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100-yr anniv. event shows rare episodes from late Japan scholar Donald Keene's life

Footage of a 2006 gathering where Donald Keene was a guest speaker is shown during an event in Tokyo's Kita Ward on Feb. 23, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

TOKYO -- In recalling his first encounter with lauded U.S.-born Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene, translator Yukio Kakuchi said he was "someone with countless drawers of knowledge, which can produce various sorts of interesting talks." In an event in Tokyo's Kita Ward on Feb. 23, he and Keene's adopted son Seiki Keene spoke fondly of the late scholar's continuous devotion to his work even past the age of 90.

    The "Donald Keene literature stroll" event hosted by the Kita Ward office and the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation was held at the Asukayama Museum in Kita Ward, the area where Keene spent the latter half of his life. It is the first of various events scheduled this year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Keene's birth in June 1922 in New York. He died in Tokyo on Feb. 24, 2019, aged 96.

    Donald Keene's adoptive son Seiki Keene, right, and translator Yukio Kakuchi are seen during an event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Japanese literature scholar's birth, held in Tokyo's Kita Ward on Feb. 23, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    Donald Keene was a renowned scholar and professor emeritus of Columbia University, who contributed to elevating Japanese literature's international reputation through his studies and translations of various works including by literary giants Osamu Dazai and Yukio Mishima. The Japanese government awarded him the Order of Culture in 2008, and he obtained Japanese citizenship in March 2012. That year he also adopted Seiki Keene, a shamisen performer in Bunraku traditional puppet theater.

    In the first half of the Feb. 23 event, partial footage of a 2006 gathering was shown. Keene, already in his 80s, could be seen recounting his memories of meeting novelist Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) and expounding on his fascination with the diaries of Japanese people.

    Referring to his experience as a U.S. Navy language officer during the Pacific War, Keene said that reading the wartime diaries of fallen Japanese soldiers was an extremely important experience which helped him learn about Japanese people for the first time.

    During the talk, Keene sighed and said he had only heard such beautiful Japanese once in his lifetime, when he was in Nagai Kafu's presence. He also remarked happily that Kafu told the 34-year-old Keene that his English translation of his work "The Sumida River" was "not bad," or "warukunai" in Japanese. Of the three times he had cried tears in his life up to then, one time was after he read Kafu's "The Sumida River" on a flight back home when he didn't know if he would be able to return to Japan. When asked about the other two occasions, Keene recounted a childhood memory of crying for hours to get his father to let him come on a business trip to Europe, which incited laughter from the audiences in 2006 and 2022. As for the third instance, he joked he would rather keep that to himself.

    Yukio Kakuchi, who has translated many of Keene's works over a decades-long friendship, said during the impromptu talk session in the event's second half that he had been lucky to witness Keene's animated speaking style -- apparent in the 2006 footage -- since their very first encounter when Kakuchi was in his 20s. Keene apparently reenacted his meeting with "Kafu Sensei" for Kakuchi, and his mini one-man show full of lively gestures made Kakuchi feel as if the Meiji era (1868-1912) writer were right before his eyes.

    Keene's adoptive son Seiki also shared that even past 90, his father would often "dart to his study" and immerse himself in his work until 1 a.m. if nobody stopped him. "My father's sense of duty as an educator of Japanese culture and literature saw no decline," he said.

    On Keene's eloquent talks, Kakuchi said, "It's like he has countless drawers in his mind, which prompted by just a slight knock or tug, can provide an endless stream of intriguing talks. At the same time, no matter how busy he was, he made time to interact with others, and you could tell he genuinely liked people."

    It is hoped the lifetime works of Donald Keene, who is seen by many as having known more about Japan than most Japanese people, and who has been loved by those who knew him for his kindness and humor, will continue to live on and be celebrated beyond his centenary.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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