Literature Scholar Donald Keene Dies at 96
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In the morning of February 24, 2019, Donald Keene died of heart failure at a Tokyo hospital. He was 96. Through his extensive research and translation activities, Keene introduced Japanese literature to a wider international audience. His funeral will be held for family members only with a remembrance event to follow later. Keene’s chief mourner will be his adopted son, the samisen player Keene Seiki.
Donald Keene was born in New York in 1922. His academic excellence led him to begin his studies of literature early at Columbia University. He discovered Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji in a bookstore while still a student, sparking his interest in Japanese literature. After war broke out between Japan and the United States in 1941, he joined a US Navy Japanese language school. During the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, he read Japanese soldiers’ diaries and assisted with questioning of prisoners of war. These experiences formed the foundation for his later classic work on Japanese diaries, the 1989 Travelers of a Hundred Ages.
After World War II, he continued his research at Columbia, Harvard, and Cambridge University. In 1953, he returned to Japan to study and live in Kyoto, while coming to know literary masters like Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. During his thirties, he edited and shepherded to publication a pair of anthologies presenting classic and modern Japanese literature, respectively, to the English-speaking world. His book-length translations include works by modern writers like Mishima and Dazai Osamu and the Edo-period dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon.
From 1976 until 1997, he worked on a four-volume history of Japanese literature. He continued to write tirelessly in his seventies and eighties, producing biographies of Emperor Meiji (2001) and the poets Masaoka Shiki (2012) and Ishikawa Takuboku (2016). In 2008, he was awarded the Order of Culture by the Japanese government, and in 2012 he took Japanese citizenship and adopted his son, Seiki.
“My father passed away peacefully and without suffering,” Seiki announced. “He spent the final period happily, having chosen Japan as his country, with a Japanese family, and expressing gratitude to Japan. Devoting his life to Japanese literature and being buried in Japanese soil had been his dream for many years, and I am certain that he led the happiest of lives.”
Related article › Donald Keene: A Life in Japanese Literature
(Banner photo: Donald Keene at Kinkakuji in Kyoto on April 2, 2012. Courtesy Keene Seiki and Donald Keene Center Kashiwazaki.)