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Donald Keene's strong will to prove Japanese literature's beauty lives on in former student

Janine Beichman is seen at her home in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

TSUKUBA, Ibaraki -- U.S.-born Japanologist Donald Keene (1922-2019) was determined to prove to an English-speaking audience that Japanese literature is beautiful, and even helped Japanese people rediscover the value of their own culture. So said former student Janine Beichman, 79, who first met Keene in the 1960s while pursuing a postgraduate degree at New York's Columbia University.

    A century since his birth, Keene's passion continues to live on, not only in his various works and translations, but also within his students, who pass on his legacy of contributions. With guidance from the distinguished scholar, Beichman built up her knowledge of the Japanese language from scratch and went on to establish a career as a teacher, translator, and researcher -- just like Keene himself. The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with Beichman, who talked fondly of her mentor as someone who not only provided insight on the specialized field, but also gave her the confidence to push on -- a gift that lives on today.

    Below is an excerpt from the interview.

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    The Mainichi: What did you learn in Keene's classes as a postgraduate student?

    Beichman: At Columbia, I had taken a Japanese literature course by Keene that consisted entirely of translations. I knew little Japanese at the time, but this class required students to translate classical Japanese texts into English, like Saga Diary by Edo-era haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). We had no term paper; we simply read the texts while each student read aloud two or three rows' worth of English translations we prepared on the spot.

    M: Do you have a specific memory of his classes that left a big impression on you?

    B: When a student made a mistake, instead of correcting the student, he just redid the translation for them. There were so many things that we students didn't understand, so it was very rare that he didn't redo our translations. But if he redid it, then you wanted to know what it was that you did wrong. And you got it.

    Later, when I was teaching university classes myself, I felt like something wasn't right, so I talked with Keene about it. Then, he told me, "You mustn't embarrass a student." Because pointing out a student's mistakes brings about pressure, negative feelings, and self-consciousness.

    I noticed that when my own students made mistakes, I would gleefully point them out. So his comment, "You mustn't embarrass a student," made such a huge impression on me. He seemed very strict when I was studying with him, but when he told me this, I realized he was actually very easy on us and didn't correct us when he could have.

    Janine Beichman and Donald Keene are seen in the city of Shizuoka where Keene was invited to speak during an event on Nov. 17, 2017. (Provided by Beichman)

    M: What kind of teacher, and what kind of scholar was Donald Keene?

    B: People get stimulated by Keene's teaching. Students were stirred by his passion. For example, my daughter also took one of his seminars. Her class read the Noh play Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines). Keene loved this work. When they reached the ending, my daughter told me he raised his head and said, "It doesn't get much better than this, does it?" His eyes were glistening with tears.

    Keene was just so sensitive to beauty -- not just Japanese culture, but also music and opera. It was as if he were someone with the sensibility of an artist, who had accumulated knowledge and drew from this to teach others. But he also had the objectivity of a scholar.

    I think rather than Japanese culture as a whole, he had love and passion toward individual literary works. Even beyond our time in university, many of Keene's students went on to pursue professional careers using Japanese. Perhaps this is because we were inspired by Keene's genuine passion for literary works.

    M: Passion is an important factor in education. It seems that teachers in Japan can also learn from Keene's teaching method.

    B: Keene often said that the subject of 'kobun' (classical literature) was unpopular among high school students in Japan because the classes only taught technical elements, like grammar. He said it negatively like this, but if you rephrase it positively, I think what he meant was that teachers should bring their own passion to the works. Rather than being bound by a sense of duty that you need to teach important things, teachers today may benefit from taking a more relaxed approach, like reading The Tale of Genji for its beauty. As the original writing is difficult, students may be able to enjoy it more if they first read modern translations, instead of focusing on tiny details and grammar. They're lovable texts anyway. That's why Keene's remark about Matsukaze, "it doesn't get much better than this," is so important. He didn't read it because the great playwright Zeami wrote it, or because it was old and you should know 'kobun.' He read it because it was beautiful. And to him, that's the most important thing.

    Donald Keene is seen teaching a Japanese literature class at Columbia University in New York, in this photo taken in October 1963. (Mainichi/Tetsuo Abe)

    M: What kind of role did Keene play as your mentor?

    B: Though he seemed unaware of it himself, I think he had the stance, "Don't embarrass the student, but ask a great deal." I was thinking of doing a thesis using English translations of Japanese author Dazai Osamu (1909-1948), including Keene's translations of The Setting Sun and No Longer Human. When I first presented this idea to him, he said, "This is a language department. And you can't do a thesis that doesn't use Japanese." He meant that I would need to read Japanese literary works in their original language. This was a huge shock to me. I knew little Japanese at the time. So I told him, "I can't read Japanese well enough," and he replied, "Well, can't you read one page a day?"

    Around the same time, Keene recommended that I do a master's thesis on Bokuju Itteki (A Drop of Ink), a work by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). There were two reasons for his recommendation. First, was that he thought it was a wonderful work of literature but no one had translated it or even written about it in English. And second, he thought that it would help my Japanese, because Shiki had written it in several different kinds of poetry and prose, so stylistically it was very varied. In it, there's an anecdote about "Enma" (the Japanese name for Yama, the Buddhist god who presides over hell), and at first, I thought this was a carpenter of some sorts. I felt the Japanese text was too difficult for me, but was eventually able to complete the translation of A Drop of Ink.

