Ever since I lived in Japan for a few years in my 20s, I have been fascinated by that country’s Living National Treasures, Ningen Kokuho. They are extraordinary craftsmen or performers honored by the government for preserving the country’s traditional arts, from swordmaking to Kabuki theater. But these artists aren’t just looking backwards or preserving the status quo. They embody a national aesthetic that values hard work for the common good and a deep spiritual respect for the act of creativity. They “insist that even the most perfect technique will fail unless it springs from deep feeling,” write Sheila Hamanaka and Ayano Ohmi in their book on the institution, In Search of the Spirit.
Recently, I had two encounters with Americans who seem to me to be national treasures of our own land, given their gentle, tenacious, courageous efforts to change the world. Here are a few thoughts on Donald Keene, and, in my next blog, on Mary Catherine Bateson.
At the kind invitation of my friend Michiko Iwahara, I heard the eminent Columbia University scholar of Japanese literature Donald Keene speak last week at the Japan Society, in what was likely his last public US talk before moving to Japan and assuming Japanese citizenship. He is a spry 89-year-old with a steeltrap memory and an endearing humility spiced by candor. He stood indefatigably at the post-talk reception, surrounded by a throng of young students. Apparently, he still works seven days a week.
Mostly, he talked informally about his life: the fortuitous accidents of befriending a Chinese student and then being invited to study Japanese; his WWII work translating blood-stained diaries saved from the bodies of Japanese soldiers; his ties to Columbia, where he studied and taught for 73 years; and his deep love of Japanese literature, which he introduced to the world. Despite his Western background, Keene never felt anything but a deep immediate connection to Japan’s literature. No “us” vs “them” sentiment colored his views, he said. He seemed to have become at one with the works that he translated or critiqued.
Two highlights of the evening for me:
Keene told of showing up for one of his first classes in Japanese studies at Columbia in the late 1930s, only to find that he was the only student. That’s okay, professor Ryusaku Tsunoda said, “One is enough.” In an age of rabid friending and following, that’s a conviction to consider. If we teach or love well, one is enough. In that classroom so long ago, who was the one who sat ready to learn? Donald Keene, who would go on to bring Japan’s literature to the world’s attention. And who was the one so willing to give his all to a single pupil? Tsunoda, the father of Japanese studies at Columbia, and a lifelong mentor to Keene.
This summer, Keene will be taking Japanese citizenship and moving permanently to Japan, a decision he made last winter while hospitalized with a serious illness. His choice comes as many foreigners are leaving Japan in the wake of the recent disasters. But the tragedies made Keene all the more determined to make the move, in part to show solidarity for Japan’s people.
At the Japan Society, Keene recalled that many Japanese people have told him that his decision has given them courage. He spoke in response to the evening’s last question, from Reuters Television correspondent and former Keene student Fred Katayama. If I can give someone courage, that’s a good thing, Keene said. His simple, remarkable words lingered in silence for a moment, before the audience stood to applaud him.
One is enough.
Next week: A talk with Mary Catherine Bateson on the gift of our longer lives.