With the 2007 academic year now about to begin in Japan, it’s a good time to take a look at English-language teaching in the nation’s universities. Yes, the tides are indeed running there. The emphasis is shifting determindly toward the utilitarian: English as a tool for Internet communication; English as a lingua franca for international commerce.

For those students who primarily wish to use English in such ways, the tide is coming in.

But what about the need to know English, or any other foreign language, in order to open the mind to cultures beyond one’s own? That tide is already ebbing beyond the visible horizon.

It was this thought — now, at the start of a new academic year — that caused me to recall, with a terrible longing, two very dear friends, now deceased, who were brilliant and famous scholars of English in Japan: Hisao Kanaseki and Yasunari Takahashi.

It wasn’t until the autumn of 1985 that Kanaseki and I met. We were both living in the leafy Tokyo suburb of Seijo Gakuenmae in Setagaya Ward. We saw each other often, but not only to decipher literary passages in English and Japanese. Our families also gathered, either at his home or ours, which were only a 2-minute walk apart.

I remember with an intense nostalgia walking with him under the beautiful cherry blossom trees, in full bloom, that line Seijo’s main street, stopping to rest below them for cups of hot amazake sweet sake.

Kanaseki, who spent his last years teaching at Komazawa University in Tokyo, was one of Japan’s most famous translators of American literature, but his tastes were not those of your usual Japanese or American English-literature scholar. His early research was on the American poet and author Gertrude Stein, and he published scholarship about her Paris years. He was also a leading expert on Ezra Pound, and close friends with the American Beat poet Gary Snyder, whose work he translated.

Native Americans’ thought

But Kanaseki was perhaps best known for his studies of Native Americans and his translations of their poetry and literature. It is not an exaggeration to say that he introduced the thought and philosophy of Native Americans to Japan. Moreover, I am sure this had a major effect on the thinking of the Japanese as they were becoming aware, in the 1970s, of the importance to human life of the land, the air and the complex landscapes of environment.

In the mid-’90s I was translating the (very difficult) poetry of Kenji Miyazawa, and I would turn to Kanaseki for help when I was stymied, especially by Miyazawa’s esoteric references to Buddhism. Never once did he fail to clarify a point for me. This was in great contrast to what I was able to do for him. When he was stumped by an English phrase, inevitably it was one that I could not work out either.

When he was translating Snyder’s poetry, I had an easy way out. “Why don’t you phone Gary in the States and ask him?” I would suggest. But Kanaseki also came to me with Joseph Brodsky’s lyrical prose homage to the city of Venice, “Watermark.” This time I could hardly tell him to phone Nobel Laureate Brodsky. I simply had to say, on most occasions, “Sorry, I don’t really understand this either.”

I met Yasunari Takahashi, professor of English at the University of Tokyo, in 1975, when he kindly agreed to translate my play about Gen. Douglas MacArthur for the theater monthly, Shingeki. For me this was an incredibly lucky turn of events. Takahashi was his generation’s most distinguished scholarly interpreter of Shakespeare.

While studying in Britain in the early ’60s, he had met and befriended Samuel Beckett, and subsequently became the main translator of his prose works. Takahashi was the perfect match for Beckett, with his keen sense of the absurd and sly bent for irony. I visited him often at his home in Shibuya, where he had the most impressive private library I have ever seen — save for that of our mutual friend, the writer Hisashi Inoue (who had, at one time, more than 100,000 volumes).

Takahashi loved the nonsensical in literature, and he wrote a major study of it. He also translated “Alice in Wonderland.” In addition, he was a serious and well-respected expert on Noh theater. Few experiences could be as sublime as going to see a Noh play with him. He was a soft-spoken man of few words. He would sit in silence throughout, not moving a muscle, yet I could almost sense him breathing in rhythm with the play.

Commonly held bias

There has been a commonly held bias in Japan that those who can, write; and those who can’t, translate. The lives and prodigious works of Takahashi and Kanaseki easily belie this absurd bias.

Takahashi’s kyogen (classical Japanese comic theater) version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” titled “The Braggart Samurai,” was performed in London, Cardiff and Tokyo in the ’90s. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, was the production of “The Kyogen of Errors,” based on “The Comedy of Errors,” with a cast led by Mansaku Nomura, at London’s Globe Theatre in 2001. NHK broadcast the play in December 2002.

Kanaseki was a poet in his own right as well, as eloquent in English as in Japanese. In his poem “The Gamut of the Beautiful.” he wrote: It must be pointed out that the gamut of the beautiful is really limitless.

Both Kanaseki and Takahashi contracted cancer, and both fought it for more than a decade. They were optimistic and exceedingly generous to their many students and friends until the end of their lives.

Both, too, were true men of letters, as at home in classical or modern Japanese literature as they were in the worlds of Shakespeare, Carroll, Yeats, Pound and Beckett. It is for this reason that their contribution to Japanese culture was so immense: They showed, through original writing and translating, that the study of a foreign language and its cultures is the best way to cast light on one’s own culture.

I miss my two wonderful friends very much. In a time when the study of English is fast becoming a kind of “How To” exercise, as if mastering a language were akin to putting together a piece of Ikea furniture, their legacy and their example is what we should be looking to.

English is not just a lingua franca for international commerce. It’s a medium allowing people for whom it is a foreign language to open themselves to both the outer and the inner world at the same time.

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