The pacifist Keene enrolled in the US Navy, which had a top-notch Japanese language school. “We did not learn one thing about the Navy,” he says. “They wanted interpreters.”
It was as an interpreter that he was sent to Honolulu to read documents and to interrogate prisoners. He heard later on a radio broadcast that he was one of only 50 Americans who spoke Japanese. “I discovered there were materials that no one was touching, and the reason they were not touching them was that they gave off a bad odour,” he says. “The bad odour came from blood stains. These were diaries taken from the bodies of Japanese soldiers and gingerly I lifted one of them up.”
In those diaries, Keene discovered the pathos of Japanese soldiers, scared, often idealistic, and far from home. “I was lucky. I read diaries and interrogated prisoners with most of whom I became friends. In a few cases the friendships lasted after the war. So, in my case, there was no demonising of the Japanese.” Once, years later, when Keene was visiting China, he was taken to a museum of Japanese atrocities. “There were life-size dolls with heads on the floor and all the rest of it,” Keene recalls, his face contorting. “And, worst of all, there were troops of Chinese children being led through. I was just so heartbroken by that. They deliberately inculcated hatred. These terrible things happened, yes. But you must get on with it.”
These are sensitive matters, that still dog Asian politics. I could ask why Keene seems more troubled by Chinese propaganda than by Japanese atrocities. But I leave it and turn, instead, to his decision to become Japanese. I wonder what motivated him and whether Japan, still a closed society, has welcomed his gesture.
“In January I was very ill in a Japanese hospital and I thought I might die,” he begins, taking a mouthful of chestnut soup. “And I thought, ‘What would I do if I lived? I’d stay in Japan.’ Eventually I got better. I was very, very happy.” When the tsunami struck, killing 20,000 people and sweeping away dozens of coastal towns, he announced his decision to become Japanese. “Suddenly I was a hero.” Neighbours in the Tokyo suburb where he keeps a house had always nodded to him politely. “But now, suddenly, I’m one of them. They say, ‘Good morning,’ and ‘Take care of yourself,’ ’’ he says. “It’s been a thrilling experience.”
The fish arrives, again under silver covers. His is swamped in a creamy sauce. mine topped with tiny white fish and sea urchin. Has the Japanese government, I ask, been as responsive? Immigration officials required documentation proving his parents were married, something he is still struggling to locate. Then they needed proof that he was American. A US passport did not suffice. Finally, they requested evidence that Keene, the most famous foreign scholar in Japan, had graduated. “I said, ‘Well, I have various honorary doctorates, including from very important Japanese universities.’ ‘Oh, that doesn’t count,’ they said, ‘because honorary doctorates are given to people even without education.’” Keene confesses to being irritated.
“This fish is delicious. I hope yours is too,” he says, brightening. I want to use our remaining time to talk to Keene about the rich canon of Japanese literature. Keene has written some 25 books on Japanese history and culture, including a four-volume history of literature that has become the standard work.
We start with Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a master of haiku. “I suppose every kind of poetry has its overtones, things that are not spoken. But this is especially true of Japanese,” he says. “The most important statement in the English language is ‘I love you.’ You translate that into Japanese, there’s no ‘I’ and there’s no ‘you.’ ”
We move to Noh drama, performed since the 14th century and the subject of Keene’s last Columbia lecture. “I decided I would take my leave of the academic world with Noh, just because it’s so beautiful.” We talk about kabuki, an altogether earthier form of drama where “prostitutes and failed apprentices” can be the subject of tragedy. Many years ago he translated Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). He was enraptured and desperate to see it. “People looked at me in astonishment. They said, ‘You realise it hasn’t been performed in 230 years.’”
The dessert cart arrives, making me conscious of how little time we have and how much Japanese literature there is to get through. The waiter lists the options, each one punctuated by a groan of joy from Keene. There’s honey cake. “Oh.” And chocolate cake. “Ah.” And banana caramel mousse and compote of pear. “Oh, this is terrible.” He opts for fruit tart and is persuaded to have the pear mousse as well. I go for pear mousse and fig tart.