light of the generations of editors he trained and the editors they are training.
Friends and colleagues of long standing said goodbye to Ralph on April 30 in a memorial service held, as he wished, at Hoan-ji, the Jodo-shu temple next door to the Weatherhill offices. Intimate friends and associates attended Ralph at his cremation. His ashes will be interred in Niigata-ken, where for many years he spent his holidays with close friends.
*The birthdate given is not confirmed. Information confirming date of birth would be greatly appreciated. Please contact us at SWET.
Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 7 (June 1982), p. 2.
See also “Writing a Blurb," "written for a beginning editor at Weatherhill, Inc., many years ago by Ralph Friedrich, the sempaiof some of Tokyo’s senior book people” (SWET Newsletter, No. 55, July 1993).