Donald Keene to naturalize, in a show of solidarity with the Japanese people, at age 88.


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Hi Blog.  A bit of a break from charting the arc of how the J media is bashing NJ as deserters:

Octogenarian scholar and Japan specialist Donald Keene has announced his intention to become a Japanese citizen, and move to Japan in light of the Tohoku Disasters.  Well, good for him.

Submitter JK notes, “While I respect Keene’s accomplishments as an academic, I can’t help but feel that his writings are a reflection of a person inhabiting a self-constructed bubble Japan whose universe is made up of haiku masters, poets, and scholars.”  There are also a few comments on Japan Probe that make light of his (in)decision given his advanced age.

A bit harsh, but I do find the logic — of linking a show of solidarity in the face of a crisis with a decision as personal as changing one’s nationality (and in Japan’s case, abrogating one’s former nationality) — a bit discomfiting.  As per Keene’s comments below, he’s basically falling into the ancient bad habit (a la Lafcadio Hearn’s day) of treating the Japanese people as monolithic.  Plus he won’t have to live quite as long with his (last-minute) decision compared to younger people who really plighted their troth here and naturalized.  A nice, but oddly-reasoned, gesture on Keene’s part.  Arudou Debito


‘I want to be with Japan’ / Donald Keene discusses plan to relocate, become citizen
Michinobu Yanagisawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent
(Apr. 24, 2011) Courtesy of JK

NEW YORK–Renowned expert in Japanese literature and culture Donald Keene, who recently announced his intention to gain Japanese citizenship and move permanently to Tokyo, wants to “be with the Japanese people,” he told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Keene, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, said the Great East Japan Earthquake had inspired the decision.

“Japan will surely resurrect itself from the disaster to become an even more splendid country than before, I believe,” the 88-year-old, speaking in Japanese, said in an interview held Friday at his home in New York. “So I’ll be moving to Japan in a positive frame of mind.”

Keene said he will shift to Kita Ward, Tokyo, where he has owned a home for more than 30 years, by September.

Born in New York in 1922, Keene attended Columbia University, where he became fascinated with Japanese culture after reading an English translation of “The Tale of Genji.”

He later served as an interpreter during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing days of the Pacific War.

Keene has traveled through the Tohoku region many times, including some research trips for “The Narrow Road to Oku,” his English translation of the classic work of literature “Oku no Hosomichi,” by haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

While studying in Japan, “I was surrounded by many people who warmly extended a helping hand to me,” Keene said.

By obtaining Japanese citizenship, “I’d like to convey my sense of gratitude to the Japanese people, which I’ve so far been unable to do,” he said.

Referring to reactions in the United States to the earthquake, tsunami and aftermath, including the nuclear crisis, Keene said, “Not a few people in the United States have been moved to learn Japanese people are doing their utmost to rebuild.”

Even Americans who had no particular interest in Japan before March 11 have been impressed by Japanese people’s composure in the wake of the disaster, he said.

“Americans have never felt such a strong affinity with Japan before,” Keene pointed out.

“I’ve made up my mind to become a Japanese citizen to be together with the Japanese people. I believe although words are important, of course, action is even more important,” Keene said.

“My decision to become a Japanese citizen is the manifestation of my expectations and convictions,” he said, explaining that he had a positive outlook for Japan.

“When I returned to Tokyo eight years after World War II, Japan had revived to become a far different country from what I’d seen just after the war’s end. I’m convinced Japan will become an even more wonderful nation by weathering the hardships of this disaster,” he said.

Keene recalled a tour of the Tohoku region in 1955 to research “Oku no Hosomichi.” “The view of a cluster of islets from the second floor of an inn in Matsushima [in Miyagi Prefecture] was unforgettably beautiful,” he said.

“I think there may be no structure in the world as beautiful as the Chusonji temple [in Iwate Prefecture], so I wonder why UNESCO has repeatedly failed to designate the temple as a World Heritage site,” Keene said.

“I think how terrible it is that the Tohoku region, full of such beautiful places and temples, has been hit so hard by the earthquake and tsunami,” he lamented.

Looking back on his interaction with Japanese poets and writers, Keene referenced the poet and author Jun Takami. Near the end of the Pacific War, Takami wrote in his diary of being deeply moved by the sight of people waiting patiently at Tokyo’s Ueno Station, trying to get to the safety of the countryside.

“I want to live together with these people and share death with them, as I love Japan and believe in Japan,” Keene said, quoting Takami.

“I now feel better able to understand Mr. Takami’s feelings,” he said.

Keene said his lawyer has already begun procedures for obtaining Japanese nationality.

