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Yokohama exhibit spotlights Donald Keene's passion for learning, teaching Japan's culture

Visitors are seen viewing photos and records of Donald Keene at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

YOKOHAMA -- An exhibit on the life of Donald Keene, who conveyed his love for and fascination with Japanese culture to the world and even to the Japanese people themselves, has opened in this port city south of Tokyo.

    The "Donald Keene 100th Anniversary Exhibition - A life-long pursuit of Japanese culture," at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature, traces the life of the late U.S.-born academic (1922-2019) and his contributions to Japan through scholarly works and translations.

    A photo of Donald Keene in the role of "Tarokaja" during a kyogen performance is seen at an exhibit at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    The first section showcases items from his early encounters with the literature and people of Japan, such as a volume of "The Tale of Genji" translated by Arthur Waley, and photos taken when he was in the U.S. Navy as a language officer, translating documents and interrogating Japanese prisoners.

    The exhibit then traces his long years of research dedicated to grasping the history of Japanese culture in its entirety and in various areas, including Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku traditional theater in addition to literature. The rich collection of photos, letters and other records from his years in Kyoto from 1953 show Keene as not only a scholar confined to his study, but as someone who ventured out to interact with people and absorb Japanese culture first-hand.

    Keene eagerly took part in "kyogen" traditional comic theater lessons after watching a kyogen performance at Kasugataisha Shrine in Nara. A 1956 photo shows Keene acting the role of "Tarokaja" in a kyogen performance attended by renowned authors Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, and Yasunari Kawabata. Also on display is a newspaper article featuring the young American as a "blue-eyed Tarokaja." There are also sections dedicated to Keene's friendships with the Japanese writers mentioned above, and more.

    In a May 27 ceremony ahead of the exhibit's opening, Keene's adopted son Seiki Keene said that he wanted visitors to enjoy a corner introducing around 20 of Donald Keene's students. They thought him as a great mentor and friend, and some of them went on to pursue careers in Japanese studies themselves.

    A photo of Donald Keene attending an event that was part of the "Shikinen Sengu" shrine relocation ritual at Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture is on display at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    At the ceremony, Peter Jaeger, who studied with Keene at Columbia University in 1980-1981, shared memories about the class, where students translated classical Japanese works into English. The professor told students with a wry smile, "Very good, you have done an excellent job of researching Arthur Waley's translation," when he saw through their attempts to sneak translations by past Japanologists into their own. This was apparently his way of encouraging students to try to understand ambiguous passages on their own, instead of reading what another scholar had written.

    "Through the exhibit, I want visitors to learn about my father as not just a scholar, but as a teacher," Seiki said.

    * * *

    The "Donald Keene 100th Anniversary Exhibition - A life-long pursuit of Japanese culture" exhibit will continue through July 24 at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama. The museum is a 10-minute walk from Motomachi-Chukagai Station on the Minatomirai Line. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with entry until 4:30 p.m. Admission is 700 yen for adults, 100 yen for high school students, and free for junior high school students and younger.

    Explanations are provided in both English and Japanese for the displayed items.

    More information can be found at the museum's official website at (in Japanese).

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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