In 1940, the Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene came across an English translation of the acclaimed 11th-century Japanese novel “Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji) in a bookstore in Times Square.
War had started in Europe the previous year after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, but Keene found himself transported to a different world inhabited by Japanese court nobles, apparently insulated from violence.
It was a life-changing experience. He glimpsed an entirely different face of a country he had thought of as nothing more than a dangerous military state. It triggered a search for the real identity of Japan and the Japanese that has occupied the rest of his life.
“Not a day has passed without thinking about Japan (since I began studying Japanese at Columbia University at the age of 17),” Keene, 89, said in an interview after obtaining Japanese nationality in March.
Soon after, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Keene became an interpreter for the Navy, traveling to Attu in the Aleutian Islands and Okinawa. He met real Japanese for the first time and also read diaries and letters left by dead Japanese soldiers.
The writers’ last words revealed fear of death and longing for their loved ones back home. The hackneyed language of wartime propaganda was noticeably absent.
Much later in his life, those experiences helped him write “So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers,” which analyzes the diaries of Jun Takami (1907-1965), Futaro Yamada (1922-2001) and other authors.
He began studying Japanese literature after World War II and came to Japan in 1953 to attend Kyoto University. He taught at Columbia University from 1955 to April 2011, spending half of the year in New York and the other half in Tokyo.
In 1962, overcome by the loss of his mother, Keene received a telephone call from Japan telling he had been awarded the Kikuchi Kan Prize for achievements in Japanese culture. It was the first of many awards for his work on Japan.
Keene has written a number of key books on Japanese literature, including the mammoth “Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century.”
The 18-volume series, which discusses works from the “Kojiki” (Record of Ancient Matters), Japan’s oldest extant chronicle, to the novels of Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), took 25 years to complete.
Over the past decade, he has followed up a biography of Emperor Meiji, “Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World,” with a series of lives seeking to shed new light on key Japanese figures.
“I find pleasure in discovering something new (in those people) that other people have not,” he said.
For example, the haiku poet Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902) repeatedly wrote in his essays that he was no good at English, but Keene said documents actually showed that Masaoka was fairly good at the language, getting the second-best English examination scores in his high school class.
The student who topped the class, who later became famous as the novelist Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), was “a genius,” according to Keene.
Keene made up his mind to acquire Japanese citizenship in January 2011, when he was thinking about what he wanted to do with the remainder of his life.
The Great East Japan Earthquake, which devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, subsequently gave that personal decision a broader meaning, he said.
Keene’s intellectual curiosity shows no sign of waning as he approaches 90.
His next scholarly project is a biography of Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780), a well-known inventor and a student of Western science and technology.
“People have suggested that I take a break,” he said. “But you can learn as long as you live.”
Writer Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996), who wrote a book with Keene, once wrote: “I have never met a person whose childhood image I can imagine so easily.”
Keene’s eyes shone throughout his interview with The Asahi Shimbun. It was easy to see Shiba’s point.
Excerpts from the interview, which was conducted in Japanese, follow:
* * *
Question: What made you decide to obtain Japanese nationality?
Answer: It started when I was hospitalized early last year. I was able to take my time and think about the rest of my life, and I realized that there is little time left for me. When I wondered about the last thing I wanted to do, it was to become Japanese.
If it had not been for the Great East Japan Earthquake, my obtaining Japanese citizenship would only have made a few columns in the newspapers. But the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear accident have given my personal wish a special meaning.
I have received many letters. They said they were encouraged or impressed by my decision to leave the United States and settle in Japan at a time when many non-Japanese people fled Japan.
Q: You were not happy to hear of foreigners leaving Japan, were you?
A: No. In my heart, I was already Japanese.
I could not sleep after I watched black waves sweeping the coast. I was worried about what had become of Matsushima (the group of islands in Miyagi Prefecture) and the Chusonji temple (in Iwate Prefecture), both closely associated with the haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).
Last year, I visited Chusonji and made a speech there. Some people in the audience had lost family members and had their homes washed away. As I spoke, I found my heart filled with empathy for the survivors. I thought I wanted to live with them. It was an awakening experience.
Q: Many Japanese have lost confidence in their country because the path to recovery remains unclear. We wonder why you have gone so far as to obtain Japanese citizenship.
A: It is because my real home is here. I write only on things related to Japan. I have not written anything on the United States. In addition to many friends, I have many pleasures outside of work in Japan.
Another important factor is that my disposition suits Japan. One example is the courtesy shown in interpersonal relationships. When you buy something, the sales clerk always says, “Thank you.”
Americans call each other by their first names or will slap each other’s backs even when they meet for the first time. I am not really comfortable with expressing closeness in such a way. I cannot explain myself well, but I was born with a Japanese aspect.
Granted, Japan has lost some of its strong self-confidence, but it has a role to play today that it did not during the height of the asset-inflated economic growth of the late 1980s, when it bought the Rockefeller Center.
Q: What role is that?
A: There are many meanings to it. Japan’s reputation in the world shot up after its defeat in World War II. I stayed in Tokyo for about 10 days in December 1945. All that remained were storehouses and chimneys. It was commonly said that it would take more than 50 years for Japan to rebuild itself. I had a different opinion. I thought this country would come back fairly quickly.
It may sound strange, but I was confident because of my experience at a barber’s. When I had my face shaved, I did not have the slightest impression that Japan had been at war.
If the woman at the barber had harbored ill feelings, she would have been able to slash my throat with her razor. I did not have to worry. I felt that the war had already become a thing of the past in Japan.
Q: Wasn’t that because Japanese are forgetful?
A: That experience showed that there are many possibilities in one people. During the war, I was with the Navy and questioned captured Japanese soldiers. I had no resentment toward them. I felt close to them. In the past, Japanese people did incredibly bad things, but it was not that the entire nation was belligerent. There were people who produced beautiful works of art.
The experience of war may have changed the Japanese, but the economic miracle that followed changed my view on Japan in every respect.
Before the war, it was generally believed that Japanese culture was nothing but an emulation of China’s. Today, no one thinks that. Japan has a wonderful, unique culture.
Japanese have earned respect again for continuing to act calmly after experiencing a disaster on the scale of the Great East Japan Earthquake. I do not have the slightest doubt about Japan getting back on its feet.
Q: You have written biographies of people who lived during times of change, such as Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) and the painter Kazan Watanabe (1793-1841). What do you see in them?
A: It is the Japanese flexibility to digest new things and make them their own immediately.
Emperor Meiji ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne when he was about 15 years old. In less than six months, he became the first emperor to meet delegates from Western countries.
I was surprised to learn how he transformed himself. He ate Western dishes and grew a beard and a mustache, developing into an emperor with perfect composure.
I specialize in literature and I am most interested in people. I want to know much more about what Japanese people thought in turbulent times, what they feared and how they changed.
That is because I have changed, too, albeit on a different scale. Before I went to college, the only thing I really knew about Japan was that it was opened by Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival. Now, I am using my soul for Japan. It has been a considerable change.
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