About Prof. Donald Keene
By Mami Kanaya
Co-founder of IFbooks 4.7.2016
Mr. Donald Keene is a professor emeritus at New York’s Columbia University and a famed scholar of Japanese literature. Born in 1922 in New York, he fell in love with a book “the Tale of Genji”, published about 1000 year ago, at his age of 18. Since then he has written numerous books on Japanese literature, history and culture. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake (and the Fukushima nuclear accident) in 2011, Prof. Keene moved to Japan for a permanent residence and became a Japanese citizen in 2012, when he was at the age of 90.
Last month I enjoyed talking with him and his adopted son, Seiki Keene. Seiki is a shamisen (string instrument) player of Bunraku, Japanese traditional puppetry, and his father is an expert of Bunraku as Japanese literature. Their warm-hearted personalities made me comfortable and sometimes laugh. I asked Prof. Keene some questions from Japanese high school teachers. I’d like to share one of them and his answer with you!
It is sometimes said that we can’t wholly understand foreign literature and cultures from outside (or if we stay only in our own country). What do you think of it?
I think “わかる(Understanding)” is important and difficult. For example, it is easy for you to “わかる(recognize)” a cat when you see it. But it is difficult to “わかる(understand)” a complex thing. Suppose that two men are standing in front of you and you “わかる(know)” they are brothers, but you don’t “わかる(understand)” them(their personalities) easily.
Our abilities of understanding are not related with our nationality. Some people can speak a foreign language well. It is because they have a good ear so they can pronounce the language better than other people do. On the other hand, the understanding of literature depends on the sensibility of an individual.
When I was teaching Japanese literature in Cambridge University, I wrote my doctoral thesis about “Kokuseiya gassen,” a Bunraku script written by Chikamatsu. I had not seen this performance with my eyes by then, but I was moved by its story.
“Sonezaki shinjyu,” another Bunraku script, had not been played for 200 years before it was translated by me. At that time Japanese experts said it was such a bookish and boring story. My appreciation of the Bunraku script was the reason why this performance revived.
You must cross the language barrier to understand foreign literary works in some way or other, it is true, but what is important is to read them without the preconception. If you are attracted by them, you can appreciate them with your sensibility. It is the merit of literature. It is the same of the Japanese who read English literature. They can understand some of the works with their sensibility.
As for poems, for example, poets have certainly something common in thinking and feeling, though they have different nationalities and the way of writing. Some literary works are easy to understand, if they are approached from that common thinking and feeling.
Thank you so much, Prof. Keene and Seiki.