Donald Keene, a Columbia University professor who found solace and beauty in Japanese literature, then helped introduce its long-overlooked canon to Western readers, died Feb. 24 at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia, which was dedicated in his honor in 1986. The cause was heart failure, according to the Reuters news service and Jiji Press, a Japanese news service.
Perhaps more than any other scholar, Dr. Keene helped bring Japanese literature to prominence in the West, where few knew its major works — and even fewer spoke its language — when he began his career as a translator in the early 1950s.
Through dozens of translations, scholarly texts and collections such as “Anthology of Japanese Literature” (1955) and “Modern Japanese Literature” (1956), Dr. Keene offered English-language readers a sweeping selection of Japanese poetry and prose, and helped spur the development of Japanese studies as a robust academic field in the United States.
Like few outsiders, he also became a cultural icon in Japan, where he lived for his final years and befriended many of the writers he translated and studied. Documentaries were made about his life, a museum in Kashiwazaki was dedicated to his career, and in 2008 he became one of the only non-Japanese recipients of the Order of Culture. When he delivered his final lecture at Columbia in 2011, a dozen Japanese television crews captured the event from inside his classroom.
“Just think,” he told his students, “if you ask a question, you’ll be seen by a million Japanese.”
For many Japanese, Dr. Keene’s translations and scholarship served as a kind of literary balm, helping to heal a shaken nation in the aftermath of World War II.
“He gave us Japanese confidence in the significance of our literature,” novelist Takashi Tsuji told the New York Times in 2012. And with an intellectual style that seemed to emphasize intuition over cold, hyper-rational analysis, the Brooklyn-born Dr. Keene seemed to be “a Japanese in his feelings,” Tsuji said.
Dr. Keene was an undergraduate at Columbia when, in 1940, he picked up a two-volume translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” at a bookshop near Times Square. The 11th-century classic is generally considered the world’s first novel, but Dr. Keene said he was drawn less by its historical significance or palace-intrigue plot than by its 49-cent price.
Amid grim headlines about World War II and a troubled life at home (his parents divorced; his younger sister died at a young age), the book became a refuge.
“I realized how there was another world possible,” he told Reuters in 2011. “The contrast between my daily world, which was horror, and their world, in which they made everything they touched beautiful, talking poetry.”
“I felt like a barbarian,” he added, “but a grateful barbarian.”
Dr. Keene honed his language skills while serving as a Navy interpreter, interrogating Japanese prisoners of war and translating sailors’ diaries. As a scholar, he went on to translate works including the 1,000-year-old “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and Yoshida Kenko’s “Essays in Idleness”; musical dramas known as Noh and narrative music dubbed joruri; and the poetry of Matsuo Basho, whose 17-syllable haiku were models of brevity, precision and careful attention to the natural world.
He also wrote about Japanese diary literature, traced the influence of European thought on Japanese intellectuals, and chronicled the lives of 15th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa and modern poet Takuboku Ishikawa. In his most ambitious scholarly project, he spent nearly two decades crafting a multivolume history of Japanese literature, encompassing “World Within Walls” (1976), “Dawn to the West” (1984) — itself a multi-part work that spanned 2,000 pages — and “Seeds in the Heart” (1993).
Dr. Keene translated contemporary works by novelists such as his friend Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize for literature.
In addition to his friendships with writers such as Kobo Abe, with whom he often celebrated New Year’s Eve in the 1980s, Dr. Keene maintained a colorful social life in the West, escorting Greta Garbo to a matinee of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” sharing a beer with philosopher Bertrand Russell, and chatting with poet W.H. Auden and choreographer George Balanchine over cocktails in New York City.
Yet he often played down such gatherings and friendships, insisting that he was devoted to his scholarship above all else. In a 1994 memoir, “On Familiar Terms,” he wrote that when his first book found few readers and his lectures drew even fewer listeners, he turned toward lines from Basho. “In the end,” the poet had written, “incapable and untalented” though he might be, he was “bound to this one course for life.”
On the last day of his final class at Columbia, he concluded his lecture by quoting lines from another writer, Kanami: “All that is left is the wind in the pines.”
Donald Lawrence Keene was born in New York City on June 18, 1922. He rarely discussed his childhood — his father was a traveling salesman — and wrote that his eagerness to study East Asian languages “largely stemmed from an imprecise desire to flee as far as I could from my house and, if possible, from myself.”
Dr. Keene entered Columbia University at 16 and initially studied French and Greek. His linguistic interests broadened after a stranger invited him out for dinner, saying he had noticed Dr. Keene dining each day at a Chinese restaurant near campus.
“He was going to spend that summer of 1941 studying Japanese,” Dr. Keene said, “and he thought that unless he had several other people to study with him, he probably wouldn’t work very hard.”
After graduating in 1942 and serving in the Navy, Dr. Keene returned to Columbia, where he received a master’s degree in Japanese in 1947 and a doctorate in 1951. He also spent five years as a student and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, where be befriended Arthur Waley, whose translation of “Genji” had stoked his interest in Japanese literature.
While Waley boasted of having never set foot in East Asia, Dr. Keene secured a Ford Foundation fellowship that enabled him to study for two years in Kyoto, where he lived in a cottage with traditional tatami-mat floors and taught himself to write while seated in the “seiza” position, legs folded under his thighs.
He had previously known the works of just one living Japanese novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki, but soon began meeting with writers — because, he told the New York Times, “I was a freak who spoke Japanese and could talk about literature.”
Dr. Keene became a professor at Columbia in 1955 and was named professor emeritus in 1992. His later works included a 2002 biography of Emperor Meiji, “Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912,” which Harvard historian Akira Iriye described in a Washington Post review as “a monument to cosmopolitan scholarship: judicious, balanced, authoritative.”
For decades, Dr. Keene split his time between Manhattan and Tokyo. But after the deadly 2011 earthquake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, he decided to settle in Japan permanently, as a sign of gratitude to his adopted country. He traded his U.S. citizenship for Japanese, and at age 90 announced that he had adopted his friend Seiki Uehara, a 62-year-old samisen musician, as his son.
He leaves no other immediate survivors.
“I suppose every kind of poetry has its overtones, things that are not spoken,” Dr. Keene told Slate in 2011, recalling some of the challenges he faced as a translator. “But this is especially true of Japanese. The most important statement in the English language is ‘I love you.’ You translate that into Japanese, there’s no ‘I’ and there’s no ‘you.’ ”