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The Asian ApertureSuccessful Living in Two Worlds
POSTED BY JASON FETTERS, April 10, 2011    Share

Like many college students, when Donald Keene first entered Columbia University in the 30's, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. That slowly began to change when he befriend a young Chinese man and started learning the complicated Chinese writing system. Keene earned his BA in 1942 and was still unsure of his future. Then suddenly an event happened overnight that changed his life forever.

When WWII broke out, the Navy invested a long of time and money to train the brightest young college students to learn Japanese primarily to interrogate prisoners and translate documents. The Navy set up the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School and the young Keene, along with other future scholars, were taught how to read, write, and speak Japanese. The courses were strict with students not allowed to speak English inside the classrooms. Finally the young grads have finished language school and were sent off to help the war effort.

Keene was sent to Hawaii where he interviewed POW's. His main duty was to take all the diaries confiscated from the POW's and ordered to translated. His spent long hours going over diaries to try to find useful information. He also entertained the Japanese prisoners by obtaining a record player and playing Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. During the occupation, Keene sought out those former prisoners back in Japan or their relatives to return as many of the diaries as he could.

Finally the war ended and Keene was back at Columbia to further his Japanese studies. He studied with the “the father of Japanese studies,” the late Ryusaku Tsunoda and helped his professor compile all his lectures into two excellent books on Japanese history and culture with Keene writing the literary sections. It is a privilege to have Tsunoda's knowledge preserved in two works that are still available for purchase on Amazon.com, Sources of Japanese Tradition Volume 1 and 2 are required for any serious look at Japanese history.

Keene went on a year long study program that took him to Harvard, Cambridge, and eventually the place he really wanted to be, Kyoto, Japan to study at Kyoto University, which is the 2nd rated University in all Japan, just under Tokyo University. He lived in a Japanese house, made several good friends through his Japanese language skills, and got a first rate education on Japanese literature at Kyoto.

After returning to the US and earning his PHD from Columbia, Keene became a professor of Japanese studies and taught language and culture classes. During his years of teaching and using his vast knowledge of Japanese literature he compiled anthologies that are still in use today such as Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Modern Japanese Literature, World Within Walls and many many others. There is quite possibly not one era of Japanese literature that Keene has not written about.

However, with such accomplishments already under his belt, he might not have been known outside of Columbia had it not been for translating the works of prominent Japanese writers into English. He met the experimental novelist, Abe Kobo and translated his three plays. He also translated Kawabata Yasunari's The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. He established a life long friendship with the great Mishima Yukio and even gave Mishima a tour of New York City back when Mishima was trying to get one of his plays performed on Broadway.

Today, Donald Keene spends time between New York and his Tokyo home. He helps out with his Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture, at Columbia, that hosts many events throughout the year. Even the Japanese government recognizes Keene's contributions to the arts and he has received numerous awards such as the The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, Second Class. He is the third non-Japanese to receive the Person of Cultural Merit in 2002.

No other scholar has contributed so much to the field of Japanese literature on an International level than Donald Keene. His translations have stood the test of time and brought to the West, the best Japanese writers.

For further reading I recommend two autobiographies, On Familiar Terms: To Japan and Back, a Lifetime Across Cultures and Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan.

"The Asian Aperture" is ©2011 by Jason Fetters. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2011 by Nolan B. Canova.

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