Donald Keene, one of the world’s most renowned scholars of Japanese literature, said during an event held in Tokyo on March 20 that he believes that Japan’s northeast will recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake and be reborn as a beautiful region.
Keene, who decided to change his nationality from American to Japanese after the disaster hit Japan on March 11 last year, moved permanently from New York to Tokyo in September after finishing his teaching at Columbia University, where he had taught for 56 years.
At the opening of the lecture held at Nihonbashi Muromachi Nomura Building in Tokyo, Kaoru Matsushita, MC of the event, introduced Keene to the audience of 250, who had been selected by lottery from some 1,000 applicants. “As you may all know, Professor Keene has recently become a Japanese citizen,” Matsushita said. “The Justice Ministry approved the request and Professor Keene obtained Japanese nationality on March 8.”
To a huge round of applause, Keene, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, then appeared and gave a lecture titled “Scenery of Tohoku — ‘Oku no Hosomichi’ (‘The Narrow Road to Oku’).”
During the lecture Keene talked about Tohoku and “Oku no Hosomichi,” the famous journal of travel in the region by Matsu Basho (1644-1694), one of Japan’s greatest haiku poets.
“I am sure that the beauty of Tohoku will be revived. Absolutely,” Keene said in fluent Japanese. “But I think it will not be possible for everyone to construct whatever buildings they want. I hope Tohoku residents will consult experts in order to create the most beautiful, the most Japanese and the most Tohoku-like towns in the region.”
The 90-year-old scholar said he had read “Oku no Hosomichi,” which consists of essays and haiku on various scenic sites in Tohoku, for the first time in 1946. Around that time, Keene had begun to study at the graduate school of Columbia University after serving in the U.S. Navy as a translator and interpreter of English and Japanese during World War II.
“Since then, I read ‘Oku no Hosomichi’ a number of times, and used the book as a textbook at university,” Keene said. “By reading the book, I learned how difficult Basho’s writing was, while at the same time discovering its attraction. Whenever I found difficult sentences, their meanings had depth and the expressions were beautiful.”
To follow Basho’s journey through Tohoku, Keene traveled to the region in 1955 while he was studying by scholarship at Kyoto University.
“I wished to go to Japan and make the same journey as Basho. I hoped I could visit the same places Basho had visited. Maybe, I thought, I wanted to make haiku, too.”
Keene recalled his visit to Sendai, maintaining that he had heard Sendai City had been completely destroyed by U.S. bombings during WWII. However, Keene found the city still standing and was able to visit the sites to which Basho had been, including Hachimangu Shrine and Yakushido (the Hall of the Healing Buddha).
“At that time, I was fascinated by the town of Sendai. Several years later, I taught at Tohoku University for half a year, and I enjoyed a lot of Sendai’s attractions. The university is located on the top of a hill, and I loved walking the avenue from the university to (Sendai) station. I loved the town, which has a lot of trees.”
When the massive earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku on March 11 last year, Keene said he was at his home in New York and was shocked by news of the disaster. To express his grief then, Keene referred to a famous verse by Chinese poet Du Fu (712-770), who had been revered by Basho. The theme of the verse is the defeat of the Tang Dynasty by the Yan Dynasty in China.
“After the great earthquake last year, I could no longer believe the meaning of the words in the verse by Du Fu: ‘The country lies in ruin after the war, but mountains and rivers remain.’ Today we can say the opposite: ‘The country remains, but mountains and rivers do not.”
However, Keene said in a delighted tone that he has heard a lot of details about the reconstruction efforts taking place in Tohoku.
As an example, Keene noted the city of Higashi Matsushima, one of the most severely hit towns in Miyagi Prefecture.
“The schools in the city were also damaged. But the residents of the town began to rebuild their community, according to my friend, C.W. Nicol, who called me yesterday and talked about the effort,” Keene said. He explained that Nicol, a naturalist based in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture and a Japan Times columnist, had told him that residents in Higashi Matsushima had recently started constructing a wooden school building. “It will be a part of a community where residents can enjoy life among the trees. I believe the region of Matsushima will be reconstructed and be a beautiful place,” said Keene.
At the ending of the lecture, Keene talked about Chusonji Temple in Iwate Prefecture, which he feels is the most beautiful place in Japan and which fortunately did not suffer any major damage in the disaster.
Keene visited the temple in September, and gave a speech complementing the temple to an audience that included people whose homes were damaged in the earthquake and tsunami. After the talk, a member of the audience, an old lady whom Keene had never seen before, stood and approached him, Keene said.
“She shook hands with me and I was moved,” Keene said. “I felt our handshake symbolized my lifelong bond with Japan. I felt deep gratitude for Japan and I hope Chusonji Temple never changes.”
After the lecture in Tokyo, Yuki Suzuki, a member of the audience, said he was impressed by Keene’s deep understanding of Japanese culture, adding that when he heard news of Keene’s intention to change his nationality to Japanese, he was touched.
“Right after the earthquake and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, many foreign residents in Japan left the country,” said the 35-year-old care worker for the disabled. “But at that time, Keene decided to live in Japan permanently. I was so moved.”