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Admiring Japan Through the Eyes of Professor Donald Keene

Professor Keene received a bouquet of flowers from the students in his last class.
The students will make a donation of books he recommends
to the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but for the longest time, I really had no idea who Professor Donald Keene was until I applied for a job at the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University; I just knew he was “some famous translator guy.”  Little did I know how or why Professor Keene was so famous in the Japanese Studies field.

I found out that Professor Keene first became interested in Japan as a young boy when he picked up a translated version of Genji Monogatari in a used book store.  He was so intrigued by this work that he went on to college and then became a Japanese language interpreter for the U.S. Navy during World War II. During this time, he befriended many Japanese and eventually fell in love with Japan.

Professor Keene’s students listen intently to his last lecture.

Professor Keene went on to obtain his master’s degree and Ph.D. and began teaching at Columbia University in 1955.  For over five decades, Professor Keene taught a variety of classes focusing on Japanese literature and the Japanese performing arts.

At the Keene Center, I perform a variety of administrative duties.  And although it is not part of my official job description,  I am happy to assist Professor Keene with his “fan mail,” handle lecture or event requests, comb his hair so he doesn’t look like the “nutty professor,” straighten his tie before important events, and look out for his best interests.

Professor Keene’s very last class at Columbia was held on April 26th with a group of 11 students. It was covered by over 35 members of the press, including all of the major Japanese TV stations, newspapers, and the New York Times.  As usual, I whispered to him, “Pssst! Professor Keene! Do you have a comb?” He handed over his comb and I combed his fluffy hair one last time. He smiled and said nervously, “Do I look ok?”

The topic of the last class was about the Noh theater. Professor Keene  eloquently explained the history and beauty of Noh plays. He explained that the “plays have high literary value, but are generally considered by scholars of Noh as a combination of music and dance rather than as literary works.” He also made comparisons to the Greek theater and educated us on the background of the Noh theater actors.  The Japanese vocabulary rolled off of his tongue as easily as the English. As Professor Keene was describing the Noh theater building, the importance of the pillars, and where to get the best seats, I felt as if I were inside of the Noh theater. Professor Keene’s voice had so much enthusiasm as he depicted everything in so much detail. I could sense his strong appreciation for each and every aspect of Noh plays, and moreover, admiration for the Japanese people and Japanese culture.

Professor Keene says that one of his greatest joys in life is teaching.

Professor Keene’s last class ended with a loud round of applause. His students left with the satisfaction that they had officially completed Professor Keene’s course. The rest of us left with mixed feelings, as Professor Keene would no longer be teaching, yet he would have the freedom to truly enjoy his retirement.

I have never met a man who is more passionate about Japan than Professor Keene. Earlier this year, Professor Keene spent some time thinking about his future and what he would like to do with his life upon complete retirement from teaching. He decided that he wanted to move to Japan permanently and become a Japanese citizen, as he feels it’s a “way to give back to the Japanese.” Due to the recent tragedies in Japan, many Japanese citizens are finding great courage from Professor Keene’s willingness to become Japanese.
Professor Keene: Thank you for showing us that, from the unknown, a new perspective can be born. During wartime, friendships can be cultivated. Amidst multiple tragedies, hope can be found. Thank you for being such an inspiration to us all.

——— by Kia Samaniego, Assistant Director,
Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University


Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture
at Columbia University
507 Kent Hall, MC 3920, New York, NY 10027
TEL: 212-854-5036