One-third of the way into Japan scholar Donald Keene’s slim, modest memoir, he recounts the predicament faced by his Japanese professor at Columbia University in the years following World War II. The professor was depressed by Japan’s defeat, Keene writes, “but he probably would have been equally depressed if America had lost the war. . . . His was the tragedy that anyone who loves two countries may experience.”
This description of divided emotions might apply to Keene himself, though his own experience of it has been more melancholic than tragic, and only periodically so. At two hundred pages, Chronicles of My Life is humble not only in size but also in its plainspoken assessment of a life spent translating and hobnobbing with Japan’s literary celebrities—Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Kobo Abe, among others—producing some thirty books in Japanese and twenty-five in English (including an unsurpassed multivolume history of Japanese literature), and receiving major awards and accolades in both beloved nations.
Keene, now eighty-six, is professor emeritus at Columbia, his alma mater, where an entire center devoted to the study of Japanese culture bears his name. What one might view as a life of exceptional ambition and achievement, prodigious talent and sustained curiosity, Keene sees as a series of happy accidents that guided him to his principle passions: Japanese culture and language, European classical music and opera, serious literature, and travel—all of which he continues to indulge. “When I think back,” he muses, “it is clear that luck, rather than any decision made after long deliberation, has governed my life.”
Much of that luck arrived in the form of chance encounters with others. Born into a middle-class family in 1920s New York, Keene notes that he had no more reason to become interested in Japan than did any American child at the time, beyond an awareness of the word kimono and some stamps in his collection bearing Chinese and Japanese characters. In his first year of college, studying Western literature in a class taught by poet Mark van Doren (who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, and whom Keene cites as his lifelong model of pedagogical excellence), he is seated next to a Chinese student named Lee—simply because of alphabetic order. Keene befriends Lee, pressing him for knowledge about Chinese literature and later studying the language with his newfound resource over daily lunches.
Yes, daily lunches. It’s important to highlight here what Keene, out of modesty and a pure boyish amazement at his good fortune, tends to overlook or at least mute. Opportunities do arrive in life, and often seemingly by accident. But the rigorous and passionate pursuit of such openings in Keene’s gentle account makes his memoir gratifying and even edifying.
Keene was an academic prodigy in New York just as the city was becoming a cultural capital. A boyhood journey to Europe via ship with his father first awoke his interest in studying foreign languages: He met a French girl and could not communicate. Keene attended a public high school that has produced several Nobel Prize winners and cites a teacher there who encouraged him to apply for one of ten Pulitzer Scholarships—providing tuition and a living stipend for four years at Columbia, but only if he aced statewide examinations. He accomplished this, partly by committing his entire algebra textbook to memory, and entered Columbia at the ripe old age of sixteen. His discovery of a copy of The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century novel, on sale for forty-nine cents amid a stack of remainders in a Times Square bookshop, kicked off his fascination with Japan.
If literature inspired Keene’s love affair with a faraway land, it was the war, which he recalls both dreading and despising, employing some of the book’s most vehement language, that nevertheless got him to Japan in the ’40s. Keene recounts his studies at a naval language school and work as a translator in a restrained voice that makes his encounters with the war’s horrors all the more moving. In one memorable passage, which takes place before he reaches Japan, he describes translating the diaries of fallen Japanese soldiers to obtain enemy secrets. Most were dutifully filled with patriotic slogans, but soldiers who knew their days were numbered would write what they really felt. “The first Japanese I ever really knew, then, were the writers of the diaries,” Keene reflects, “though they all were dead by the time I met them.”
The book’s chapters span only a few pages each and were originally serialized in the Daily Yomiuri, an English-language newspaper in Japan. Their episodic feel, combined with Akira Yamaguchi’s detailed color illustrations, lends the memoir a picaresque quality. We follow Keene’s rise to prominence as a translator and scholar in both Japan and America and experience his increasingly intimate access to eccentric literati. His failed attempts to persuade the Nobel Committee in Sweden to award his friend Mishima the Nobel Prize are both comical and heartbreaking. Keene flies frenetically between Europe, America, and Japan, only to eventually witness the winner, Kawabata, stop writing, and the passed-over Mishima commit suicide.
Owing to a flight delay during one such travel jag, Keene arrives in New York a day too late to have a final conversation with his dying mother, who has lost the capacity to communicate by the time he reaches her bedside. Her death shakes him, and his mixture of grief and guilt is palpably rendered. He recovers through the support of his friends in Japan, which he now calls “the center of my world,” a country he departs sadly with each passing year, wondering whether he will ever be able to return. The pathos at the heart of Keene’s lovely and gracious memoir, and perhaps of his extraordinary life, emanates from this very human limitation: We cannot live in and love two worlds at once.
Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).