Skip to Main Content

Remembering Professor Donald Keene (1922-2019): Tributes

Tributes to Professor Keene

Kawaji Yuka

Born in Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, Kawaji Yuka completed her doctorate in Japanese literature at Hitotsubashi University. She is a Japanese language educator and researcher, as well as a poet and member of the Association of Contemporary Tanka Poets. Dr. Kawaji co-authored Donarudo Kīn: Watashi no Nihongo shugyō (Donald Keene: My Japanese Language Training) with the subject of the work. Her other works include Nihongo kyōiku to sensō (Japanese Language Education and War) and the tanka collection Mahō gakkō (Magic School). She is the editor of Kotoba to mozi (Words and Letters) journal.


“Donald Keene-sensei: on Kanji and Romanization


Dr. Yuka Kawaji explains that the material in this series of articles in “Words & Letters,” comes from content that did not make it into the book that she co-wrote with Donald Keene, entitled Donald Keene: My Japanese Training (ドナルドキーン私の日本語修行). In this article, she focuses on Keene-sensei’s views on kanji, romanization, and literary words. Keene insisted that kanji should be taught from the beginning of a course of study in Japanese, and he said that kanji was what initially attracted him to the language. Romanization, on the other hand, gave him particular sensitivity to the use of vowel sounds when translating poetry. Keene is said to have told his students that literary language is unique in that—like Murasaki Shikibu’s the Tale of Genji—it can last thousands of years in a living form.


“The Modern Japanese Literature that Donald Keene Studied at the University of Hawaii during the US-Japan Conflict of WWII: Keene’s Essay on Kan Kikuchi’s novel “Winning and Losing” and his Teacher Yukuo Uyehara”


In this article, Dr. Kawaji closely examines an essay that Donald Keene wrote about Kan Kikuchi’s novel Winning and Losing in relation to the comments his then teacher Yukuo Uyehara wrote in the margins. Kawaji reflects on the contradiction in US policy at the time that forced Japanese-American teachers like Uyehara to cease instruction of children in the Japanese- American community in their own native language, while at the same time supporting a generation of non-Japanese military students to master the language. This period of conflict eventually gave rise after the war to the first generation of Japan scholars, who, like Keene, went on to build the field of Japan Studies at institutions of higher learning in the US.


“Tan Horikawa’s The Third Symphony (1953) and Donald Keene: Overcoming Conflict in Communication between a Former US Naval Interrogator and Former Prisoner”


This article draws upon primary source materials to trace the relationship that formed between Donald Keene and Tan Horikawa, beginning from their first encounter when Donald Keene was serving as a US Naval Interrogator and Horikawa was a Japanese Prisoner of War. Horikawa’s 1953 novel “The Third Symphony” was based on this experience. The two continued to communicate after the war and built a lasting friendship over time.


Remembering Donald Keene


Victoria Lyon Bestor, Former Executive Director of NCC




I first encountered Donald Keene in a high school elective on East Asian Literature in Translation in 1968.  His early anthologies of Japanese literature published by Grove Press (1955 and 56)  and the Japanese Discovery of Europe (1952/69) were the things that got me hooked, along with Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji, which also enticed the young Donald, when he was about the same age.


It was almost two decades later that I met Donald Keene when I was hired as associate director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture (DKC) shortly after its founding at Columbia University.  During my seven years at the DKC, I was fortunate to work with Donald Keene and many of his devoted students, Donald’s true children.


Donald Keene’s modesty was such that he seemed almost embarrassed to have a center name after him.  Fortunately, other colleagues saw the enormous potential of anchoring a center of Japanese culture and humanities around Donald Keene.  They and other Columbia faculty with long shadows and big footprints in Japan performed the arduous Nemawashi 根回し that is required to launch a new center, shepherd the process through a major university’s bureaucracy, identify and cultivate donors, and finally clinch the deal in a face-to-face meeting with the principal donor or corporate decision-maker.


