How Donald Keene Went from U.S. Academic to Japanese Hero

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Oct. 30 2011 7:38 AM

Lunch With Donald Keene

Why the U.S. academic became a Japanese citizen.

(Continued from Page 2)

We turn to more modern times, though not to the crop of current writers led by Haruki Murakami for whom Keene evidently has little time. Instead, we discuss Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), considered the greatest of Japanese novelists, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, and Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), a troubled genius who ended his career by disembowelling himself in public.

“He was an extraordinary person,” says Keene, who knew Mishima well. They had met, symbolically enough, outside Tokyo’s Kabuki-za theatre in 1954, and had gone to see plays together. Keene had translated one of Mishima’s modern Noh plays.

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“He died, as you know, at the age of 45, leaving at least 45 stacked volumes of novels, plays, criticism, poetry.” Mishima slit his belly after leading a failed, and farcical, coup to restore the emperor’s power but Keene thinks he committed suicide because he was passed over for the Nobel Prize. During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Mishima had written Keene a letter with the line, “I envy the athletes who know if they are first, second or third.” Keene says: “That was all he said but I knew exactly what he meant.” The irony was that Kawabata, who did win the Nobel Prize, also committed suicide because of the pressure of living up to his new reputation.

As our coffee arrives, I mention the writer Jun Takami (1907-1965), one of whose plays ends with the line, “All that is left is the wind in the pines.” Keene gives me an ecstatic look. “Yes, it’s the most marvellous end to any play. There’s nothing on the stage at all, nothing but the pine.” He shakes his head at the sadness and the beauty. “Oh, what a stroke of genius that was. I think of it now and I’ve got shivers going down my spine.”

One passage in Takami’s diaries was written in 1944 during the wartime bombing of Tokyo when he was trying to get his mother to safety in the countryside. At Ueno station “everybody is quiet, everybody’s just moving slowly and no one is trying to get ahead of anybody else,” says Keene. “And Takami thought, ‘I want to live with these people. I want to die with these people. And that is what I thought in January, when I was in hospital. ‘I want to live with these people. I want to die with these people.’”

Keene is in a kind of reverie by now, lost in the personal and literary wanderings of a lifetime. “I knew Takami Jun,” he says, using the Japanese name order. “He was a very elegant man. The last time I saw him, he was wearing a white suit and he was surrounded by about seven or eight young women. And he was smiling.” Keene’s eyes are moist. He is staring past me or through me. The restaurant is still quite empty but Keene has flooded it with the memories of people, mostly long dead. He stands to leave and is helped up the narrow stairs to the city above. Down in the basement, I am left at the empty table. There is nothing, not even the wind in the pines

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor.