Donald Keene’s Memoir: Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan



I have an enormous debt of gratitude to two Americans with the given name of “Donald” for introducing me to much of the best of 20th-century Japanese literature and Japanese cinema: Donald Keene (born in New York in 1922) and Donald Richie (born in Lima, Ohio in 1924, died in Tokyo in 2013). In Japan, where their service in explicating Japanese culture is also appreciated, some think they must be brothers or spouses (family name coming first in Japanese and other West Pacific languages), I read in Donald Richie’s very entertaining Japan Journals.

Both of them knew Mishima Yukiô — Keene translated After the Banquet , Madame de Sade, and Mishima’s modern Nô plays — and failed to anticipate Mishima’s very public suicide, though recognizing later that they had been forewarned in more specific senses than a reading or viewing of “Patriotism.”

Keene also translated Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and Abe Kôbô and was close to both of them, and for a time to the second Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Ôe Kenzaburo He also knew Tanizaki Jun’ichiro (who IMO should have been the first Japanese writer to win the prize, though he had died a few years before Kawabata received it), Arthur Waley (the great English translator from both Chinese and Japanese), Bertrand Russell (who went out for beer after classes at Cambridge while Keene was there), and (of course) the other prominent American translators of contemporary Japanese literature, Ivan Morris, and Edward Seidensticker (both of whom joined him at Columbia University; Seidensticker makes frequent appearances in Richie’s Japan Journals; Morris only lived to the age of 51).

Kodansha published an insightful and entertaining memoir, titled On Familiar Terms: To Japan and Back, a Lifetime Across Cultures in 1996. The 2008 Columbia University Press Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan is not more revealing, though it is somewhat more conversational in tone. It covers research on the Emperor Meiji that went into Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 (Columbia UP, 2002) and his continuing productivity.

The second memoir is not notably more revealing than the first and repeats a number of anecdotes. This is not to challenge the need for a second memoir. The first is out of print and the newer one has very entertaining drawings by Yamaguchi Akira that are somewhere between 19th-cemtury woodblocks and manga illustrations. Keene has written about Japanese prints as well as about Japanese plays, poetry, fiction, and (especially) diaries.

Keene recalls that “Japanese, which at first had no connection with my ancestors, my literary tastes, or my awareness of myself as a person, has become the central element of my life.” What became his vocation as well as career began as a Columbia undergraduate, when he started to learn Chinese from a classmate, and then was enraptured by reading Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji. His learning of Japanese accelerated into a full-time occupation during WWII, first a year of immersion language learning at Berkeley, then in active duty in the US Navy in the Aleutians and then Okinawa. His interest in Japanese diaries began with ones recovered from the corpses of Japanese soldiers (the official rationale was to glean information from them, the reason US troops were not allowed to keep diaries).

Spite got him assigned to a posting in China rather than Japan after Japan surrendered, so Keene was not part of the Occupation authority. He had a dismal teacher at Harvard: Serge Elisséeff is the only Japanologist about whom Keene records anything negative in either memoir. But he was able to go to Cambridge and work with Waley (and Russell). And to return to his alma mater in his hometown to earn his PhD (1951) and to stay on as a faculty member, and to travel to Japan and meet writers already mentioned. (Keene translated both the novels written by Dazai Osamu, but Dazai had taken his own life in mid-1948, five years before Keene got to Japan).

There is some wry humor about those who have condescended to Keene as a big frog in a little pond (when he reviewed a book by (Argentine writer) Julio Cortazar in the New York Times, some readers thought that it was written by someone else with the same name). Keene came along in what seems to have been a golden age of Japanese fiction writing, and has been lucky in other ways, but mastering Japanese (first the language, then the literature and its history) are major accomplishments, and ones from which I have profited. I find this book charming as well as insightful. His enthusiasms are infectious, and he has provided access to Japanese literature in his own translations and in analyses such as Dawn to the West.

(The photo is the cover one, showing Keene in 1953 in front of Bashô’s grave)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s