Decision to leave N.Y. for Japan ‘right,’ Keene says

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo

Donald Keene, a prominent Japanese literature scholar, has mixed emotions about permanently leaving his Manhattan home for Tokyo, where he aims to become a citizen.

“I will be very, very sorry to leave New York, but I still think my decision is the right one,” he said Monday from his apartment located near Columbia University, where he taught classes for 56 years until April.

“Japan has meant so much to me for so many years, it would be quite appropriate for me to die there,” the 89-year-old added.

As a well-known professor, he has spent at least half a year in Japan annually for decades and has never felt out of place despite being a foreigner.

Yet as his final departure approaches at the end of the month, he described how his native New York looked more appealing than ever before.

“New York has never been more attractive at this moment for me,” he explained, pointing to the tranquil scenery along the Hudson River with its abundant greenery.

He will be exchanging a view of the water from his picturesque 11th-floor apartment dating back to 1905 for an apartment building in Kita Ward that overlooks a garden but is full of people who have come to know him.

“It is kind of like a homecoming to be there,” he said, describing the special bond he has built with ordinary citizens and shopkeepers who greet and recognize him.

After he settles into his daily life he is looking forward to revisiting one of his favorite places, the famous Chusonji Temple, which is located in Iwate Prefecture but was unaffected by the March 11 tsunami and earthquake that struck the surrounding region.

He is also planning to visit Sendai in October where he will give a lecture titled “Tohoku and Me.”

Having once spent a semester as a visiting professor at Tohoku University and traveling through the region in 1955, retracing one of Japan’s great haiku poets during the Edo Period, Matsuo Basho, he “has known” Tohoku for a “long time.”

After March 11, he was surprised by the volume of letters he received from survivors who wrote that his goal of becoming a Japanese citizen had given them a new-found strength to overcome their own circumstances.

“This is overwhelming and I am very happy that I can give them courage,” the professor said.