Yokohama Exhibit Highlights Donald Keene’s Passion for Learning and Teaching Japanese Culture

Visitors look at photos and archives of Donald Keene at the Kanagawa Modern Literature Museum in Yokohama on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

YOKOHAMA — An exhibition on the life of Donald Keene, who transmitted his love and fascination for Japanese culture to the world and even to the Japanese people themselves, has opened in this port city south of Tokyo.

The “Donald Keene 100th Anniversary Exhibit – A Continuing Pursuit of Japanese Culture,” at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature, traces the late American-born scholar’s life (1922-2019) and his contributions to Japan through scholarly works and translations.

A photo of Donald Keene as “Tarokaja” during a kyogen performance is seen during an exhibition at the Kanagawa Modern Literature Museum in Yokohama on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

The first section features material from his early encounters with Japanese literature and people, such as a volume of “The Tale of Genji” translated by Arthur Waley, and photos taken while in the U.S. Navy as a language officer, translating documents and interrogating Japanese prisoners.

The exhibition then retraces his long years of research devoted to understanding the history of Japanese culture as a whole and in various fields, including Kabuki, Noh and traditional Bunraku theater in addition to literature. The rich collection of photos, letters and other documents from his years in Kyoto from 1953 show Keene not just as a scholar confined to his study, but as someone who ventured to interact with people and to absorb Japanese culture at first hand.

Keene enthusiastically took part in traditional “kyogen” comedy acting classes after attending a kyogen performance at Kasugataisha Shrine in Nara. A photo from 1956 shows Keene playing the role of “Tarokaja” in a kyogen performance attended by renowned authors Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata. A newspaper article presenting the young American as a “blue-eyed Tarokaja” is also exposed. There are also sections devoted to Keene’s friendships with the Japanese writers mentioned above, and more.

At a May 27 ceremony before the exhibit opened, Keene’s adopted son, Seiki Keene, said he wanted visitors to enjoy a corner featuring around 20 Donald Keene students. They considered him a great mentor and friend, and some of them pursued careers in Japanese studies themselves.

A photo of Donald Keene attending an event as part of the shrine-moving ritual “Shikinen Sengu” in Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture is displayed at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

During the ceremony, Peter Jaeger, who studied with Keene at Columbia University in 1980-1981, shared memories of the class, where students translated classic Japanese works into English. The professor said to the students with a wry smile, “Very good, you have done an excellent job of researching the translation of Arthur Waley”, when he saw through their attempts to introduce the translations of old Japanese in theirs. It was apparently his way of encouraging students to try to figure out ambiguous passages on their own, instead of reading what another scholar had written.

“Through the exhibit, I want visitors to experience my father not just as a scholar, but as a teacher,” Seiki said.

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The exhibition “Donald Keene’s 100th Anniversary Exhibition – A Lifelong Pursuit of Japanese Culture” will continue until July 24 at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama. The museum is a 10-minute walk from Motomachi-Chukagai Station on the Minatomirai Line. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with admission until 4:30 p.m. Admission is 700 yen for adults, 100 yen for high school students, and free for middle school and younger students.

Explanations are provided in English and Japanese for the displayed items.

More information can be found on the museum’s official website at (in Japanese).

(By Mainichi main writer Chinami Takeichi)

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