Renowned Japanese Scholar Donald Keene Dies At 96

On February 24, the world lost Donald Keene, a leading researcher, translator, historian and teacher in the field of Japanese literature. The longtime Columbia University professor passed away in Tokyo at the age of 96. According to reports, the secretary general of the Donald Keene Center Kashiwazaki, Niigata, confirmed the cause of death was heart failure.

Donald Keene published works on Japanese literature for nearly 70 years, and is the author of about 25 books in English and 30 works in Japanese. For many young and aspiring Japanologists around the world, his English translations were the first contact they’ve had with treasures of Japanese literature. It was his tireless work that created entire generations of fans and scholars of Japanese classics, including the works of famed fiction writer Osamu Dazai, Nobel Prize laureate Yukio Mishima and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. Fitting then that Keene’s own fascination with and love for Japanese literature started with the first novel ever written, not just in Japan, but possibly the world.

The Tale of Genjiby noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu is one of the most important works of classic Japanese literature. Dating back to the early 11thcentury, it is sometimes called the world’s first novel, the English translation of which Keene came upon in 1940 at a Times Square bookstore. The two-volume set was priced at 49 cents. It was a turning point for Keene who found solace in the ancient story of love, politics, and society so different from his turbulent real world in the midst of World War II.

“I turned to The Tale of Genjiand it was such a relief from the newspapers and the world around me. It moved me very greatly, not only because of its interesting story and interesting characters but because it seemed so civilized compared with the world I was actually living in,” Donald Keene explained in a 2009 Japan Timesinterview. It was this fascination that made Keene join the Navy Japanese Language School in 1942 to master the Japanese language, despite his long-held pacifist beliefs. He eventually worked as a military translator in Hawaii, Guam, Okinawa and China, translating captured documents and personal dairies, and helping interrogate prisoners of war.

In 1949, he earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he taught from 1955 to 2011. His work wasn’t easy in the beginning, though. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Japanese studies barely existed as a university discipline, so Donald Keene had to build it up from the bottom. To do that, he traveled extensively between the U.S. and Japan to study classic Japanese literature, in the process becoming friends with some of the greatest modern writers in Japan’s history. This included Yasunari Kawabata, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima and Kobo Abe, whose works he eventually introduced to English-speaking audiences. Through his work, the New York-born Keene came to be known as one of the greatest postwar Japanese scholars in the world.

Some of his most important contributions to the study and understanding of Japanese classics include anthologies, books on literary history and an analysis of Japanese diaries from various points in history. The last one, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, actually won Keene the Yomiuri Literary Prize for literary criticism in 1985. Donald Keene was the first non-Japanese person to ever win such an award. Similarly, he was the first foreigner to receive the Order of Culture (awarded by the Emperor of Japan) in 2008 for his contributions to Japanese literature, art and culture.

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Donald Keene remained in the public eye in Japan for most of his professional career. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, he often provided commentary in Japanese media about the perception of Japan around the world, and of course about his studies of the country’s literature. He once again entered the news cycle in 2011 after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In a time when Japan was eliciting fear around the world due to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, Keene surprised the world by retiring from Columbia and moving permanently to Japan, where he acquired Japanese citizenship in 2012.

Keene is survived by Seiki Uehara, a shamisen player whom the scholar adopted in 2013.

Feature image courtesy of flickr

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