NEW YORK--The renowned Japanese literature expert Donald Keene, professor emeritus at Columbia University, is teaching for the last time this spring term.
The 88-year-old Keene will step down in late April, bringing to an end a teaching career at Columbia that began in 1955.
After concluding his teaching duties, Keene plans to move permanently to Tokyo and fulfill his dream of writing full time.
Keene was very concerned following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. He had made many visits to Chusonji temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, and Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, two of the hardest-hit prefectures in the Tohoku region.
"I have had special feelings toward the Tohoku region since I first traveled along the 'Oku no hosomichi' 56 years ago," Keene said. "I lectured for about six months at Tohoku University, and I am acquainted with the priests at Chusonji temple. I am very worried."
Keene referred to the classic work of literature written by the haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), which he translated into English under the title, "The Narrow Road to Oku."
While there is high scientific interest now in the United States on how to prevent earthquakes and tsunami, Keene is skeptical about the Western-style conviction in science that believes humans can control natural disasters.
"I am a person who has been heavily influenced by Japanese culture," Keene said. "I am moved by the sense of resignation that feels the power held by nature cannot be resisted."
In his final term at Columbia, Keene has been lecturing on such Noh songs as "Funabenkei" and "Yuya."
His initial encounter with Japanese literature was purely by accident.
Having skipped grades in school, Keene entered Columbia University when he was 16. One day, he happened to sit next to a Chinese-American student and started learning kanji from him. Keene was deeply struck by the beauty of kanji.
He was also fascinated by the English translation of "The Tale of Genji" that he read when he was 18, and he volunteered to enter the U.S. Navy's Japanese language school.
He was surprised to hear about Japanese soldiers fighting to the death at Attu in the Aleutian chain. During the Battle of Okinawa, he searched for Japanese hiding in caves.
His days in Qingdao, China, were spent interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.
"I saw the dark side of humans," Keene said. "There were Japanese POWs who betrayed their fellow soldiers, and there were U.S. soldiers who duped Japanese POWs into giving up their artwork possessions."
Becoming fed up with the interrogations, Keene asked for a discharge. He returned to New York, but he could not find an occupation that interested him.
"I resumed my study of Japanese literature because I felt the Japanese language best suited my constitution," he said.
Over the course of 70 years of research, he has written more than 40 books.
When asked to name his personal top three among all the books he has published, Keene gave the Japanese titles for works that he also wrote in English, a multivolume "History of Japanese Literature" as well as books titled in English as "Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion" and "So Lovely A Country Will Never Perish."
"Looking back, what I feel about my life is that it is not me who chose Japan, but Japan who chose me," Keene said. "After retiring from teaching, I will move to Japan and apply for Japanese citizenship. While immersing myself in the Japanese language, I want to devote my time to reading and writing."
His first project is to complete a biography of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), a haiku poet of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
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