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Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2005


Donald Keene

One of the greatest scholars of Japanese literature, 83-year-old Donald Keene has spent the past 52 years in Japan, with the exception of his time spent teaching at Columbia University in New York, where, in 1986, The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture was established in his honor. So far he has published about 40 books in English and 50 or so in Japanese, received countless awards and has been named a Person of Cultural Merit (Bunka Koro-sha) by the Japanese government.

Donald Keene
Donald Keene Photo by Judit Kawaguchi

I forget that I am not Japanese. I don't feel like a stranger here, but then someone asks me if I can eat sashimi and I feel as shocked as any Japanese would be. Of course, most Japanese don't know that Emperor Meiji never ate sashimi because he disliked it immensely.

I am a missionary of Japanese culture. I propagate it in the West to people who might never have heard of anything Japanese. I believe that it could be an important part of their life.

The sooner you begin learning languages, the better. Growing up with two or three languages must be very good. Unfortunately, my family was too poor to hire a private tutor so I only began studying French in junior high school, and followed it with Spanish, classical Greek, Latin, German, Mandarin and Japanese.

Aristotle was wrong and Chikamatsu right: tragedy and great love affairs could happen to anyone. Aristotle said in the "Poetics" that the hero of a tragedy must be a person of higher social status than ourselves, otherwise we think this is a poor, hopeless individual. But Chikamatsu recognized that even people with low social status have strong emotions and those are just as pure and important as a prince's feelings.

People sometimes take the easy way out. They might say that the reason they don't know Japanese literature is because it is so strange, so foreign, so unlike their own. That is such a disgraceful thing to say because if you are a cultured human being, you should be aware of other cultures, not only your own.

Some Americans love seeing their own country abroad. They travel and feel so happy to see a KFC in Beijing or Moscow because for them it is evidence that American culture is widespread. Going abroad for this is such an unworthy purpose.

For me, there is constant stimulation in being in Japan. I'm a scholar of Japanese and being here I can learn something new everyday. Since 1942, when I began to study Japanese, I have not spent a single day without thinking of some aspect of Japan, no matter where I am.

Japanese have a masochistic attitude. When a Japanese troupe performs abroad and two people from the audience leave, the media will focus on those two and not the hundreds who stayed.

I decided that I liked living by myself. I was involved in such demanding study that things always got put off, and then I thought that after my Ph.D or my next book would be the time to make a family. That day never came but I might still marry -- who knows?

A good translation must be faithful to the original and it must read well in the language it is translated into. Attempts to insist in the translation on how different the original language is are bound to be unsuccessful, though some Japanese enjoy reading a literal translation because it makes them feel they have read the work in the original.

Japanese may know more about foreign countries than they know about Japan. The education here tends in that direction. Some of this is natural -- if you are into economics, you will learn Western economics and not what the 17th-century Japanese thought. But considering that Japan has 1,000 years of great literature, this Westernized education system is nothing but a huge sacrifice.

Among the Japanese, the general attitude and basic assumption is that Japanese culture is too difficult so only the easy things like origami and dolls are sent abroad. In Brazil, people asked the Japanese government to send a group of noh performers there to show one of Japan's highest cultural forms, but the politicians here thought this was idiotic and replied that Takarazuka* was better for the Brazilians. The Brazilians refused and insisted on noh. The result was that they got both because the Japanese could not abandon the idea. Stop sending only the easy stuff!

My biggest mistake in life is not keeping a diary, especially once I came here. I wish I had written one, describing my everyday experiences, what I saw, whom I met, what I ate, conversations I had.

Japanese talk about the weather because they love it! I enjoy Japanese letters describing the seasons. We Westerners only mention the weather when we have nothing better to talk about.

The Japanese are very flexible and love new gadgets. In New York educated people shun mobile phones, but here everyone uses them. They have no barrier for science and technology so I am not surprised they are the world leaders in robot technology. Americans see robots as a tool for warfare, but the Japanese think of them as cute companions. I prefer the Japanese way.

I'm not aware that I have changed since, let's say, age 45, but I realize that people have another way of looking at me. Yesterday in a restaurant I wanted to go to the second floor but the waitress said, "Oh, the stairs must be too much for you so you had better sit on the first floor." I recognized the goodwill there, but I was surprised because before her warning it hadn't occurred to me that I was old.

*Melodramatic musical performed by an all-female cast.

- Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK's "Weekend Japanology" http://www.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/japanology_e.html

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