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.

Donald Keene
Donald Keene

Aurelio Asiain from Hirakata-shi, Osaka, Japan

Like many of the best things in Tokyo, the French restaurant is underground. Outside, only the lettering “Vincent” on a slab of stone – more tombstone than marquee – alerts you to its existence. Yet walk down the stone steps and you enter another world, one of red upholstery, antique mirrors and bone china.

The man I am to meet is also a hidden treasure. Not so hidden in Japan, admittedly, where he is a legendary figure, one who has dedicated his long life to interpreting Japanese culture for western audiences. At 89, the 20th-century’s premier scholar of Japanese literature has risen still further in Japanese estimation. Shortly after the country was laid low by an earthquake and tsunami in March, the academic said he would leave his native America for good, become a Japanese citizen and live out his last days in Japan. The announcement made headline news. Japanese spoke, many with tears in their eyes, of the courage he had given them in their hour of need.

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After delivering his last lecture at Columbia University, where he taught for more than 50 years, Donald Keene wrapped up his life in New York. We meet in mid-October, not long after his move to Japan. Our restaurant is in Roppongi, a high-octane district of clubs and bars. But I am underground – in the France of a different era, waiting for an American with a thousand years of Japanese literature in his head. The lone waiter is loitering nervously. The chef is pacing the pavement above, ready to greet the professor.

The man led gently down the stairs a few minutes later is small, no doubt shorter than in his youth. He wears a dark suit and walks slowly, very slightly stooped. He greets me with an old-world charm and a “no-no-no, not-at-all” modesty. Later he tells me, “I’m a very atypical American in that I have great trouble saying nice things about myself.” His accent bears traces of Brooklyn but is overlaid with the diction of the lecture hall.

Keene sits down. Apart from us, the restaurant is empty. After surveying the menu as one might an ancient scroll, he looks at me with a twinkle. “Are you going to be working this afternoon?” he asks. The euphemism is perfect for Japan, where the unspoken often trumps what is said. I infer that he would like a glass of wine. Since we are both having fish, we settle on white. The waiter returns with a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet from 1995. The wine is complex and Keene looks pleased.

We both choose the escalope de saumon tiède as a starter. The soup of the day is chestnut. Keene asks for the filet de bar aux épices, though he uses the Japanese word suzuki, meaning sea bass. I have the red sea bream, suprême de daurade à la provençale.

The ordering done, I steer Keene back more than 70 years to when, as an 18-year-old, he came across a translation of The Tale of Genji in the Astor Hotel in New York. At the time, Keene was studying French and Greek literature at Columbia University, having won a scholarship to study there at the age of 16. He bought the book because, at 59 cents, the epic story, written 1,100 years ago, contained more words per dollar than any book in the store. That was how the love affair began.

“It was a time when I was extremely unhappy,” he begins, each word spooned out slowly. “Every day the newspaper reported where the Germans had gone. It was the conquest of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, half of France. And then the Battle of Britain. Every day in the newspaper was something more terrible. I was a pacifist. I couldn’t think of any way of stopping this except by using force. And yet I was opposed to using force and so it was a really awful time for me. I was involved in a terrible self-contradiction, and nothing seemed to help me to forget.”

The waiter arrives with two plates in silver covers and removes the lids simultaneously to reveal the salmon. It comes in a creamy sauce with a hint of lemon, giving it a mouth-watering piquancy.

“I took my recent purchase home, not expecting too much, and then I started to read.” He pauses for effect. “I was captivated. It was about a world where there was no warfare. It was a world where people had likes and dislikes and sometimes did unpleasant things but they were not evil.” The translation was “a thing of magic, incredibly beautiful”. The story, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting, depicts the intimate life of the Kyoto court in Heian-era Japan. Keene considers it the world’s first novel because it deals with the internal life of the characters.