Donald Keene: a life dedicated to Japanese literature

Celebrated academic and translator Donald Keene died of heart failure on February 24th in Tokyo. He was 96.

Keene, one of the foremost Western scholars of Japanese literature, often likened his relationship with Japan to a marriage. He even decided to become a citizen after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Deep connection with Japanese literature

Keene was born in New York in 1922. He first became interested in Japanese culture when he found an English translation of "Genji Monogatari," or "The Tale of Genji," at a bookstore in the city.

He later studied Japanese while in the US Navy and was assigned to use his language skills to call on troops in Okinawa Prefecture to surrender at the end of World War Two. After the war, he enrolled in Kyoto University to study Japanese literature and culture.

Keene performed a "kyogen" traditional Japanese comic play in 1956.

For over 50 years, Keene was professor of Japanese literature at Columbia University in New York, inspiring students with his passion.

He is also known for introducing Japanese culture to the world through his translations of classical and modern Japanese literature.

Robert Campbell is a scholar of Japanese literature and Director General of the National Institute of Japanese Literature in Tokyo. Like Keene, he was born and raised in the US.

Campbell said that when he was in his twenties, he read Keene's translation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's works. He says the translation style was like a meticulous embroidery that made him feel he could understand the lives and emotions of ordinary people in Osaka, western Japan, 400 years ago.

Campbell says Keene's lifework was a great achievement that drew on the spiritual culture of Japanese literature to introduce it to the world.

Friendship with Japanese writers

Keene personally knew a number of great Japanese writers, including Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima and Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

He also admired haiku poet Matsuo Basho for expressing the world in just 17 Japanese characters.

Keene is known for advising the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2008, he was awarded Japan's Order of Culture, the country's highest cultural recognition.

After the disaster

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan led Keene to an unexpected decision. He said it made him want to show that he loved the country, so he became a citizen and relocated there in a show of solidarity.

At the time he said, "I'm happy. I've been waiting for today." He also said he believed the region would undergo a miraculous recovery, just as Tokyo did after the war.

Keiichi Noe, professor emeritus at Tohoku University, was a long-time friend of Keene. Noe says Keene was seriously worried about the situation in coastal areas struck by the disaster. He says he believes Keene decided to live in Japan to encourage people overwhelmed by the catastrophe.

Keene continued to work into old age, but, according to his agent, he had been in and out of hospital since last fall.

On Keene's death, his adopted son Seiki released a statement: "My father came to a peaceful end without pain. It was a happy moment for him after he had chosen to be Japanese, had a Japanese family and showed his appreciation of the country. I am sure he lived a happy life dedicated to Japanese literature."