Donald Keene and Carol Gluck

It is generally not an everyday event that one comes across an individual who has attained global expert status in a field of study, not because of a desire for achievement or notoriety, but because the work itself provides so much joy he or she could not imagine doing anything else. When this happens, I make note of the facial expressions, tone of humbleness and inability to conceal excitement, and commit these to memory. When I start to look and sound like that, I’ll know I’ve found the thing I was meant to do.

Donald Keene is one of those people. It is said that there is no one else in the West who knows as much about Japanese literature as the professor, and Japanese are not convinced that there is anyone of his caliber amongst themselves, either. He ascribes finding his path to a combination of curiosity, accidental opportunities and the guidance of mentors. When asked about his close professional and personal relationships he never fails to mention, “This person was always kind to me.”

After spending many decades splitting his time between Japan and the US, where he continued to teach Japanese literature at Columbia University long after his formal retirement, Keene has decided to permanently move to Japan, convert his citizenship and spend the remainder of his life pursuing projects of his own making and on his own time. He felt that acquiring a Japanese passport was the only way he could appropriately express his gratitude to a country whose culture and literature had nourished him for so many years.

During the question and answer portion of his farewell address given at the Japan Society, some wanted to know if Keene had any thoughts on what drove the ethic of cooperation, community and resilience that has been on international display since the March 11 Tohoku earthquake. He thought that Confucian roots was a too common and insufficient answer, and that not knowing where the truth lies despite his many years of study, he graciously declined to answer. Since that element of Japanese culture is one important piece of the puzzle I am trying to put together around disposition toward sustainable lifestyles, I was disappointed that Keene didn’t have more to say, but also relieved that there is still plenty of space for us non-experts to have a crack at the nut.

In the meantime, here is wishing Professor Keene the best of luck. Though he has just given the last class of his long tenure at Columbia, I hope that this will not be the last time we hear from him.