About Prof. Donald Keene 

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.



From the Tale of Genji

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?

Prof. Keene:

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.




32 thoughts on “About Prof. Donald Keene 

  1. Thanks if books for introducing for us such people who are really have a point of view in literature cause the literature is like a sea and I have a passion in it, generally the literally works introduced for us the sophisticated society of the country that belongs to and their view for humanity and the traditional habits for their people and their view for humanity it’s something amazing to revive a kind of literature that people not interested in it any more
    God bless you Prof and again thank you for this interesting interview


    • Many many thanks, Dado. I promise I’ll bring your passion for literature to him. 😉 BTW will you read this article below?
      If Japanese education systems are getting worse(of course I don’t think so), students have a chance to get many perceptions from students of other countries like you. 🙂 Ghaythaa and I would like IF site to be a worldwide community!


      • Hi Dado and ifbooks. I allowed myself to join to your discussion 🙂 This article about Humanities and Social Science is very interesting. I’d like to add that mentioned problems in article are discussed currently by whole world even in my country
        Speaking very briefly it’s a clash of two ideas (models). Many of people speaking that nowadays universities makes a lot of young people who are not utilitarian for economy. They claim that universities should makes only people who are needed for particular country’s economic current needs (Bussines model of university) But other people says that the scholar ‘s environment should be independet from any ideological, economic, political or religious influences (Humboldtian model of universit) beacuse universities are “hotbed of ideas” and maybe nowadays some ideas looks not useable but in the future, these ideas can change the world


  2. thanks Mami for the great interview, I think it take a lot of courage to adapt a new culture and melt in a strange society .. Prof. Donald Keene I believe what he has done worth the while and I totally agree that ‘Knowing’ is different from ‘Understanding’ .. as you may know a lot of things only by reading a few references , but to Understand something it may take a lifetime 🙂

    I also got a little curious about “Kokuseiya gassen,” and “Sonezaki shinjyu,” 🙂


  3. Hi,Mami. I have appreciated your interview with Prof. Keene. I am studying English literature, so I understand the more
    what he says. As he says, the sensibility is very important for understanding literature. Where doe the sensiblity come from? It is born with the birth of the physical being, it is true, but is brought up with the reading of good works of literature.It does not matter whether people read English literature or not. Those people who understand Japanese literature can understand English literature, though the language barrier is sometimes a problem. What does matter is the human heart, not the particular languages. I wish our human heart would overcome every kind of difference between peoples.


    • Thank you so much for your comment, Akio. I really enjoyed talking with two Keenes. They are so smart and heartwarmed persons. When Prof. Keene talked about his favorite books and friends like E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, or Mishima Yukio, I felt them as if they were alive.
      As Prof. Matsuzawa says below, our imagination can work freely when we should understand something especially ourselves. And I can say literature always require our imagination. 🙂


    • hi Akio 🙂 as you said once what makes any story universal is ” our feelings ” that we all experience in certain situations .. literature is just an imitation and the rest comes from us 😉 . Maybe our nationality or the environment that we raised in .. someway affects our perception and that is a good thing , because this add colors to each one story of the story 🙂 like what happened in oral heritage and the same goes for understanding other cultures .
      we are equal but we are not the same and that what makes this life beautiful , thanks Akio


  4. A wonderful interview… and a fascinating theme. I have often thought that the verb “wakaru” (understanding, knowing, recognizing, acknowledging) in Japanese is very telling of Japanese culture in general. WAKATTA can mean “I hear you (but I don’t like what you are saying and may not do what you want…)” but it can also mean “I get it (true understanding).” So much depends upon tone of voice, and context. The truly great translators, like Prof. Keene, really “get it” and are able to get readers to understand, too.


    • Thank you so much for your comment, Ms. Andoh! I could understand well Japanese word “wakaru” thanks to your explanation. “Wakaru” has both easy and difficult meaning but I like to think this word. There are so many “what I see” around ourselves but it is difficult to understand them truly. Will you please check out Prof. Matsuzawa’s comment below.


    • in every language we met with words such ” Wakaru ” which is just a picture and it can’t be understood till we add an actual human expression to it . then not only the word in its context is important to understand it , the word revolves in our mind takes part of us , of our feelings as well and then comes out as different , new thing .. all these elements are important and affect the meaning of this image and combined figures called words 🙂


  5. Interesting interview with interesting person. I’d like to read more answer about others questions because his response are very deep and giving to thinking. Prof. Knee’s books are also popular in my country. For example one of university press in my city Krakow published this book:

    *in the upper right corner you can find switch for english version describe


    • Hi, Slawek! The tale of Genji is a very old and long story about a handsome hero like you 😉 Try and read it!


