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‘Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan’: Donald Keene’s memoir is not to be missed

by

Special To The Japan Times

For insight into the heart of Japan, pick up Donald Keene’s memoir, “Chronicles of My Life.”

Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan, by Donald Keene.
183 pages
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, Memoir.

The 95-year-old professor emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University published it nearly 10 years ago. He relays the events in his life that led him to Japan, from a childhood trip to Europe and a chance meeting with a Chinese student in university to the outbreak of World War II and his service as a Japanese translator in the U.S Navy.

Keene’s prose reads warmly, exudes wisdom and downplays his success. He credits luck and the kindness of the Japanese people, who opened the doors of their literary world to a shy young man from New York.

Of particular interest to Japanophiles is the latter half of the book, in which Keene fast-forwards through time, recalling major literary events of the decades, from his stunned grief after the death of his friend Yukio Mishima to his own major projects such as the 2003 biography of Kazan Watanabe, a noted intellectual of the late Edo Period (1603-1868). Quaint illustrations from modern artist Akira Yamaguchi add to the nostalgic but playful tone with their colorful nod to traditional ukiyo-e.

Donald Keene became a Japanese citizen after the earthquake of 2011 to live out his final days in Tokyo. To understand the authentic emotion behind this great scholar’s choice, read “Chronicles of My Life.”

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.