He stressed that living in Japan would bring the most meaning to the rest of his life. He plans to spend time writing biographies of Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780), a scholar of Western studies in the Edo period (1603-1868), and Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912), a poet in the Meiji era (1868-1912).

In the 1950s, Keene studied at the postgraduate school of Kyoto University. He forged friendships with such literary giants as Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki and Kobo Abe.

In 2008, Keene was given the Order of Culture by the Japanese government in recognition of his contributions to promoting Japanese literature and culture in Europe and the United States.

18 comments on “Donald Keene to naturalize, in a show of solidarity with the Japanese people, at age 88.

  • Of course it leaves a few unanswered questions about hwy it took him so long and the article is twisted to emphasize his focus on Japanese literature, but a welcome positive article for once about a NJ.

    I can well understand his feeling of wishing to demonstrate solidarity (not just to have it) with Japan and the Japanese following the recent disaster, it’s a felling I also share.

  • Yakumo Koizumi was a interesting fellow, and one that I find a little inspiring. Of course, the rumors of his connections to the fictional Maribel Hearn which in turn as connections to the fictional Yakumo Yukari both of which come from the popular Touhou series of video games doesn’t help the cool image I have of the guy.

    I wish Donald Keene the best of luck in his naturalization process. I hope that his accomplishments will continue to be recognized even after his death. I wonder what name he will choose upon his naturalization?

  • ‘…as personal as changing one’s nationality (and in Japan’s case, abrogating one’s former nationality)…’
    One remark about the word ‘change’. It implies that the old one is given away. ‘I changed my cell phone provider’ means that you don’t do business with your old provider anymore. ‘I changed into pajamas’ implies that you are not wearing your jeans anymore. So changing nationality, implies that you give up your previous one. In any case, Japanese or not.
    ‘Acquire’ would be one of the words of choice when the old nationality is kept.
    This law is known to everybody, so he has to stick to it. But also, there are exceptions. I know of people who were legally allowed to keep their German nationality even after they acquired another one. Depends how much your old country wants to keep you.

    One remark about ‘last minute’: nowadays people can be centenarians. Maybe its a last minute decision for the next 15 years or so.

    — Regarding the last point: Yes, but it’s not the same as someone who does it in their thirties and forties, who has a career, retirement plans, and more major life decisions that will be affected by a change of nationality to take into consideration. More risky and momentous a decision for the younger person, was my point. Anyhoo, it’s Donald’s decision to make.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Mr. Keene will be a welcome addition to Japan’s population.

    One of the first essays I ever read in Japanese class was about him and his discovery of Japanese during the years before the war — he initially wanted to master Chinese, IIRC — followed by his travels to Japan and then his brilliant literary output.

    The world could use about a hundred more people just like him. I hope he succeeds in writing all three of the biographies he has planned, and enjoys his later years ni the country he’s devoted his life to.

  • Whatever his reasons may be, it’s his decision to make. I’m not sure that we should be passing judgement here.

  • @Allen.
    He might well stick to “Donald Keene”. The idea that you have to change your name after nationaisation is erroneous and might actually put people off the idea.

    — You don’t necessarily have to.

  • Russell Watson says:

    Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn) was indeed a rather interesting fellow. I’ve read that he fell in love with Japan, and yet never completely felt at home here. While I was researching material for a book I wrote I came across an article regarding some letters he had written to various people. Koizumi expressed his frustration with Japan and how modernization had made it so ugly. He was in love with romantic images and, by his time, already vanishing scenes. In that way, I can see how Debito compares Keene to Hearn.

    — I just find Keene’s mindset towards Japan terribly outmoded. Like about a century outmoded. Perhaps par for the course, given his age and generation. But with his advanced age (and quite oddly heroic fanfare), the chances of him having a life-shortening denouement like Hearn/Koizumi did are, fortunately for him, unlikely. I feel that those who naturalize in middle age (and with more concrete personal reasons) are far more heroic.

  • Although it’s not my place to criticize Keene for his life decisions, I can understand why many people make light of his decision to naturalize so late in life. I also was an American who loved Japan, and was 24 when I decided to apply for Japanese citizenship and 26 when it was finally granted, so I find it difficult to understand why it took him so long to decide that he wants to “be with the Japanese people.”

  • giantpanda says:

    Good for him. I spent a large chunk of my university years studying Japanese literature and he practically owns the subject (for Western audiences anyway). An amazing scholar, and by all accounts, a gentleman. He should be fast-tracked and placed on “national treasure” status immediately.

  • @Joe

    I understand where you are coming from, but I imagine such a enthusiast such as Donald Keene would find the idea (as I do) of being able to change your name to something kanji-able a very (for a lack of a better word) cool experience that would no doubt make him feel more “with the Japanese people”. Of course, I am not him, so I cannot speak for him. His decision is his decision.