  6. Thank you so much for your comments.
    Yesterday we’ve got a comment from Prof. Matsuzawa, who is an expert of primatology.
    (You can see him and his partner, Ai on this latest video!)

    He also enjoyed reading this post.
    About “わかる(wakaru)” he says

    1. what you see 
    2. what you recognize
    3. Imagination
    4. what you understand

    1. みればわかる>>ヒトでも、チンパンジーでも、ニホンザルでも、
    “What you see” is possible for human being, chimpanzees, Japanese monkeys.
    2. みてそれだとわかる>>>過去の経験や知識をもってみる
    “What you recognize” needs to have knowledge and experiences of the past.
    3. 想像する力
    Only human being has “Imagination.”
    4. 相手のことを深く理解する
    “What you understand” means you can understand others deeply with your imagination.

    It’s Prof. Matsuzawa’s answer. How about his idea?


    • 🙂 it’s great to hear that Ai was found to be in perfect health 🙂 and It’s Amazing experiences to watching how close relations are between Ai and Prof. Matsuzawa, full of mutual trust….
      The most warm greeting for both 🙂
      PS. Thank you Professor for your work of your life. You do great things. I can’t stop regretting that I missed your lecture in Krakow…. I’m angry for myself beacuse your lecture was approx.10 min. on foot from my house….


    • I can agree with Prof. Matsuzawa’s thoughts …. people understand things differently because their thoughts and imaginations about it are very different .. thank you


  7. Interesting interview as usual 🙂 thank you 🙂
    Language is not a barrier at all, the proof is with music, dance, emotions, you can feel that another human being is enjoying, annoyed, critical… by facial expressions as well!
    The way that Prof. Keene puts the difference between seeing things and understanding them is very precise, and I love the fact that Prof. Keene was able to revive the Bunraku script, a person who is enthusiastic about what they love to do spread that infectious enthusiasm to others as well , and I add to Nora’s comment, the pictures are very warm and cozy 🙂


  8. Hi,Ghaythaa, thank you for your response to my comment. It must be presupposed that we human beings have the same heart, whatever nationalities we are. The manners and customes, the language and the beliefs are different among the nations, but the heart is the same, if I repeat what I said. The world is One in that sense. Reading literary works makes me blieve theat truth. Thank you.


    • Hi Akio and Ghaythaa 🙂 I just only want add to your very intresting discussion that all of us are the same in the biological sense, all of us have the same mechanisms of perception and similar psychological instantiation but all of us have different experiences… So all of us can communicate each other (only if we want), all of us can understand each other and in the same time each of us can tell different story of life… and it is a beautiful 😉


  9. Mami 🙂 you are our messenger of love , thanks for connecting us with Prof. Keene 🙂 also with Prof. Matsuzawa ❤ ❤
    it's not easy to decide and precisely define how to understand other cultures and their literary tradition as you see what you see from outside and need a lot of time and efforts also a lot of reading and communication with the people of this culture and after all you may find difficulty in get everything probably . for example when we translating literary works from language to another , in some cases we face a lot of difficulties to convey the same meaning of the author's word and choose an equivalent of it in the targeted language . However , it isn't necessary to try understanding literature as "a native " … from outside you may understand some indications and details by your own way affected by your own culture , at the same way , you will start to KNOW about this culture and that in itself a great thing literature provide .
    I'm sure that ideas ( and literature is all about ideas ) is what all reach at the end and that what makes literary works and heritage of cultures of great importance and value , ideas isn't limited to native or foreign readers and this is where you don't need any instructions to be followed to understand .. as Prof. Keene said "you can appreciate them with your sensibility. It is the merit of literature "
    thanks Prof. Keene , I appreciate your simplicity & kindness and introducing us to the art of Bunraku as well 🙂
    as for your photos ❤ I'm sure IF representative makes you smile a lot 🙂 🙂 :*


    • Thank you for your warm comment, Ghaythaa. Professor Keene enjoys reading our site.
      This weekend he and his son, Seiki will escape from terrible humid Tokyo to stay at Karuizawa, cool & quiet resort, for a whole month(so I went to see them the day before yesterday…).


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