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

by Eriko Arita

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.

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.

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.

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.

On Dec. 8, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. What were you doing on that day?

That day, which in America was the 7th not the 8th, was a Sunday and I’d gone hiking with my former tutor — the young man who taught us Japanese during the summer. We’d gone to the island south of the main port of New York. When we got back to New York someone was selling a newspaper with a headline saying that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I didn’t take it seriously because that one was a very bad newspaper that would print anything just to sell copies. But when I got back home I learned that the attack really had occurred, and my first thought was, “What happened to my friend, my teacher?” So I went to look for him to reassure him that he’d be OK. But I couldn’t find him where he lived or anywhere he usually went. Then later I learned that he’d been quite frightened and went to an all-night movie theater and spent the night there so people wouldn’t see him. As a matter of fact, nothing happened to him, and later on he became a teacher of Japanese at the U.S. Navy Language School.

Why did you enter that institution?

My knowledge of Japanese was very primitive. I’d learned various things from textbooks for Japanese 7-year-olds, but that was not very serious learning. So when I heard about the Navy’s language school, and that the Japanese language was taught very seriously there, I volunteered. I went to Washington and had an interview with someone in the Navy. After that I was accepted by the school and I traveled across the country to Berkeley, California, where it was located then.

The school was excellent. We had four hours’ instruction every single day except Sunday. During the four hours, we had two hours of reading Japanese, one of Japanese conversation and one of dictation spent standing in front of the blackboard writing whatever Japanese characters the teacher said. When we graduated, most of us were sent to Pearl Harbor, which was the Navy’s headquarters.

You were with the U.S. forces that landed in Okinawa in April 1945, and you acted as an interpreter with Japanese prisoners of war. Do you remember anything in particular that any of them said?

Yes. At that point in the war, I think many of the Japanese in the military as well as on the home front had realized that Japan was not going to win. This meant that in Okinawa we took many prisoners. But I think the most memorable experience I had was when one prisoner, a young naval officer, asked me, “Will you talk to me not as an enemy but as a fellow student?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” Then he asked me, “Should I go on living or should I kill myself?”

I was only 22 or 23 at that time. I was not an experienced person to deal with such matters. But I told him, as I told other prisoners, that it was their duty to return to Japan and to work for the rebuilding of a new Japan. I hope I convinced him, but anyhow he didn’t attempt to commit suicide and he is still alive.

After the war, when you visited Japan, what was your first impression of the country?

My impression was of genuine astonishment. Japanese people were so friendly and so kind. It was almost impossible to realize that the war had ended only three months before. People were so helpful. I remember being invited to a house, and at that time there were no okashi (cakes) at all, but they gave me a little piece of sweet potato. That was the only sweet thing they had, and they shared it with me.

After that you studied Japanese Literature at Columbia and Harvard in the United States and at Cambridge University in England. Then you were at Kyoto University from 1953 to 1955. What was it about the ancient capital that moved you most?

By the time I studied in Kyoto I had learned from Tsunoda-sensei about Japanese history, so everywhere was exciting to me. I enjoyed going from one place to another without any particular direction. I read every single signboard saying what the building was and when someone lived there.

I believe you learned kyogen (traditional comic drama) in Kyoto and were the first foreigner to do so. What motivated you to do that?

I was so intrigued by all the arts that have continued to exist in Japan for many years. I thought I’d like to learn some artform, and I thought of learning shamisen (Japanese banjo), but since I had never learned any Western musical instrument, I thought probably it would be too difficult. Then I thought maybe I might study noh plays, as I was very impressed by those I’d seen. But many of them seemed very sad and gloomy, and so I thought kyogen might be better for me. Also, I was living in a wonderful place and my landlady was a wonderful person who had many friends in the city, and through them she approached the head of the Kyoto branch of the kyogen school.

As I was the first foreigner, he decided to have one of his own sons teach me. His name was Shigeyama Sennojo, and we had lessons in the little house I lived in, which was ideal because you couldn’t see any other houses from there. That meant I could make as much noise as I wanted to, because in kyogen you use your full voice. And so Sennojo and I didn’t bother anybody.

In practice, how was it learning kyogen?

It was fascinating to me. First of all, today there are all kinds of ways of learning from tape recorders. But I didn’t have that, so I had to learn with my ears. There was no text. As I’d learned through reading almost of all of my life, it was quite difficult to learn without something in front of my eyes. The first kyogen that I learned was a funny one called “Shibiri.” I had to sit formally in seiza (erect on the floor with one’s knees bent flat under the body), and my legs got cramp — and that is what the play is about. Sitting in that way was difficult, but I was eventually able to do it.

