Lunch With Donald Keene

Why the U.S. academic became a Japanese citizen.

Donald Keene
Donald Keene

Aurelio Asiain from Hirakata-shi, Osaka, Japan

Like many of the best things in Tokyo, the French restaurant is underground. Outside, only the lettering “Vincent” on a slab of stone – more tombstone than marquee – alerts you to its existence. Yet walk down the stone steps and you enter another world, one of red upholstery, antique mirrors and bone china.

The man I am to meet is also a hidden treasure. Not so hidden in Japan, admittedly, where he is a legendary figure, one who has dedicated his long life to interpreting Japanese culture for western audiences. At 89, the 20th-century’s premier scholar of Japanese literature has risen still further in Japanese estimation. Shortly after the country was laid low by an earthquake and tsunami in March, the academic said he would leave his native America for good, become a Japanese citizen and live out his last days in Japan. The announcement made headline news. Japanese spoke, many with tears in their eyes, of the courage he had given them in their hour of need.

After delivering his last lecture at Columbia University, where he taught for more than 50 years, Donald Keene wrapped up his life in New York. We meet in mid-October, not long after his move to Japan. Our restaurant is in Roppongi, a high-octane district of clubs and bars. But I am underground – in the France of a different era, waiting for an American with a thousand years of Japanese literature in his head. The lone waiter is loitering nervously. The chef is pacing the pavement above, ready to greet the professor.

The man led gently down the stairs a few minutes later is small, no doubt shorter than in his youth. He wears a dark suit and walks slowly, very slightly stooped. He greets me with an old-world charm and a “no-no-no, not-at-all” modesty. Later he tells me, “I’m a very atypical American in that I have great trouble saying nice things about myself.” His accent bears traces of Brooklyn but is overlaid with the diction of the lecture hall.

Keene sits down. Apart from us, the restaurant is empty. After surveying the menu as one might an ancient scroll, he looks at me with a twinkle. “Are you going to be working this afternoon?” he asks. The euphemism is perfect for Japan, where the unspoken often trumps what is said. I infer that he would like a glass of wine. Since we are both having fish, we settle on white. The waiter returns with a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet from 1995. The wine is complex and Keene looks pleased.

We both choose the escalope de saumon tiède as a starter. The soup of the day is chestnut. Keene asks for the filet de bar aux épices, though he uses the Japanese word suzuki, meaning sea bass. I have the red sea bream, suprême de daurade à la provençale.

The ordering done, I steer Keene back more than 70 years to when, as an 18-year-old, he came across a translation of The Tale of Genji in the Astor Hotel in New York. At the time, Keene was studying French and Greek literature at Columbia University, having won a scholarship to study there at the age of 16. He bought the book because, at 59 cents, the epic story, written 1,100 years ago, contained more words per dollar than any book in the store. That was how the love affair began.

“It was a time when I was extremely unhappy,” he begins, each word spooned out slowly. “Every day the newspaper reported where the Germans had gone. It was the conquest of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, half of France. And then the Battle of Britain. Every day in the newspaper was something more terrible. I was a pacifist. I couldn’t think of any way of stopping this except by using force. And yet I was opposed to using force and so it was a really awful time for me. I was involved in a terrible self-contradiction, and nothing seemed to help me to forget.”

The waiter arrives with two plates in silver covers and removes the lids simultaneously to reveal the salmon. It comes in a creamy sauce with a hint of lemon, giving it a mouth-watering piquancy.

“I took my recent purchase home, not expecting too much, and then I started to read.” He pauses for effect. “I was captivated. It was about a world where there was no warfare. It was a world where people had likes and dislikes and sometimes did unpleasant things but they were not evil.” The translation was “a thing of magic, incredibly beautiful”. The story, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting, depicts the intimate life of the Kyoto court in Heian-era Japan. Keene considers it the world’s first novel because it deals with the internal life of the characters.

The pacifist Keene enrolled in the US Navy, which had a top-notch Japanese language school. “We did not learn one thing about the Navy,” he says. “They wanted interpreters.”

It was as an interpreter that he was sent to Honolulu to read documents and to interrogate prisoners. He heard later on a radio broadcast that he was one of only 50 Americans who spoke Japanese. “I discovered there were materials that no one was touching, and the reason they were not touching them was that they gave off a bad odour,” he says. “The bad odour came from blood stains. These were diaries taken from the bodies of Japanese soldiers and gingerly I lifted one of them up.”

In those diaries, Keene discovered the pathos of Japanese soldiers, scared, often idealistic, and far from home. “I was lucky. I read diaries and interrogated prisoners with most of whom I became friends. In a few cases the friendships lasted after the war. So, in my case, there was no demonising of the Japanese.” Once, years later, when Keene was visiting China, he was taken to a museum of Japanese atrocities. “There were life-size dolls with heads on the floor and all the rest of it,” Keene recalls, his face contorting. “And, worst of all, there were troops of Chinese children being led through. I was just so heartbroken by that. They deliberately inculcated hatred. These terrible things happened, yes. But you must get on with it.”

