Valedictory: Japan Scholar Donald Keene Retires After 73 Years at Columbia

Special from The Record

May 13, 2011Bookmark and Share

The subject of Donald Keene’s last lecture was Noh, a Japanese theater tradition dating back nearly 1,000 years. But the class was its own kind of spectacle, with as many TV cameras as graduate students.

Professor Emeritus Donald Keene teaches his last class. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Professor Emeritus Donald Keene teaches his last class.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Keene’s retirement from Columbia at age 88—and his announcement that he plans to spend the rest of his life in Japan—was big news in Japan, where he is famous. Some 40 journalists, all but a handful from Japanese media outlets, crowded into his Kent Hall classroom, capturing every moment of the class for audiences 13 time zones away.

The University Professor Emeritus, who began teaching Japanese literature at Columbia in 1955 and has written dozens of books on that nation’s culture, is so highly respected there that in 2008 he received the Order of Culture (Bunka Kunsho) from Emperor Akihito, the first Westerner to be so honored. But he has never been more popular than he is now, after announcing that he would move to Tokyo this summer and apply for Japanese citizenship. The decision, like much of Noh theater, was highly symbolic. At a time when foreigners have been leaving because of the catastrophic March 11 earthquake and tsunami, it was seen in Japan as a vote of confidence in that country’s future.

He made the decision in January, before the quake shattered a swath of northern Japan, but says it feels “more and more appropriate.” “After the disaster struck, foreigners began leaving Japan,” he explained. “So when I said I was going to move there, I received messages saying that people in Japan thought how wonderful it was that even one foreigner should go in the opposite direction. I am told it gave people courage.”

The lifelong New Yorker, who “officially” retired in 1992 but spent another 19 years teaching as an emeritus professor, will give up his Morningside Heights apartment—and his subscription to the Metropolitan Opera—when he departs for Tokyo. He plans to be in his adopted home by August.

Born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Keene was first exposed to Japanese culture in 1940, when he bought a copy of The Tale of Genji—an 11th-century work thought to be the world’s first novel—at a bookstore in Times Square. Until then, he said, “I thought I had had a very good education. But it was entirely in Western books. There was never any mention made of literature from other parts of the world.”

He began studying Japanese informally during the summer of 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Keene realized he could help the U.S. war effort. He enrolled in the Navy’s Japanese language school, eventually translating documents seized by U.S. forces during the 1942-43 siege of Guadalcanal. They included diaries found on the bodies of Japanese soldiers, which “were at times almost unbearably moving,” he says, adding: “The first Japanese I ever really knew were the writers of the diaries, though they were all dead by the time I met them.”

He would go on to know many living Japanese, making his first trip to Japan in 1953 and befriending some of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.

After receiving his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia, he taught at Cambridge for a year before returning to Columbia, where he became known as an expert in myriad aspects of Japanese culture.

Among his thousands of students, Fred Katayama (CC’82, JRN ’83), now a television anchor for Thomson Reuters, described Keene as “a brilliant lecturer” who inspired him to change his academic focus from economics to East Asian studies. When the California-born Katayama later spent time in Tokyo, he learned “how many doors open when you say you’re a student of Donald Keene.”

Over the years, Keene has published two dozen books in English and several in Japanese on what he calls “lighter subjects, myself or my travels, or about things about the Japanese language that particularly interest me.” He also has translated dozens of important Japanese works into English.

One of them is An Account of My Hut, in which a Buddhist monk describes such calamities as the earthquake that leveled parts of Japan in 1185. Perhaps his study of that manuscript explains Keene’s long view of history, and his own small role in it some 800 years later.

Japan was hit hard, he said of the recent series of disasters, but it “will surely resurrect to become an even more splendid country.”

—by Fred A. Bernstein

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