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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt.2): An inspiring encounter with 'The Tale of Genji'

Donald Keene is seen before cherry blossoms in full bloom in front of Muryo-ji temple near his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward, in this photo taken on March 30, 2013. It was around six years later that the scholar died; his grave is located in the temple. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- In September 1938, aged just 16, Donald Keene entered Columbia University -- a long-established, prestigious Ivy League school based on the East Coast of the United States. This became the first step in his lifelong devotion to academia.

    This 1939 photo shows a young Donald Keene, right, and fellow Chinese student Lee at the venue of the New York World's Fair. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    Born in 1922, Dr. Keene had devoted his life to spreading the charms of Japanese literature and culture through a vast collection of works until his final years prior to his death aged 96.

    What kind of life was led by "Keene Sensei," what did the renowned Japanese scholar convey to us, and what did he try to leave for the future? I'd like to navigate this past century with the help of his English works and past editions of The Mainichi, which marks its 100th anniversary in April this year, the same year Keene was born. Part 2 of this series follows a teenage Keene, who was full of admiration for the world depicted in a classic Japanese novel as the threats of war were approaching his homeland in the real world.

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    At Columbia University, a young Keene took a compulsory class on classical literature studies. While his professor Mark Van Doren offered a rigorous course, his teaching methods became a great model for Keene, who later found himself on the other side of the lectern during his many years as a professor at Columbia. Furthermore, a chance encounter with a Chinese student in the same class had a lasting impact as their friendship broadened his horizons.

    Below is an excerpt from Keene's autobiography "Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan."


    Professor van Doren was a marvelous teacher. He was a scholar and a poet and above all someone who understood literature and could make us understand it with him. He never used notes for his lectures but seemed to be considering each work for the first time, thinking aloud. He frequently asked questions of the students, not to test their knowledge, but to discover what the work we had read meant to them. Van Doren had little use for commentaries or specialized literary criticism. Rather, the essential thing, he taught us, was to read the texts, think about them, and discover for ourselves why they were ranked as classics. Insofar as I have been a success as a teacher of Japanese literature, it has been because I had a model in Mark van Doren.

    Mark van Doren's class profoundly affected my way of reading and understanding literature, and it also affected me in a totally unpredictable manner. The students were seated alphabetically in this class, which is why my seat was next to that of a Chinese named Lee. As the result of meeting him four days a week before and after class, we became friendly. I had never known a Chinese before. About my only contact with China (or any other part of Asia) was going a few times with my high school classmates to eat Chinese food.

    We agreed to meet every day for lunch at a Chinese restaurant near Columbia. After eating a meal that almost always consisted of fried rice and egg foo yong, the cheapest food on the menu, he would take out a novel he had purchased in China-town and go over a few lines with me. This book was not intended to teach people Chinese, but each character I learned was a precious postage stamp that I pasted in the album of my memory. Lee also bought a brush and a book of calligraphy, and I practiced writing characters. I became fairly accomplished at imitating the characters, but as another Chinese pointed out after examining my calligraphy, I had not written the characters but painted them, ignoring the correct order and direction of the strokes.


    Keene's encounter with the Chinese student Lee opened his eyes to Asia. As Lee was from Guangdong, Keene's interactions with the fellow student did not necessarily lead to an improvement in his Mandarin Chinese ability, but he became strongly fascinated with Chinese characters as a means of writing. This experience eventually played a part in calling forth another fateful encounter.

    Around this time in Europe, Germany was under Nazi rule after the party gained power following the nation's defeat in World War I, and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had begun launching invasions of surrounding countries. In September 1938, Germany, Britain, France and Italy signed the Munich Agreement, which permitted German annexation of sections of Czechoslovakia. Although it seemed that war had been avoided, German troops invaded Poland in September 1939, which effectively started World War II.

    This image shows a copy of the Sept. 2, 1939 edition of the English edition of "The Tokyo Nichi Nichi," a predecessor of The Mainichi. On Sept. 1, 1939, German troops began their invasion of Poland, initiating World War II. The Tokyo Nichi Nichi Sept. 2 edition featured the headline "Warsaw Bombed; Fight in Danzig (present-day Gdansk)." On Sept. 8, 1939, fighting commenced between German and Polish troops in the siege of Warsaw.

    Keene, who was a pacifist at heart, feared the arrival of war. However, Nazi Germany proceeded to invade Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and also eventually went to war with Britain. In Asia, Japan was pushing forward military expansion in China.

    This image shows a copy of the Sept. 5, 1939 edition of the English edition of "The Tokyo Nichi Nichi," a predecessor of The Mainichi. On Sept. 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and Japan, which had signed the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, was put in a predicament. On Sept. 4, Japan issued the statement that it "will not be involved in the European war," and "endeavor to solve the China Emergency."

    Against such a backdrop, it was in the autumn of 1940 that Keene, worn out from the international war, went out for a walk during which he came across a piece of Japanese literature near New York City's Times Square, as he described in an account in "Chronicles of My Life."


    At that time there was a bookshop in Times Square that specialized in remainders, and I would look in every time I was in the area. One day I saw a stack of books called The Tale of Genji. I had never heard of this work before, but I examined a volume out of curiosity. I could tell from the illustrations that the book must be about Japan. The book, in two volumes, was priced at forty-nine cents. This seemed a bargain, and I bought it.

    I soon became engrossed in The Tale of Genji. The translation (by Arthur Waley) was magical, evoking a distant and beautiful world. I could not stop reading, sometimes going back to savor the details again. I contrasted the world of The Tale of Genji with my own. In the book, antagonism never degenerated into violence, and there were no wars. The hero, Genji, unlike the heroes of European epics, was not described as a man of muscle, capable of lifting a boulder that not ten men could lift, or as a warrior who could single-handedly slay masses of the enemy. Nor, though he had many love affairs, was Genji interested (like Don Juan) merely in adding names to the list of women he had conquered. He knew grief, not because he had failed to seize the government, but because he was a human being and life in this world is inevitably sad.

    Until this time I had thought of Japan mainly as a menacing militaristic country. Even though I had been charmed by Hiroshige's prints, Japan was for me not a land of beauty but the invader of China. Lee was vehemently anti-Japanese.

    When we went to the New York World's Fair, we visited the various foreign pavilions, but he absolutely refused to enter the Japanese pavilion. Although I sympathized with him and his country, this did not prevent me from enjoying The Tale of Genji. No, "enjoy" is not the right word; I turned to it as a refuge from all I hated in the world around me.

    (Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan)


    Since this encounter, Keene, who was born and raised in New York, nurtured an affection for Japanese literature and introduced the culture of Japan, which has a history of unique development, to the world with his superb level of English.

    (This is Part 2 of a series.)

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer and Donald Keene Memorial Foundation director)

    The original text of Donald Keene's autobiographies is being used with permission from the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation. The foundation's website can be reached at:

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    Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia University. After earning postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Cambridge University, he received a fellowship to study at Kyoto University in 1953. Keene developed friendships with prominent Japanese authors, including Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Over the course of half a century, he traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while conveying their charms to the world in English. His main works include a multivolume history of Japanese literature, "Travelers of a Hundred Ages," and "Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912." In 2008, he received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. Keene obtained Japanese citizenship in the year following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He died on Feb. 24, 2019, at age 96.

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