In Kyoto in the late 1950s, you spent four years translating the

joruri traditional puppet plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Would you give me an example of how difficult it was to translate them?

Joruri generally open with very poetic Japanese, which is intended not to relate directly to the play but to give its setting. Let’s say the setting is the licensed quarter (red-light district) in some part of Osaka, and because the function of the opening is to establish a mood, rather than to communicate a particular thought, the language is full of classical poetry that it’s very difficult to get a single meaning from. There was another problem, in that in translating a play, one hopes that it will be performed in translation. And for this reason, the dialogue must be in the kind of English that actors can say easily and sounds natural — not a literal translation.

In 1954 you compiled the two volumes of “Anthology of Japanese Literature,” a work that had considerable influence on foreign scholars of Japanese literature. In the process you met many Japanese writers, and I wonder who you got to know best?

It’s very difficult to name just one. I’ve gotten to know, for example, Tanizaki Junichiro, who was living in Kyoto at that time. First I went to see him with a translation — not by myself but by Edward Seidensticker — of “Tadekuu Mushi,” which was translated as “Some Prefer Nettles.” Seidensticker somehow didn’t trust the Japanese post office, so he asked me to take the manuscript from Tokyo to Kyoto to give it to Tanizaki in person. Of course I was delighted to do so because that was my first meeting with a person who was so famous — although he was known not to like having visitors. But he was very nice to me.

Then I was a friend, just as a friend, with Mishima Yukio, who was more or less the same age as myself and had more or less the same sense of humor.

I should say, since you already mentioned it, that I think that anthology of mine had the greatest impact. When we had a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its publication, people from many different universities said that they became interested in Japanese literature for the first time through it. It was a great success, but I was also very fortunate because I didn’t really know enough about Japanese literature at the time I was working on it.

In 1965, you translated Mishima’s novel “Utage no Ato” (“After the Banquet”), whose artistic value was first recognized overseas because of your translation. What was it about the novel that appealed to you?

It’s a novel based on an event that actually happened, but Mishima sourced it from newspapers and transformed it through his literary ability. He portrayed the woman who appears in the work, the central character, as a person of great passion and excitement, with a desire to help people . . . I met the woman, and I thought she was just terrible . . . But anyway, Mishima transformed her into a memorable character who has deep feelings.

In that respect it’s like his most celebrated novel, “Kinkakuji” (“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”), where he took a young man who is inarticulate, probably not very bright, and made him the hero. In that case he took the material from newspaper accounts of the burning of the Kinkakuji, but he made it a very important drama, not simply a repetition of those accounts. At the end of the book, when the young man burns down the Kinkakuji, we feel we can understand him, which nobody would have felt from reading the newspapers.

You recently published a book titled “Nihonjin no Senso” (“The War of the Japanese”). What is its theme?

It’s about what the Japanese people did during the five years from 1941, when World War II broke out, to 1945, when the Allied occupation of Japan began. That was an extremely interesting subject, because during the war my principal duty was translating handwritten Japanese documents, and though other people had great trouble reading them, I taught myself to do so. I read many diaries that were written by ordinary soldiers or sailors, not literary people. But for the book I decided to examine the diaries of literary people who could express their feelings adequately and who had kept their diaries faithfully during the war years. Their attitude was totally different and proved what I’d always believed — that the Japanese were not fanatics eager to die on a battlefield. There were such people, certainly. But there were a lot of people who were terribly unhappy about the war going on and had very strong thoughts about it. The importance of the book, I hope, will be to show the diversity among Japanese people even during the war, when everyone was expected to conform to everything the government said.

In recent years, young people in Japan have tended not to read classical literature. How can the value of Japanese literature be passed on to younger generations?

I think one simple way is by teaching classical Japanese literature in modern Japanese. Instead of teaching “Genji Monogatari” (“The Tale of Genji”) as a succession of interesting examples of grammar, it should be taught as an interesting book to read. And if necessary, parts can be shortened. The main point is to get people interested — and for them to realize that the country has this wonderful literary tradition.

If you were reborn, would you like to be Japanese or American?

That’s a very difficult question. I really don’t know. I am quite happy in Japan. Perhaps I should be reborn as Japanese, as I think that would maybe be easier for me. But if I was to be reborn as Japanese, it would have to be now — not into the Japan of 60 years ago. I don’t want to be a militarist; I don’t want to become a kamikaze pilot. So, a Japanese person living nowadays, not in the past.