Donald Keene Essays

06Sep07

Donald Keene at Harvard, 1947 (Copyright Keene Center, Columbia)

The recent passing of Edward Seidensticker marked the beginning of dusk for a remarkably important chapter in the history of the study of Japan. This storied group of postwar, scholars helped to shape the Japanese canon in the Western world and lay the framework for research into Japanese literature and history. Thinking about this topic led me to do more research on another great scholar of Japanese literature, Prof. Donald Keene who was a legend to me when I started as a young student at the University of Pittsburgh. His books were required reading in my courses, and I never imagined that years later I would see him while I studied as a grad student in the library at Columbia. Had I been a literature major, I could have enjoyed his classes. Instead for me as a historian he remained, though physically closer, just as inscrutable a figure.

While searching the internet I came across a collection of essays he wrote for a column in the Yomiuri Shimbun. There are 48 all together and they are poignant essays recalling his life as: a young student of 16 at Columbia, a Navy translator during the war, a young graduate student in Japan, and encounters with luminaries of the Japanese literary world. He’s had an interesting life and I’m jealous for the kind of untouched, exotic edge that Japan must have had back then. Of course this is a romantic view of it all.

I predict a new generation of Japan experts who gained exposure to the country not through the war or Japan’s postwar recovery, but from the JET program. As English teachers working and living in the country, I wonder how different our interpretations of Japan will be.

older Donald Keene

Donald Keene in the Columbia Library (copyright Japan Times).

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