These are sensitive matters, that still dog Asian politics. I could ask why Keene seems more troubled by Chinese propaganda than by Japanese atrocities. But I leave it and turn, instead, to his decision to become Japanese. I wonder what motivated him and whether Japan, still a closed society, has welcomed his gesture.

“In January I was very ill in a Japanese hospital and I thought I might die,” he begins, taking a mouthful of chestnut soup. “And I thought, ‘What would I do if I lived? I’d stay in Japan.’ Eventually I got better. I was very, very happy.” When the tsunami struck, killing 20,000 people and sweeping away dozens of coastal towns, he announced his decision to become Japanese. “Suddenly I was a hero.” Neighbours in the Tokyo suburb where he keeps a house had always nodded to him politely. “But now, suddenly, I’m one of them. They say, ‘Good morning,’ and ‘Take care of yourself,’ ’’ he says. “It’s been a thrilling experience.”

The fish arrives, again under silver covers. His is swamped in a creamy sauce. mine topped with tiny white fish and sea urchin. Has the Japanese government, I ask, been as responsive? Immigration officials required documentation proving his parents were married, something he is still struggling to locate. Then they needed proof that he was American. A US passport did not suffice. Finally, they requested evidence that Keene, the most famous foreign scholar in Japan, had graduated. “I said, ‘Well, I have various honorary doctorates, including from very important Japanese universities.’ ‘Oh, that doesn’t count,’ they said, ‘because honorary doctorates are given to people even without education.’” Keene confesses to being irritated.

“This fish is delicious. I hope yours is too,” he says, brightening. I want to use our remaining time to talk to Keene about the rich canon of Japanese literature. Keene has written some 25 books on Japanese history and culture, including a four-volume history of literature that has become the standard work.

We start with Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a master of haiku. “I suppose every kind of poetry has its overtones, things that are not spoken. But this is especially true of Japanese,” he says. “The most important statement in the English language is ‘I love you.’ You translate that into Japanese, there’s no ‘I’ and there’s no ‘you.’ ”

We move to Noh drama, performed since the 14th century and the subject of Keene’s last Columbia lecture. “I decided I would take my leave of the academic world with Noh, just because it’s so beautiful.” We talk about kabuki, an altogether earthier form of drama where “prostitutes and failed apprentices” can be the subject of tragedy. Many years ago he translated Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). He was enraptured and desperate to see it. “People looked at me in astonishment. They said, ‘You realise it hasn’t been performed in 230 years.’”

The dessert cart arrives, making me conscious of how little time we have and how much Japanese literature there is to get through. The waiter lists the options, each one punctuated by a groan of joy from Keene. There’s honey cake. “Oh.” And chocolate cake. “Ah.” And banana caramel mousse and compote of pear. “Oh, this is terrible.” He opts for fruit tart and is persuaded to have the pear mousse as well. I go for pear mousse and fig tart.

We turn to more modern times, though not to the crop of current writers led by Haruki Murakami for whom Keene evidently has little time. Instead, we discuss Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), considered the greatest of Japanese novelists, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, and Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), a troubled genius who ended his career by disembowelling himself in public.

“He was an extraordinary person,” says Keene, who knew Mishima well. They had met, symbolically enough, outside Tokyo’s Kabuki-za theatre in 1954, and had gone to see plays together. Keene had translated one of Mishima’s modern Noh plays.

“He died, as you know, at the age of 45, leaving at least 45 stacked volumes of novels, plays, criticism, poetry.” Mishima slit his belly after leading a failed, and farcical, coup to restore the emperor’s power but Keene thinks he committed suicide because he was passed over for the Nobel Prize. During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Mishima had written Keene a letter with the line, “I envy the athletes who know if they are first, second or third.” Keene says: “That was all he said but I knew exactly what he meant.” The irony was that Kawabata, who did win the Nobel Prize, also committed suicide because of the pressure of living up to his new reputation.

As our coffee arrives, I mention the writer Jun Takami (1907-1965), one of whose plays ends with the line, “All that is left is the wind in the pines.” Keene gives me an ecstatic look. “Yes, it’s the most marvellous end to any play. There’s nothing on the stage at all, nothing but the pine.” He shakes his head at the sadness and the beauty. “Oh, what a stroke of genius that was. I think of it now and I’ve got shivers going down my spine.”

One passage in Takami’s diaries was written in 1944 during the wartime bombing of Tokyo when he was trying to get his mother to safety in the countryside. At Ueno station “everybody is quiet, everybody’s just moving slowly and no one is trying to get ahead of anybody else,” says Keene. “And Takami thought, ‘I want to live with these people. I want to die with these people. And that is what I thought in January, when I was in hospital. ‘I want to live with these people. I want to die with these people.’”

Keene is in a kind of reverie by now, lost in the personal and literary wanderings of a lifetime. “I knew Takami Jun,” he says, using the Japanese name order. “He was a very elegant man. The last time I saw him, he was wearing a white suit and he was surrounded by about seven or eight young women. And he was smiling.” Keene’s eyes are moist. He is staring past me or through me. The restaurant is still quite empty but Keene has flooded it with the memories of people, mostly long dead. He stands to leave and is helped up the narrow stairs to the city above. Down in the basement, I am left at the empty table. There is nothing, not even the wind in the pines

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.