    Later, I went to talk with Keene again about my doctoral dissertation. Although it's common for professors to recommend a topic that is different from your master's thesis, he simply told me, "Why don't you continue Shiki?" When I sent him manuscripts through postal mail, he would check them in great detail and leave many handwritten comments. I wrote about the life and works of Masaoka Shiki, expanded on this, and it was eventually turned into a book. This was all thanks to him.

    It's incredible. I can't emphasize to you how little Japanese I knew, and yet, he made it possible for me to do all this. Keene never said, "You don't know Japanese. You made a mistake. You can't do Masaoka Shiki, because you can't even read the kanji for 'Enma.'" He never said that. And instead of saying, "You better wait until you know Japanese better," he said, "Can't you do one page a day?" He always assumed we could do it. I think that sense of possibility comes from him.

    M: Keene seems to have been a great mentor to you. Did this relationship continue beyond your years as his student?

    B: Yes. To this day, only one other person besides me has written a critical biography on Masaoka Shiki in English. This said person is Donald Keene. Several decades after my own book ("Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works," 1982) was published, Keene asked for my permission to write a critical biography on Shiki. He was worried he might endanger our friendship. I couldn't believe it. I could never have written about Shiki if it weren't for Keene, but here he was asking for my permission. He knew how to get along with people, so I always turned to him whenever something came up in my life.

    Donald Keene is seen relaxing in his office at Columbia University, where he taught Japanese language and literature classes, in this photo taken in October 1963. (Mainichi/Tetsuo Abe)

    M: Is there anything you learned from Keene that you incorporated when you became a professor and researcher yourself?

    B: I actually wasn't modeling myself on him, but I was using what he had given me to keep the motivation to continue doing my own research and translation. Keene was a missionary for Japanese literature, and he wanted to show non-Japanese, English-speaking people that this is great literature. When he started out, people still thought haiku were epigrams, and didn't realize it was a great art form. So he was determined to convince the non-Japanese audience that Japanese literature contained beautiful works.

    He wrote an essay in around 1960, mentioning the American author William Faulkner (1897-1962), who received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When he came to visit Japan, he could not answer a question by a Japanese reporter asking what he liked about Japanese literature. Keene thought this was a scandal. He then talked about how Japanese literature is looked down upon, as people make jokes about Noh being a "No" theater. I think there are still many people who think that Japanese literature is a sort of side issue.

    I guess what Keene gave me was the determination to convince people who don't speak Japanese that this work is really wonderful. And I always had the sense that I was the first person doing so. I was the first person writing a biography on Shiki in English. I also taught Noh to Japanese students as a foreigner. But it never unnerved me and I never gave it a second thought, because I learned it with Keene, so I was just going to do it. So Keene gave me some kind of crazy confidence that I could do it. And that's what keeps me going.

    M: Not only is Keene known for changing the Western audience's views on Japanese culture, but he has also earned the reputation as someone who offered a different perspective on Japanese culture for the Japanese people themselves. What are your views on this side of his contributions?

    B: I think that's definitely true. Before we met, my husband couldn't stand Noh. He thought it was a really snobbish thing. But after he saw me studying with Keene, going to Noh plays, and writing my own Noh, he changed his opinion. Now he's really interested in Noh himself.

    Japanese people are alienated from their own culture in many ways, because the reception becomes deformed in a certain way. For instance, Noh became a province of noble people, and many people, including my husband, viewed it as unapproachable.

    When I studied Noh with Keene at Columbia, most of us had never seen a Noh play. We studied it as literature, and that's extremely uncommon in Japan. Japanese people would never think of Noh in its written form.

    Keene shows Japanese people things they wouldn't notice themselves. With Noh, he was taking away the costumes, the performance, and all the social context where it was rich people singing it. He was undressing it. It's just words. I think that's a big contribution. It also says a great deal for the adaptability of Japanese people that they're willing to see what he's showing them about the tradition.

    M: Is it OK for someone who is not a specialist to read Keene's works?

    B: You have to be a little bit interested in literature, but I don't think you have to be a specialist. Sometimes I think it's more interesting if you're not a specialist. Take his autobiographies for example: you can just read about a person's life. I get surprised seeing readers' reviews of his works online. People seem to feel such affection for him, just from reading his books.

    I recommend "No: The Classical Theatre of Japan" (Kodansha International, 1966) and "Bunraku: The Art of the Japanese Puppet Theatre" (Kodansha International, 1965; Japanese translation published in 1966), where Keene introduces the appeal of Noh plays and bunraku puppet shows to a foreign audience. They have great photographs. That's a fun book to read if you want to get into it. There are so many works by Keene, even just in English. He has books on art, poetry, theater, you name it. So there's something for each reader, based on their interest.

    And he kept writing well into his 90s. He wrote many short essays so people could read them quickly, or a teacher could even assign it for a class.

    Even now, even though he's not in this world anymore, he can contribute a lot through his efforts to rediscover Japanese culture.

    (Interview by Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    Born in New York, Janine Beichman is professor emerita at Daito Bunka University in Japan. She received her doctorate from Columbia University, and specializes in Japanese poetry. Her publications include biographies of poet and essayist Masaoka Shiki and modern female poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), as well as a translation of works by contemporary poet Ooka Makoto (1931-2017).

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