American scholar and translator Keene traces his lifelong fascination with Japanese literature.
Covering some of the same ground as a previous memoir (On Familiar Terms, 1994), the author points to his college years at Columbia—which he entered as a 16-year-old scholarship student in 1938—as the beginning of his attachment to Asian culture. A Chinese classmate taught him to read and write some Chinese characters. When he discovered The Tale of Genji (in translation) in 1940, it showed him there was more to Japan than the militaristic nation occupying China. The “distant and beautiful world” invoked in Genji also provided refuge from the war Keene hated even though he knew it was unavoidable. He began to study Japanese, then after Pearl Harbor was attacked, he got further training at the Navy Japanese Language School in San Francisco. For the rest of the war, he translated captured Japanese documents and interpreted for prisoners in the Pacific. A brief visit to Tokyo was the last he saw of Japan for eight years, during which he pursued graduate studies at Columbia, Harvard and Cambridge, where he met Genji translator Arthur Waley. A fellowship in 1953 took Keene to Kyoto, where he began writing reviews for Japanese journals and became engaged in the debate between modern and traditional forms of Japanese literature. Putting together his seminal Anthology of Japanese Literature (1955) brought him into contact with a wealth of bunjin (men of letters), including Yukio Mishima, Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzabura Oe and Kobo Abe. It was the launch of a long, fruitful career bringing important works of Japanese literature to readers of English, still going strong when Modern Japanese Diaries was published in 1995. Keene’s observations on Japanese culture and society will be enlightening for Western readers. Humorous sketches by Akira Yamaguchi and evocative period photos provide a visual counterpoint to his elegantly dry text.
Unique reflections capture a half-century of momentous transformation.