National / History

Writers recall their initiation to Japanese literature via Donald Keene

by Suzanne Kamata

Contributing Writer

The Japan Times asked author Suzanne Kamata to reach out to some of her fellow writers for their memories and thoughts about Donald Keene, the noted scholar of Japanese literature who died Sunday in Tokyo at age 96. Here is a short collection of their replies.

I wrote to Donald Keene when I was gathering stories for my first book, a collection of fiction by expatriates in Japan. I’d thought that being a writer, he might have, at one point, penned a short story set in Japan.

He graciously replied, on the back of a postcard featuring a swallowtail butterfly, “I have not written any fiction, published or unpublished, in Japan. I am sorry that I cannot join your distinguished group of writers.”

In spite of his humble reply, Keene, a renowned scholar of Japanese literature who passed away recently, was a force to be reckoned with. Although he may not have ever tried his hand at writing fiction, his influence over expatriate wordsmiths — and lovers of literature worldwide — has been immense.

Leza Lowitz, poet, writer and translator:

Not only was he a brilliant translator, editor, anthologist and professor, but also visionary and selfless.

Thousands of people around the world were introduced to Japanese culture and literature through his painstaking work. His translation prize further facilitated cultural exchange and helped assure that translation would continue by focusing on both classical and modern work.

He was a giant in the field, but the few times I met him I found him incredibly humble and approachable. He did this work for the love of Japan and maintained that love throughout his long and productive life.

Juliet Winters Carpenter, translator:

Donald Keene was a towering presence in my life. His anthologies sparked my interest in Japanese literature, and when I was an undergraduate, his translation of “Tsurezuregusa” (“Essays in Idleness”) in particular confirmed me in my desire to pursue a career in Japanese literature rather than linguistics.

When I told him that, he said it was one of the nicest things anybody had ever said to him. This was shortly after he had won the Order for Cultural Merit; he kindly said that my words meant more to him than any of the fancy tributes he had been showered with and agreed to come to Doshisha Women’s College to speak.

After his talk, he and I chatted onstage in Japanese, and I asked him about his life and work. I remember he said that (novelist) Kobo Abe was a good friend, but curiously perverse; no matter what you said to him, he would say the opposite, even if you said it was a nice day.

He also reminisced about his date with (actress) Greta Garbo. Sadly, I have no transcription of the remarks, but the event remains a precious memory. He signed the first page of a guest book with these words, a fitting description of how he lived: Senkusha no hitori toshite. “As a pioneer.”

Holly Thompson, writer and poet:

Donald Keene, in his memoir “Chronicles of my Life: An American in the Heart of Japan,” so aptly expressed what many non-Japanese bilinguals in Japan may feel: “I sometimes think that if, as the result of an accident, I were to lose my knowledge of Japanese, there would not be much left for me. Japanese, which at first had no connection with my ancestors, my literary tastes, or my awareness of myself as a person, has become the central element of my life.”

Yet Keene’s exploration of Japanese was of an unfathomable depth. It is impossible to imagine the study of Japanese literature without Donald Keene, and if you have read Japanese literature in English, chances are you have met Keene’s heart.

I carried his “Modern Japanese Literature” anthology in a backpack when I left Japan after my first three years here — dipping into it on a ferry to Shanghai, on trains through China, Mongolia, the Soviet Union and Europe on the way back to the United States.

The book then journeyed home to Japan again when we settled here with children some years later. I feel a profound gratitude for Donald Keene’s lifelong commitment to peace and his dedication to bringing Japanese literature to the world.

Gregory Dunne, poet and translator:

It is hard for me to imagine being where I am today, that is, living in Japan, and having an interest in the Japanese literature and culture without having encountered the work of Donald Keene, his translation work and his scholarly work.

He was essential reading for anyone interested in Japanese literature. And the more you read about Japanese literature through his scholarship, or the more you read the literature through his translations, the more intriguing it all became, like some enchanted forest that one steps into and never leaves again: Your life has changed.

I would not have translated the Miyazaki poet Bokusui Wakayama, for example, if Donald Keene hadn’t mentioned him in one of his books, saying that Wakayama deserved more attention. For so many of us, Keene led the way into the wonder of Japanese literature and the satisfying work of literary translation.

Roland Kelts, author:

Bookforum asked me to review Donald Keene’s memoirs, “Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan.”

I said yes and winced. Keene was in his 80s at the time and had a lot of life to remember. His book would be massive. But then he, too, was vast: a bridge from my America to my Japanese mother’s land and literature. Also, a graduate of and professor emeritus at my alma mater, Columbia University, whose Center of Japanese Culture bears his name.

A slim package arrived: 200 pages. In one chapter, Keene jet-sets around Europe, lobbying for Mishima’s Nobel, when his mother falls ill in New York. He arrives at her bedside too late; she can no longer speak. One cannot live and love in two worlds at once, he observes. The chapter closes so softly I had to put the book down and stare at the wall, shaken.

Keene did what Kafka asks of writers: Ax the frozen sea within us.

Lesley Downer, author:

Back in 1970s Oxford, I was beginning to get interested in a distant country called Japan.

Eager to know more, I got myself a copy of Penguin’s “Anthology of Japanese Literature,” edited by one Donald Keene.

I ended up in Japan and lived there for many years. Among other things, I wrote a book about (haiku poet Matsuo) Basho and also made a TV program in which I followed in Basho’s footsteps and climbed the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa. Like Basho I didn’t reveal the sacred sights to be seen at the holy shrine at Yudono. The TV cameras stopped at the torii and didn’t pass through.

Later, in New York, I gave some talks, including one at Columbia. I was rather nervous to see the great professor Keene in the audience. He spoke to me afterwards and said how very happy he was to have been able to see the landscape that Basho walked through on my program, as he hadn’t had the chance to go there himself. He particularly liked the fact that we had respected the prohibition against revealing what you see at Yudono and had stopped filming outside the gate.

I am very happy and honored that I was able to encounter him several times. It’s impossible to over-emphasize his generosity in sharing his knowledge and love of Japan with so many people, including myself, and the importance of his life and work in making Japanese culture accessible and familiar.