All the while Donald was there quietly waiting to pay a cordial visit to Sen Soshitsu XV of Urasenke, or the head of the Shincho publishing empire, or a Japanese CEO to endow a program at the Donald Keene Center.   He asked his friend Takemitsu Toru to speak, and had a taidan with his close friend Shiba Ryotaro, among many others.  He was responsible for bringing the Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for Japanese Literature to the DKC.


Always a reserved person, Donald Keene was at once quiet, centered, discreet, and kind, even when faced with truly difficult colleagues.  Both in Japan and in his native New York City, Donald Keene was a close friend of many distinguished writers, publishers, literati and celebrities.  Often leading writers or editors sought Donald out for advice before going to Japan.  A few times I sat in to help with logistics when he spoke to luminary travelers.  His advice to them for Japan was to always be discreet, not to emphasize their politics or personality assertively, to rest assured that Japan was a country that knew and valued intellectual and cultural leaders like themselves, and that the Japanese would show their deep respect with the finest of hospitality.


I was not yet involved in NCC in 1991 when it was founded, but I was two floors above in Kent Hall in the DKC offices when it happened.  In 2012 when NCC held its Global Access to Japan Summit at the 14th Toshokan Sogoten in Yokohama it was a great pleasure to help organize the taidan with Donald Keene and Amy Heinrich  to hear once again as he spoke of his great fondness for librarians and support of libraries, and to once again witness the great sensei in a loving exchange with one of his treasured students.


Memories of Donald Keene


Amy Heinrich, first Chair of NCC




Donald Keene encouraged me as I studied Japanese literature from the day I first met him, in the spring of 1973.  As I was about to enter graduate school in Japanese literature, I was worried that I had nearly no background as an undergraduate.  He asked me what I had majored in, and I said English literature.  He told me that it was easier to learn how to make critical judgements in the literature of one’s native language, and then said, “Can you imagine?  I’ve had students who had never read Dickens?”  Since I had by then read nearly all of Dickens, I was deeply encouraged.  His encouragement continued all through my graduate education and for the seven years I taught Japanese literature here and there in the New York City area.  I gradually realized I was not eager to find a permanent teaching position; I did not see teaching as my life’s work.


When I discovered the prospect of a job in the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, it seemed like an excellent way to use my education in a profession I hoped would be more comfortable.  But I was afraid of disappointing my beloved teacher by not taking the usual academic route.  I wrote to him that I had decided to work in the library.  He wrote back, “I think I was meant to be a librarian.”  His encouragement continued.


I always knew Donald Keene loved libraries, especially Columbia University’s East Asian Library.  The last essay in his 1971 book Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciation of Japanese Culture, entitled “Confessions of a Specialist,” describe him standing in the library stacks in front of Japanese books and despairing about his ability to read any of them.  Then he thought, “If I shut my eyes and took a book down from the shelf, I could be almost certain that nobody in the history of the West would have ever read it before.”  He tried the experiment, found that he could read the book he chanced upon, and “[s]uddenly a powerful desire to read all those silent, dusty books swept over [him].”


It wasn’t until I became a librarian, however, that I learned how much he constantly gave to the library he loved.  Because of his fame, many writers in Japan sent him their newly published books.  He kept those he wanted, and packed up all the others in cartons, carried them to the post office, and mailed them off to the library.  In addition to books, he donated valuable letters from major twentieth-century writers.  And he donated money, each semester, for additional Japanese books.  As far as I know, he never mentioned this to people outside the library.  He helped assure the acquisition of the extremely valuable Makino Mamoru Collection on the History of East Asian Film by a substantial seed donation that led to the Library receiving sufficient additional funding to purchase it.


The taidan he and I did together at the 14th Toshokan Sogoten on Cool Japan and Access to Japanese Resources was the last thing I personally asked him to do for libraries, but he certainly did not stop giving.  His devotion to the library was equal to the devotion he felt for his students.  I was unbelievably fortunate to have been on the receiving end of both.




