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Scholar Keene was inspired by 'Tale of Genji' to study Japanese literature, culture

Donald Keene is seen in Tokyo's Kita Ward in this 2014 file photo. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- Renowned U.S.-born Japanologist Donald Keene, who passed away on Feb. 24 at age 96, was enchanted by Japanese literature and culture through his encounter with "The Tale of Genji," an 11th century pageant of Heian-era court life, and devoted the rest of his life to studying and introducing Japanese works both ancient and modern to the world.

The war raging across Europe was casting a shadow over the United States back in 1940, when Keene, a pacifist, came across the English translation of "The Tale of Genji." The masterpiece moved him immensely because unlike Western literature, people did not kill each other in it, according to Keene's recollection during a press conference in 2008 upon his receipt of the Order of Culture from the Japanese government.

When serving as a U.S. Navy language officer, he was assigned to decode a diary of a Japanese soldier killed in the Pacific War and learned of the pains of the fallen on the enemy side. His exposure to Japanese writings from both times of peace and war led him to delve into modern Japanese authors and introduce Japanese literary works abroad.

Almost a decade after the war when Keene was studying Japanese literature at the graduate school of Kyoto University in western Japan, the Mainichi Shimbun's Osaka edition reported him in an article dated Feb. 18, 1954, as a "blue-eyed" learner of Kyogen, a traditional farce presented between Noh plays.

"I've been very lucky," Keene would later tell a Mainichi Shimbun reporter at every interview. He blazed the trail in introducing Japanese literature to the rest of the world when such works still had a low international profile, riding the wave of the Japan craze that was gripping European and North American countries at the time. Yet his "luck" was largely derived from his infinitely inquisitive mind and tireless efforts, which brought him encounters and connections with many people. Keene, a multilinguist, also played a role in the introduction overseas of works by Kenzaburo Oe in other languages. Oe was commended with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994.

Keene obtained Japanese citizenship the year after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Even though it was widely reported at the time that the quake disaster motivated him to move to Japan permanently, it had already been known among his close friends that Keene had long wanted to become a Japanese citizen. "My life is inseparable from Japan," he said, continuing his research into things Japanese into the very final years of his life.

Since around last summer, Keene was in and out of the hospital, but remained eager to create his own works. He was also a man of humor, erecting a Keene family grave at a temple next to his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward, which bears a family crest of a yellow dog (kiin), a play on the phonetic sound of "Keene" in Japanese.

His adoptive son Seiki Keene, a shamisen player for Bunraku puppet theater, released a comment saying, "My father passed away peacefully. He reached the end of his life in a home country of his own choice. I believe he couldn't have been any happier about his life."

(Japanese original by Kazuki Ohara, Cultural News Department; Makoto Tsuruya, Matsue Bureau; and Yudai Nakazawa, General Digital News Center)

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