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Keene: A life lived true to the words

Distinguished translator Donald Keene discusses his career — from his discovery of Japanese to decoding wartime missives to writing influential ones of his own


Staff writer

Donald Keene is one of the greatest scholars of Japanese literature and has been highly influential in the establishment of Japanese studies in the West.

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Keene understanding: Donald Keene, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University, interprets the attractions of Japanese novels and reminisces about his military service as a Japanese translator in World War II during his recent JT interview. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Now aged 87, the Professor Emeritus of Columbia University in New York has published around 25 books in English, comprising studies of Japanese literature and culture as well as translations of classical and modern works. He has also had some 30 books published in Japanese, some of which he also wrote in Japanese.

Keene has spent more than 50 years in Japan, apart from time spent teaching at Columbia University where, in 1986, the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture was established in his honor.

As the subtitle of his autobiography "Chronicles of My Life" puts it, Keene is an "American in the heart of Japan." Oddly, however, there was nothing in his upbringing that pointed to such an outcome.

Keene was born in New York City in 1922, the son of a businessman who sold American radio parts in Europe. Consequently, he first traveled to Europe with his father at age 9, and he immediately felt strongly attracted to foreign languages.

After entering Columbia University when he was 16, Keene found himself sitting next to a Chinese student in the classical literature class and through him became interested in the Chinese language and began studying it.

From that casual sparking of his interest, Keene began learning Japanese in 1941. That December, however, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the United States was drawn into World War II.

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In order to continue studying Japanese, Keene entered the U.S. Navy's Japanese Language School and went on to serve as a Japanese translator and interpreter throughout the war.

After the war, Keene returned to academia and earned a master of arts at Columbia University in the history of Japanese thought. To expand his scope of academic interest, he studied Japanese literature at Harvard University in Massachusetts and Cambridge University in England, respectively, and earned a doctorate in Japanese literature from Columbia University.

Keene arrived in Japan to study at Kyoto University from 1953 to 1955. During that time he also compiled his "Anthology of Japanese Literature" — a benchmark work that was to have a great influence on foreign scholars of Japanese literature and the worldwide development of Japanese cultural studies.

Keene returned to New York in 1955 but since the late 1950s has spent every summer in Japan and more recently spends half of each year in Japan. Keene translated plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), including "The Battles of Coxinga," works by the novelist Yukio Mishima (1925-70), and the novel "No Longer Human" by Osamu Dazai (1909-48), and he also penned "Emperor of Japan," a biography of the Meiji Emperor, who was titular head of state from 1868 to 1912.

Keene has received many awards, including — as its first non-Japanese recipient — the Yomiuri Literary Prize, in 1985, for "Travelers of a Hundred Ages," the best book of literary criticism in Japanese, and the Order of Culture, bestowed on him by Emperor Akihito in 2008.

Recently, Keene sat down with The Japan Times for this interview at his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward.

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Ode to a legend: Donald Keene visits the tomb of Matsuo Basho, the famous haiku poet whom Keene admires, in Shiga Prefecture in 1953. FROM "CHRONICLES OF MY LIFE"

Last year was the 1,000th anniversary of "The Tale of Genji," which is regarded as the world's first full-length novel. How many lectures did you give on that subject last year?

Probably five or six in different parts of Japan and in Italy.

When did you first discover "The Tale of Genji"?

I first saw the book in 1940 when I was 18 years old. I had never heard of it before then. I thought I'd received a very good education, but in fact it had been entirely about the Western world. There had been no reference to Japanese literature at any point in my life. I bought the book initially not because I was extremely interested in "The Tale of Genji," but because it was very inexpensive. Two volumes cost something like 50 cents or less.

Anyway, I didn't expect very much from it. But I was curious and after I started to read it I became quite captivated by the novel.

Why do you think that a novel written in Japan in the 11th century made such an impression on you?

In part it was a reaction to the world around me at that time. Then, 1940 was a very bad year for humanity. That year German armies overran Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and most of France, and in September that year the nightly bombings of London began. Although I was safe from that in New York, I kept thinking that perhaps Germany was winning and Germans would cross over to the United States. I was extremely depressed. I hated to read the newspapers because they were full of new German conquests.

I turned to "The Tale of Genji" and it was such a relief from the newspapers and the world around me. It moved me very greatly, not only because of its interesting story and interesting characters but because it seemed so civilized compared with the world I was actually living in.

The novel — which runs to more than 1,000 pages in its English translations — recounts many stories about Genji, a son of an emperor, and the women in his life. Which episode impressed you most?

One story is about Yugao. She is rather delicate, withdrawn from the world and not very positive. But Genji meets her in a street where he normally never went and carries her off to another place. But then she dies of fright, never knowing who he really was as his face was concealed. It's a fascinating story and very very moving in the depiction of this woman. She is baffled, asking herself, "Why this marvelous man. . . . Look at me, I am nobody at all." And yet she is really a considerable person.

You also have a thorough knowledge of haiku — Japanese short poems comprised of 17 syllables. You have written that you love "Oku no Hosomichi" ("The Narrow Road to Oku"), a collection of haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-94) that you have translated into English. Why do Basho's haiku fascinate you so much?

Haiku is a whole difficult poetic form. It must do so much in a very short space. You cannot waste a single syllable, and yet in this very very tight world of the haiku, Basho was able to express innumerable kinds of perceptions of the world through various trivial events that he gives a value to. It makes you feel that there is nothing in life that is really uninteresting. If one looks at it properly, one can draw some excitement — even enlightenment — from even a very very short poem.

His most famous poem is about a frog jumping into the pond: furu ike ya (The ancient pond) kawazu tobikomu (A frog leaps in) mizu no oto (The sound of the water)

It's very very simple and many people think of it as a momentary observation. And someone who wasn't prepared to accept the haiku might say, "Who cares whether a frog jumps in or not?"

But to think about the poem carefully is to realize nothing is wasted.

Some may ask why Basho said "furu ike," (old pond). Well, he used that word to emphasize the eternity of the pond. It is there forever. It has been there ever since the world was created until that moment. And then he takes this pond and he inserts a frog jumping in, which is an event of an instant. It may never happen again, and it may never have happened before. It's one moment. The eternal nature of the pond is bisected by the vertical movement of the frog jumping into it. It's a combination of the infinite and the momentary.

"Mizu no oto," which is the sound of water, is a recognition of something having happened. From the sound of water we can understand that something important has happened.

When and why did you start learning Japanese?

I started by accident in the spring of 1941. By then I had studied some Chinese under the influence of a Chinese friend. Then one day a man came up to me as I was studying in a library and he said that he had noticed me eating every day in a Chinese restaurant near the university. Then he asked if I would have dinner with him that evening. Well, I had so little money that I wasn't sure if I could afford to pay for dinner. But I thought that, if worse comes to worse, then I just wouldn't eat anything the next day.

We had dinner together — again at the Chinese restaurant, and he told me why he'd asked me to dine with him. He was going to spend that summer of 1941 studying Japanese, and he thought that unless he had several other people to study with him, he probably wouldn't work very hard.

So all together we became a group of three students and one teacher. The other two people gradually got tired of the effort involved in learning Japanese characters and gave up. But I was intrigued by Japanese, and I decided that in the new term at Columbia starting in September 1941 I would study Japanese language. I was also strongly urged to take a course on the history of Japanese thought because I was told that the teacher, Tsunoda Ryusaku, was an extraordinary man and I should study under him if I hoped to continue my Japanese studies. And so I did.



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