In Memoriam: Prof. Donald Keene (June 18, 1922 – February 24, 2019)


Sachie Noguchi, NCC chair 2001-2003





 I started to work for the C.V. Starr East Asian Library on June 21, 2004, and first met Prof. Donald Keene in January 2005 when he returned from Japan to spend the Spring term in New York.


As a library user, Prof. Keene was never a demanding nor a difficult one. I can remember only one special arrangement the library made for him; it was to place a 25-volume set of Kodansha version of a [Masaoka] ​Shiki zenshū on a book truck for him, and, when he needed it, a library staff member would pull out the book truck and bring it to the table where he was working in the library. This is because he was so modest and gave up occupying his own office on campus; therefore, there was no place for him to put many and/or a large set of books.


Another special arrangement I made for Prof. Keene was for his donations of library materials. Before I met him in person, I knew the library received a number of his donations a couple of times a year. So, my first arrangement I made for him was to ask our major vendor, JPT, to go to his apartment to get his donations and ship them to the library. To pay the shipping costs and a service charge, I got a special account number paying for shipment from the university libraries administration. When these arrangements were made, my then-supervisor, Amy Heinrich, chuckled and informed me that this was the first time the university library would ever pay the shipping cost for his donations. In the past, Prof. Keene himself not only collected these items, but also packed them into a number of parcels and carried them from his apartment to the post office for shipment and paid the postage himself. I assume only the few who truly love the library and library materials would take on such painstaking tasks.


When I looked into the contents of parcels, which we received from him, there were books, some of them published outside of regular book market and a few private publications (私 家版), issues of journals, including major research-oriented ones, as well as relatively minor ones such as publisher’s monthly publications for their advertisement, even pamphlets, ephemera, posters, etc., anything that might be useful and serve for research. When I looked at these materials, it reminded me of the RLG Conspectus, and these items could be collected at level 5 of the scale ​(on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 as "comprehensive")​.


Later, I realized he collected and donated these items which were not necessarily within the scope of his or his students research interests. Regardless of his personal interest, he collected and donated them to the library for the Columbia community and beyond. Such a stance explained why he provided the initial financial assistance for acquiring substantial library resources, such as the Makino Mamoru Collection ​on the History of East Asian Film, 1863-2015. It was because he knew their value, although they were not within his own ​research interests. He was genuinely interested in the cultural and intellectual heritage and activities of humankind. In addition to library materials, Prof. Keene regularly sent us a check for the gift fund for Japanese materials. This gift fund helped the library enhance its holdings of premodern special materials. With this gift fund, Japanese antiquarian books such as a couple of Kibyōshi sets, Fuji taiko,​ Sagabon Kōetsu Utaibon tokusōbon (libretto on individually mica decorated pages), and Hyakki yagyō emaki by Tosa Mitsusada​ (百鬼夜行絵卷 土佐光​貞筆) ​were acquired and added. For the last couple of years, I wanted to use this fund in a more meaningful way than just as an additional book fund, in view of my upcoming retirement. I wanted to acquire a copy of the Sagabon early movable type printing (古活字版) ​Ise Monogatari​ (Tale of Ise).


The two-volume Sagabon kokatsuji-ban ​Ise Monogatari.


This item ​has been considered a symbol of prestige in Japanese literature collections. ​Acquiring this item was intended as an honor on behalf of Prof. Keene and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University. However, this specific item had not appeared in the rare and antiquarian book market for the last ten years or so. To find the item itself had been a task, but with an assistance from an expert, it was found for Columbia, and the acquisition was finally approved by the University Librarian. The two-volume Sagabon kokatsuji-ban ​Ise Monogatari was received just about ten days before the passage of Prof. Keene. I am so glad that I was able to express my sincere appreciation of Prof. Keene’s long and strong support to our library and collection by acquiring the most beautiful book, symbolical of Japanese classic literature. ​He will be greatly missed but always remembered for his strong support of libraries in general and, more specifically, of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University.


North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources
Copyright 2017
Contact the Webmaster