Prominent U.S.-born Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene, who introduced a roster of talented writers from Japan to the world, died of cardiac arrest at a Tokyo hospital on Sunday. He was 96.
Keene obtained Japanese citizenship in 2012 after seeing the struggle faced by those hit by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disasters that devastated coastal regions of Tohoku.
He became close friends with a number of Japanese authors and scholars, including the late novelist Yukio Mishima, Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata and writer Junichiro Tanizaki.
Considered a giant among scholars who studied Japanese literature and culture, Keene published hundreds of books in English, Japanese and several European languages, including his multivolume history of Japanese literature — written over nearly two decades.
His translations included both classic and contemporary works, including numerous noh plays and modern novels.
Born in New York in 1922, Keene became fascinated with Japanese literature at age 18 after he read an English translation of “The Tale of Genji” at Columbia University.
“The Tale of Genji,” written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is a love story featuring the son of an emperor. It is generally considered the world’s first novel.
“I turned to ‘The Tale of Genji’ and it was such a relief from the newspapers and the world around me,” Keene told The Japan Times during an interview in 2009, referring to the war that was taking place in Europe in 1940.
“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,” he said.
Keene’s interest in contemporary Japan grew while as he served as a Japanese-language interpreter for the U.S. Navy during World War II, interrogating a number of Japanese prisoners and translating diaries left by Japanese soldiers.
“As a pacifist, I had no desire to go to war, but I envied students who, as the result of joining the Navy, could devote their full energies to learning Japanese,” Keene wrote in his autobiography “On Familiar Terms,” published in 1994.
In 1953, he entered graduate school at Kyoto University to study Japanese literature. He later taught at Columbia University in New York but frequently visited Japan.
Keene translated several contemporary works by Japanese novelists into English, becoming close friends with them.
“I have been happiest when I thought I had discovered some work not fully appreciated by the Japanese themselves, and as an enthusiast, I have not tried to keep my discovery to myself but to ‘publish’ it,” Keene wrote in the 1994 memoir.
“I am glad that I had the chance to contribute to a basic understanding in the West of Japanese literature, and of Japanese culture in general,” he wrote.
Keene was a professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Columbia University.
“Professor Keene played the leading role in the establishment of Japanese literary studies in the United States and beyond,” the university said in a statement posted by its Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture.
“Through his scholarship, translations, and edited anthologies, and through the work of students he trained and inspired, he did more than any other individual to further the study and appreciation of Japanese literature and culture around the world in the postwar era,” the university said.
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