Tag Archives: Donald Keene

Donald Keene in San Francisco, 1996

I went to a lecture by Donald Keene (born in Brooklyn in 1922) at the Miyako. He speaks entertainingly and modestly. He is even shorter than I imagined and has some New York accent. I think he’s probably a queen, but am not entirely certain.

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(Keene in 2002, photographed by Aurelio Asiain)

He said that the two people he’s known whom he considers geniuses are Arthur Waley and Mishima Yukio, because he can’t imagine how anyone can do what they did. Specifically, in Waley’s case, translate Genji monogatori, in Mishima’s, write non-stop in final form without correcting anything. He recalled a wartime student of Waley’s saying something about the ambiguities of Heian Japanese, and his being startled, exclaiming “I never found it so!” He also told someone that he thought it should be possible to learn Japanese in about a month. Even if he meant to learn to read Japanese for someone who could read Chinese, this is an astonishing estimate.

He finds Lafcadio Hearn repellent (racist) though an acute observer. In that his reminisces were about Americans discovering Japanese literature, I asked about The Chrysanthemum and the Sword as an explanation of Japanese culture to America. He didn’t answer my question about its role, but responded to my preamble, by saying that he has high regard for the book. When it was translated in Japanese, many Japanese were unhappy with it and tried to assail it, but have not shaken its foundations, which despite the great difficulties of working from America with Issei who mostly had left long ago, he considers generally sound, beautifully written, and an impressive accomplishment of understanding another culture.

He credits Kurosawa’s film of Rashomon with a major impetus to the “Japan boom” in America of the 1950s, along with Edward Seidenstecker’s translation of Some Prefer Nettles, and then the Zen fad. And he reiterated that the Nobel Prize was headed for Mishima and was sidetracked by a Northern European “expert” (who had spent two weeks in Japan and assumed from Mishima’s age that he must be a leftist!).

The contemporary female Japanese writer of whom he thinks highly (and considers likely to “last”) is Dazai’s daughter. Keene said that he mostly reads classical Japanese literature, and established writers. He regrets that he does not know the work of more younger writers (younger than Ôe Kenzaburo), but doesn’t think he can do more, only having two eyes…

© 26 February 1996, Stephen O. Murray

Dazai’s “The Setting Sun”


I breezed through Dazai Osamu’s once immensely popular novel, The Setting Sun (published in 1947 as Shayo). For an insider account of the decline of the aristocracy, I prefer Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I can’t quite understand Donald Keene’s introduction of the novel as “an exact picture of what life is like in Japan today” (p. xviii)[1] before stressing that it is a powerful and beautiful novel, not a sociological document. As a chronicle, it is much thinner than the stories in Self Portraits. Clearly Naoji is a self-portrait: Dazai was well aware of the pain his dissolute lifestyle, particularly his drug addiction and alcoholism caused his own family.

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More astonishing is his impression of who the three main characters of the novel are: “We may even obtain the impression that all three main characters—the girl Kazuko [who narrates], her dissolute brother Naoji, and the [debauched] novelist Uehara—represent no more than different aspects of the author” (1971[1964:187). About the first two I agree. I think Uehara had other models, and that the mother is a far more important character than he is. She is the last aristocrat, dying with dignity in reduced circumstances and a kind of internal exile. I wish, as probably Dazai himself did, that Dazai was more like Kazuko, who adapts to her changing world.

I don’t see any suggestion from Dazai that the child Kazuko is carrying at the end of the novel “is likely to live in a better world than the one against which she struggles” (p. 201). Kazuko is a survivor, but I do not see any indication she or the author believe in progress or redemption or even resolution of any of Kazuko’s inner turmoil. She sees her whole family as “victims of a transitional period of morality,” though she is prepared to fight the persisting old morality (“like the sun”, p. 188, i.e., setting sun? an antithesis of the official emblem of Japan as a rising sun). (There are recurrent references to Nietzche in the book, though no confidence of a Super Woman going beyond Good and Evil.)

As for the war, there is another attestation for what many others have ober ed: “I hate talking about the war or listening to other people’s memories” (p. 39).

[1] In his 1964 essay on Dazai that is reprinted in Landscapes and Portraits, he wrote, “The atmosphere of Tokyo at the time is best suggested by ‘Villon’s Wife,’ though The Setting Sun seemed to its first readers the literary embodiment of the changing society” (pp. 200-1).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray



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