SOKA, Saitama – A mini-exhibition of photos and recordings by renowned Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene is being held in the eastern Japanese town of Soka, which developed close ties with Keene as he helped rejuvenate the region through 30 years of cultural contributions.
“Mr. Keene had a friendly and endearing personality, and was loved by many. It’s something that can be felt even through the stories of others,” said Fumiko Nagasawa, director of the Soka City Library, aged 18. 59 years old.
The exhibit on view in the third-floor hallway of the Soka City Library through March 7 includes photos of Keene smiling at events in the city, located in Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo. This is the first of several town events celebrating 100 years since Keene’s birth.
Soka and Donald Keene met through their connection to Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s major work “Oku no Hosomichi” or “The Narrow Road to Oku”, a travelogue based on the epic journey of 150 days and 2 400 kilometers from Basho in 1689 covered mostly on foot.
Soka appears as a site Basho visited on his travels, and “The Narrow Road to Oku” was among the plethora of Japanese literature Keene translated. Soka has engaged in cultural efforts to rejuvenate the region through his connection to the travelogue. In the 1980s, he began maintenance work to establish the Soka Matsubara Walking Trail known for its beautiful rows of pine trees along the Ayase River. The trail was designated an Area of National Beauty in 2014.
Keene first visited the town of Soka in 1988, when he lectured at the “International Symposium on Oku-no-Hosomichi”. Photos from that era are on display at the library exhibit, including one of Keene speaking to a crowd of 1,200 at Soka City Culture Hall. Another shows him holding a shovel as he plants a bush clover at the foot of the Hyakutai Bridge, which was named after a phrase in the opening passages of “The Narrow Road to Oku”.
Nagasawa has lived in Soka for more than 50 years and said that although the city did not hold a special place in her heart as a young child, she began to fondly consider it her “hometown” after the establishment of the footpath. “Through multiple visits and cultural contributions, Mr. Keene has also helped to enliven the city,” she said.
Keene visited Soka several times over 30 years until his last visit in May 2018. He died in February the following year. After deciding to obtain Japanese nationality, the city even created its own literature prize in 2012, the “Donald Keene Prize”. The respected scholar has gathered many fans in the city, and Yumi Maruyama, a representative of its culture and tourism section, said many locals have attended events hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
The Soka City Library exhibit also features copies of Keene’s English translation of “The Narrow Road to Oku” and the translation of “The Tale of Genji” by Arthur Waley, the mastermind. work that is said to have inspired his pursuit of Japanese literature and cultural studies.
The library has a dedicated scholar’s corner, which includes the above publications and other translations by Keene, as well as Japanese translations of his scholarly studies. Principal Nagasawa said she hopes it will provide residents with an opportunity to learn more about Keene’s accomplishments and Soka’s culture.
Meanwhile, Maruyama said, “Although Soka is just one of several places in Japan that Mr. Keene visited during his lifetime, we would like to value this connection and develop the city’s cultural activities.”
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Soka City Library is a one-minute walk from the west exit of Dokkyodaigakumae Soka-Matsubara Station.
– Planned events:
An exhibition commemorating Donald Keene’s centenary is planned for June 2022 in the “Zenso-an Hakutai no Kakaku (Hundred Year Travelers)” installation of tatami rooms that can be rented for the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and other cultural activities. The Soka City Culture Hall installation was named by Keene and uses kanji characters from a section of The Narrow Road to Oku. A handwritten “Zenso-an” sign by Keene himself hangs outside the entrance.
The city’s promotional video for the facility can be viewed at the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDIXqnHyW9g
The “Oku-no-Hosomichi Summit” will take place at Akos Hall in Soka City on July 30, 2022 and will include a special panel session celebrating Keene’s centenary and a shamisen performance by Keene’s adopted son, Seiki Keene.
(By Mainichi main writer Chinami Takeichi)