Japan’s Literary Treasures

Donald Keene: The Value of Reading Classics in Modern Translations


In a 2012 speech, literary scholar Donald Keene displayed his passion for Japanese classics like The Tale of Genji, and called for teaching in Japanese schools to shift from an excessive focus on grammar to allowing students to read the classics in easy-to-understand modern translations.

Japanese Classics Day celebrates the country’s classic literature on November 1 each year. The date was chosen in homage to an allusion to The Tale of Genji recorded in the diary of its author Murasaki Shikibu on what was the first day of the eleventh lunar month of 1008. The first Japanese Classics Day took place a millennium later, on November 1, 2008, and the memorial day was established by law in 2012.

On December 4, 2012, a special Japanese Classics Day forum was held at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo. Among the speakers was the renowned literary scholar Donald Keene (1922–2019). Keene was then 90 years old and had become a Japanese citizen in March of the same year. Sitting at a small table set up on the nō stage, he spoke in Japanese. His central topic was how important translations were in keeping the literary classics alive.

Keene’s speech left a deep impression on me. After he died, I began to think it a pity that it had never been published. I knew that he had composed his remarks beforehand and typed them out, as was his usual custom, so I asked his adopted son, Seiki Keene, to let me know if a copy ever turned up. I wanted very much to translate it into English. Earlier this year Seiki found the typescript, with Keene’s own handwritten revisions, and with his usual generosity at once sent me a copy. What follows is my translation.

“The Japanese Classics” by Donald Keene

The most important influence on my education was probably a required course I took as a college freshman. We read the Western classics in translation, from Homer’s Iliad to Goethe’s Faust, and then, under the guidance of a wonderful professor, met five times each week to talk about them. The texts included plays, philosophy, and religion, as well as an abundance of poetry. All told, it was a tremendous amount. When I try to recall that time, I wonder how I managed to read so much. But more than anything else, I am grateful. Were it not for that course, I might have spent my whole life without reading the masterpieces of Greek tragedy and comedy, as well as Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, and others.

The content of those masterpieces became a permanent part of me. That is how it is with a classic. Of course, I do not remember them all, but even now the ones that I remember best are with me when I write.

However, the classics that I read as a college freshman were all from the Western tradition. I never even considered the existence of an Asian literature. Then, in 1940, this changed completely. That was the year I stumbled upon Arthur Waley’s English translation of The Tale of Genji. Stunned by its beauty, my view of literature suddenly expanded. I was overjoyed to have discovered a truly great masterpiece.

Of course, since I read it in translation, it was not identical to the original, but I was used to reading translations of Greek literature and found them moving, so I had no misgivings. Much later I learned that there were some mistakes in the Waley translation, but I am certain that they had done nothing to mar my wonderful experience. However, I wanted to read The Tale of Genji in the original, so in the following year, 1941, I began to study Japanese with a tutor, having no idea how difficult that would be.

In December of that same year, the Pacific War began. I applied to join the US Navy Japanese Language School and studied Japanese for eleven months, but at the end of that time I was still completely ignorant of Japanese literature except for the English translation of The Tale of Genji. My craving to read Japanese literature still burned bright, however, so after the war was over, I returned to Columbia University (where I had begun my college education), and studied under Professor Tsunoda Ryūsaku. There were seven or eight members of the class, and all of us had experience in translating documents left on battlefields by the Japanese army during the war. We were very enthusiastic students, and Tsunoda-sensei was a supremely devoted teacher. He chose works that he liked from among the classics and lectured on them in every class for several hours. We learned about the classics of the Heian court and of the medieval and early modern periods. That year of study made me decide to devote my life to Japanese literature.

More than sixty-five years have passed since then. During that time, I have published books on Japanese history, theater, and modern literature, but the classics have always been the central focus of my studies and they remain so even now, when I am ninety years old. How lucky I have been to have a lifetime of reading and studying the classics. I have no complaints, except one. This is that today the Japanese themselves have become alienated from their own wonderful classic tradition. If Japanese Classics Day makes more people read the classics, it will bring me great happiness. But it will not be easy to change the current indifference.

The greatest problem is the way that Japanese literature is taught in high schools. Students exposed to the classics for the first time come to dislike them because of the way they are taught. They read only a few pages of The Tale of Genji. Moreover, rather than treating it as literature, the emphasis tends to come on grammar alone. The students learn about the emphatic particles koso and zo, or the inflected kakari-musubi forms, but nothing about the stylistic beauty, the personalities of the characters, or the interest of the plot. In other words, they end as they began, with no idea of why The Tale of Genji is regarded as a brilliant masterpiece and read in translation all over the world.

Fortunately, there are quite a few modern Japanese translations of The Tale of Genji and students who read them can enjoy it as literature. Reading in the original, of course, would be far better. No translation can equal that. However, for the high school students who are unable to appreciate the classics because they are put off by obsolete words and complicated grammar, studying The Tale of Genji is no more than a necessary part of preparation for university entrance examinations. If the students could read a modern Japanese translation and have lectures on it by their teachers, they would understand and enjoy it as literature. I understand the position of those specialists who dislike modern translations, but I am tempted to ask them: Do you yourselves read Tolstoy in Russian? Do you read Ibsen in Norwegian, or Don Quixote in Spanish? And how about the Bible in its several ancient languages?

Another problem is that there are great authors who are completely ignored in high school. I have yet to hear of a school that teaches the Bunraku puppet plays of Chikamatsu or the fiction of Saikaku. Is it because neither author figures in university entrance examinations? Is it from a desire to hide the existence of Edo period [1603–1868] pleasure quarters from innocent schoolchildren? If Hashimoto Tōru, the mayor of Osaka who reduced public funding for the National Bunraku Theater, had had the experience of studying Chikamatsu it is unlikely that he would have called Bunraku plays “boring.”

There is also a tendency to forget that theater is part of the classics too. Japanese literature is especially rich in dramatic masterpieces, but few are actually taught as literature. The acceptance of nō plays as literature is a postwar phenomenon, but Zeami himself, author of its greatest works, is yet to be recognized as a poet.

As one who loves Japanese literature, I cannot be content with the current state of affairs. Yet there is room for hope, and I do not despair. After all, Japanese literature should be the most popular subject taught in Japanese schools. If Japanese Classics Day encourages schools to set aside time for enjoying the classics in easy-to-understand texts, then I believe that all the students, teachers, and general readers who now think of the classics as no more than a bunch of old words strung together with obscure grammatical rules will discover the wonders of Japan’s classical literature.

(Originally published in English. Banner photo: Donald Keene speaks at the Japanese Classics Day Forum at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo on December 4, 2012. Courtesy the Japanese Classics Day Promotion Committee.)

literature Donald Keene The Tale of Genji