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Tour of Donald Keene's Tokyo neighborhood reveals scholar's modest life and love of Japan

People are seen at the home of Donald Keene, during a tour in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

TOKYO -- A tour tracing the footsteps of U.S.-born Japanologist Donald Keene showed him as not only a devoted scholar but a pacifist and down-to-earth man who loved life in Japan.

    Kicking off an excursion series that brings participants to a certain locale that has a special connection with the late scholar, a tour in the neighborhood of Keene's home in northern Tokyo's Kita Ward, located near the border with neighboring Saitama Prefecture, was held on April 27. I accompanied a group of 13 people to Keene's apartment in the Nishigahara area, a temple where his grave is located, a nostalgic shopping street and Italian restaurant he frequented, and a library with a special "Donald Keene collection" corner.

    Donald Keene's adopted son Seiki is seen at their home in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    The first stop of the tour was Kita City Central Library, known for its red brick building that Keene was fascinated with, and visited several times per year from 2010.

    Seated in a meeting room before a projection screen showing various black and white photos, participants leaned in as they listened to a lecture that took them back some 80 to 90 years in time. Following anecdotes including a young Keene's tactic of crying for three hours to convince his father to take him to Europe, the talk shifted to his enchantment with the magical world depicted in "The Tale of Genji" -- an 11th century pageant of Heian-era court life -- as the world surrounding him was in a state of terror amid World War II.

    Shelves filled with books are seen at the home of Donald Keene, in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    Tour coordinator and Mainichi Shimbun reporter Tadahiko Mori, who is working on a series that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Keene's birth had interviewed Keene for some 20 years since 1997. He said, "Don't you think it's a bit ironic? Just as Keene grew an interest in Japan and the language, the war happened, and his country and the other country became enemies." However, the young man played the hand he was dealt, Mori said. "Though Keene was a pacifist at heart and abhorred the war, he actively chose to enter the U.S. Navy. By doing so, he studied Japanese intensively at its language school."

    As written in his autobiography, perusing the diaries of fallen Japanese soldiers as a Navy officer sparked Keene's admiration and sympathy for the Japanese people. "You could say he was someone who brought in good fortune at the right timing, in various moments of his life," said Mori.

    Keene's adopted son Seiki Keene, who knew Keene from 2006, and lived with him during his final years until Keene passed in 2019, recalled his father firmly stating, "There is no such thing as a 'good' war." Seiki said, "My father was strongly against war until the very end. He believed the entire world should follow the example of Japan's Constitution (with war-renouncing Article 9)."

    A book containing Donald Keene's handwritten notes is seen at his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    Before and after the lecture, we had a chance to view a collection of 788 books donated by Keene after he tidied his home in New York. Participants flipped through pages in the reading room, and gazed at books with Keene's handwritten notes in the margins. For Japanese works in vertical writing, phrases were lined or circled with a pencil. During the donation ceremony in 2011, he apparently joked that though his books contain handwritten notes, one must not write inside books borrowed from the library. Keene apparently even visited the "Donald Keene collection" corner sometimes, and asked staff to help him find references for his own scholarly writings.

    After an hour and a half, the tour group rode a community bus -- costing 100 yen (under a dollar) -- just like Keene had often done, and arrived at an apartment building in a discreet neighborhood surrounded by greenery. As we reached the entrance, other residents walked past and greeted Seiki.

    Handwritten notes and manuscripts are seen at the home of Donald Keene, in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    The Nishigahara apartment was where Keene spent several months per year from 1974 before he took full-time residence in Tokyo following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The scholar had two rooms on separate floors -- one for his study and another for his living space -- and we were able to take a look inside the former.

    The group of 13 was split into two, and even then, participants huddled closely together in a modestly sized room -- a space of 14 tatami mats (roughly 25 square meters) -- packed with books and papers. Pointing at an armchair placed right before the bookshelf, boasting a vast array of colorful spines with both Japanese and English titles, Seiki told participants that this was one of Keene's favorite spots in the room. He added, "The room has been kept almost the same as when my father was alive, so I'd like you to look around while imagining how he lived here."

    In the back corner of the room was the scholar's workspace, with his computer and yet more rows of books. Then it dawned on me -- did he donate the books to the library to use it as his second study?

    The view from the balcony of Donald Keene's home, which oversees the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens, is seen in this image taken in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    According to Seiki, Keene could get so engrossed in his work that he had to call to his father to take breaks for meals and sleep. When asked what would have happened if he did not stop his father, Seiki replied, "Well, he would have probably just kept going at it." This gathered murmurs of admiration for the scholar's high levels of concentration. From the look of the room, it was clear that he must have studied and worked nonstop until he passed away.

    At the dinner table at the local Italian restaurant Osteria Selvaggina, participants savored Keene's favorite gnocchi dish, followed by cake, which was identical to the one the restaurant prepared just for him on his 96th birthday, months before his death. The chef and waitress said they made sure to play opera -- another Donald Keene-favorite -- whenever he visited, and that he happily named the pieces, most of which he seemed to recognize.

    One tour participant shared an episode of sitting next to the scholar by chance at a music concert. A button had fallen off his suit, and she searched everywhere for it with him. This coincidental encounter made them good friends, and she remembers Keene smiling kindly every time they met, even when his health concerned her.

    Donald Keene's adopted son Seiki, center in left row, and tour participants are seen at Italian restaurant Osteria Selvaggina on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    Keiko Matsumoto, 71, who said she only knew the scholar's name and a rough idea of his achievements prior to the tour, commented, "Everything was eye-opening and new. His home was left mostly as it was, and papers with his handwriting were sitting around, as if he were just out on an errand. I was able to hear many episodes from people who knew him, and Keene sensei is now someone I feel very familiar with."

    It seems that Keene's humble life in Tokyo reflects his love for Japan and the people that he met there. By the end of the tour, complete strangers were laughing together heartily over the memory of Donald Keene.

    Various tours across Japan, including in Kanagawa and Karuizawa, Nagano, will be held by Mainichi Kikaku Service Co. to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Donald Keene's birth. Reservations for the next tour in Tokyo's Kita Ward on June 2 can be made here:

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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