  • StrangeDays says:

    I saw Keene give a speech in Japanese a few years ago at Doshisha. It may have been his age, but the sentence structure was poor, as was his pronunciation. I expected to hear something truly motivational from one of the gods of Japanese literature in translation, but was sorely disappointed, and ever since, my image of him has been tarnished. One really wonders why he waited THIS long to naturalize. Something like this does not impress me in the least.

  • @Allen

    Yeah, I agree that taking a kanji name must be pretty “cool”, especially after naturalising, and I’m planning to do just that myself. But it seems a little odd that there are British, American French etc. citizens called “Tanaka” or “Suzuki” but no Japanese called “Smith” or “Mersaud”. But maybe that isn’t important.

  • mark kanto says:

    Hmmm… Since when does owning a house in Tokyo qualify you for citizenship? Keene has been in New York most of his life, from what I understand. How does he maintain “residency” here? Where does he pay his taxes? How does he manage to qualify so quickly for citizenship? Will the ward officials come in to his house to see if he lives in a properly Japanese manner? Or is this another case like Fujimori–the fast track for the elite, famous, and well-heeled, the rules for the rest of us?

  • “(and in Japan’s case, abrogating one’s former nationality)”

    Seems I meet more and more who somehow found a way around that. For those of us who have to carry around an ARC with our US passport, it seems to be a double standard because they have 2 passports, best of both worlds.

    Only thing I can say for this old fellar is your one naive fool to naturalize at that age.

  • james grey says:

    I guess Donald would rather live in a ‘bubble Japan’ of poets and historical beauty, it takes the focus off all the wartime translation of decoded Japanese communications he did for the US Army and Navy (why doesn’t that count against his naturalization?).
    Just what Japan needs- more old people. Don’t they have a surplus of that already?

  • James Grey: the naturalization procedures are very clear that the ‘having not participated in subversive acts’ requirement applies to the modern democratic post-1947 Constitution of Japan and its government, and gives the specific example of WWⅡ participants as being eligible for naturalization. In fact, there are examples of American military who fought directly against the Empire of Japan in the Pacific War who have naturalized (ex-Marine Nick Zapetti of Nicola’s Pizza is one notorious one). When you sign the Japanese naturalization oath, it is to the modern “pacifist” Constitution and its laws, not to any previous Constitution or government. The exact requirement text is here:


    If Donald was a member of Aum Shinrikyo, he has a problem. World War Two? Not a problem.

  • As above, and I can’t help recalling what the ex police chief of Japan said in the interview that was posted here a year or two ago “We want (Caucasian) foreigners like you (the interviewer) with money to come and live in Japan”.
    I am sure Donald has money so that is one more tax payer to help Japan perhaps, but it certainly doesn’t help Japan’s demographic and low birth rate issues.

  • RealityBites says:

    Sorry to sound cynical but I think Keene is showing signs of mental lapsing. He is now 88 and most people lose their mental sharpness and the more normal perceptions they had when they were in their 70s or younger. To put it the way Shakespeare would, he is in his “dotage”.

    I think Keene has suddenly had this ‘inspiration’ because he is not quite where he was mentally some time before. I notice the earthquake that struck Kobe wasn’t a motivation for him at an age where he could have been expected to both gain more and give more as a Japanese citizen.

    And why is this disaster exceptional? Keene’s own country has had a terrible decade or so, starting with September 11th, 2001, including Hurricane Katrina. The terrorist threats, national disasters and lose of national confidence from widespread economic downturn has created a crisis of purpose and a fear of the future among Americans that was not there before except in the dark days following Kennedy’s assassination and the difficult home truths of Watergate etc.

    It would be more logical and admirable if Keene renewed his commitmennt to his native land (particularly as its President, regardless of what you think of him politically, has ensured that the highest office in the land and a position of world importance represents the fact that people of all backgrounds are indeed equal) instead of an idea of Japan as some kind of exception to the countries of the world. The Japanese themselves are addicted to the notion of exceptionalism and this is a source of some of their major problems.

    Japan is stagnating, a victim of its own obsession with how the way people resemble each other in appearance and keep to a host of certain ways of doing things (that often are irrelevant) is more important than what people can contribute in terms of skills and ethics to its society.

    Japan’s ruling system epitomises the refusal to move on from racialist and racist principles and it clings to an idealised homogeneity from an often cruel feudal system which gave rise to the later dark tunnel of Imperial Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Japan’s society is mired in rapidly declining semi rural and rural towns, a plummeting population, and a lack of will to reinvent itself in keeping with 2011 and beyond. Donald Keene is a kind of symbol of that and I fail to see why he should be applauded for a mixture of wishful thinking and senility.


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