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Donald Keene 100-yr anniv. project kicks off in Japan city with close ties to late scholar

Photos and records of late Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene are seen on display at Soka City Library in Saitama Prefecture on Feb. 28, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

SOKA, Saitama -- A mini exhibition of photos and records of renowned Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene is being held in the east Japan city of Soka, which developed close ties with Keene as he helped rejuvenate the area through 30 years of cultural contributions.

    "Mr. Keene had a friendly and endearing personality, and was loved by many. This is something that can be felt even through other people's stories," said Fumiko Nagasawa, the 59-year-old director of Soka City Library.

    The display visible in the hallway of the Soka City Library's third floor through March 7 includes photos of Keene smiling during events in the city, located in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo. It is the city's first of several events celebrating 100 years since Keene's birth.

    Soka and Donald Keene came together thanks to their links to Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho's major work "Oku no Hosomichi," or "The Narrow Road to Oku," a travel account based on Basho's epic 150-day, 2,400-kilometer journey in 1689 covered mostly on foot.

    Soka appears as a site Basho visited on his travels, and "The Narrow Road to Oku" was among the plethora of Japanese literature Keene translated. Soka has engaged in cultural efforts to rejuvenate the area through its connection to the travel diary. In the 1980s, it began maintenance work to establish the Soka Matsubara walking trail known for its beautiful rows of pine trees along the Ayase River. The trail was designated an area of national scenic beauty in 2014.

    Keene first visited the city of Soka in 1988, when he gave a lecture at "The International Symposium on Oku-no-Hosomichi." Photos from this time are on display at the library exhibit, including one of Keene speaking to a 1,200-strong crowd at Soka City Culture Hall. Another shows him holding a shovel as he plants a bush clover tree at the foot of Hyakutai Bridge, which was named after a phrase in the opening passages of "The Narrow Road to Oku."

    Nagasawa has lived in Soka for over 50 years, and said that while the city did not hold a special place in her heart when she was a young child, she began to view it affectionately as her "hometown" after the walking trail's establishment. "Through multiple visits and cultural contributions, Mr. Keene also helped to enliven the city," she said.

    Keene visited Soka repeatedly over 30 years until his last visit in May 2018. He died in February the next year. After he decided to obtain Japanese citizenship, the city even established its own literature prize in 2012 -- the "Donald Keene award." The respected scholar gathered numerous fans in the city, and Yumi Maruyama, a representative of its culture and tourism section, said many residents attended events in the hope of catching a glimpse of him.

    The Soka City Library exhibit also displays copies of Keene's English translation of "The Narrow Road to Oku" and Arthur Waley's "The Tale of Genji" translation, the masterpiece said to have inspired his pursuit of Japanese literature and culture studies.

    The library has a corner dedicated to the scholar, which includes the above publications and other translations by Keene, as well as Japanese translations of his scholarly studies. Director Nagasawa said she hopes this will offer residents an opportunity to learn more about Keene's achievements and Soka's culture.

    Meanwhile, Maruyama said, "While Soka is only one of the various places in Japan that Mr. Keene visited in his lifetime, we'd like to value this connection and expand the city's cultural activities."

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    Soka City Library is a one-minute walk from the west exit of Dokkyodaigakumae Soka-Matsubara Station.

    - Scheduled events:

    An exhibition commemorating Donald Keene's centenary is planned for June 2022 at the "Zenso-an Hakutai no Kakaku (Travelers of a hundred ages)" facility of tatami mat rooms which can be rented for tea ceremony, flower arrangement and other cultural activities. The facility in Soka City Culture Hall was named by Keene, and uses kanji characters deriving from a section of The Narrow Road to Oku. A handwritten "Zenso-an" sign by Keene himself hangs before the entrance.

    The city's promotional video for the facility can be watched at the link

    The "Oku-no-Hosomichi summit" will take place in Akos Hall in the city of Soka on July 30, 2022, and will feature a special talk session celebrating Keene's centenary and a shamisen performance by Keene's adopted son Seiki Keene.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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