Donald Keene prattles on about why he’s naturalizing in SAPIO, even takes a cheap shot at NJ


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Hi Blog.  Here we have Donald Keene, our newest future Japanese naturalized citizen at age 88, prattling on in Sapio about how nice and wonderful Japanese society and culture is (citing things that happened a generation or two ago), and how he’s happy to become part of a culture so rich and able to regenerate itself after the tsunami (despite, he laments, the lack of domestic interest in Japanese culture by Japanese people; clearly in Donald’s world, culture makes the man).

This is all excusable as harmless personal preference and geriatric navel-gazing except, at the bottom of the first page, his cheap and ignorant swipe at non-Japanese (who, allegedly after coming here to make money, flee in the face of danger).  Perhaps if he had had the same stake as younger people who live here full-time and languish in less elite jobs, he might understand better why some people didn’t stay in Japan, as I argued in this Japan Times column.  No matter.  (Oh, and we won’t deal with ongoing events and lies from Fukushima; criticism of Japan would annoy Donald’s hosts and spoil the Sapio article.)

I guess it just goes to show you that grumpy old men regardless of nationality have to latch onto the “good old days” somewhere; fortunately our Donald feels like he has a culture and a circle of friends here that encourage that.  Enjoy yourself here, Donald.  Just don’t bad-mouth other people who are also coming here and trying to make a life, even if eventually they decide that there are greener pastures and fairer opportunities elsewhere.  At 88, you won’t have to endure Japan’s non-academic workplace culture, let alone be on this mortal coil long enough, for any denouement.  Arudou Debito

27 comments on “Donald Keene prattles on about why he’s naturalizing in SAPIO, even takes a cheap shot at NJ

  • Wasn’t that a tad nasty? The few sentences that talk about NJ say that he heard stories about NJ fleeing Japan and thought such a thing was bad because the earthquake made him feel even more empathy towards Japan. He isn’t exactly saying those stories were true. You also seem to be suggesting that in order to really feel for Japan, Keene would have been to give up a plum job at one of the world’s best universities, which in any case afforded him time every year to come to Japan to do research for months on end–the best of both worlds. I find this a little bit unreasonable. OK, SAPIO is a pseudo-intellectual conservative rag, and Keene is certainly someone whose interests play into the “cherry blossoms, tanka and samurai” view of what constitutes “Japaneseness.” Even so, I think we should be celebrating the fact that Japanese obviously accept that an NJ can foster a deep understanding of Japanese culture.

  • Why is a scholar of his status even deeming to grant an interview with this right-wing rag? Are they still carrying Kobayashi “Yoshirin” Yoshinori’s Der Sturmer-worthy hate manga?

  • Bob:
    To be honest I am all for tanka, both classic and modern (I have Tawara Machi and the Kokinshu on my bookshelf), but you better keep your hands off my manga too (that’s taking up much more of my bookshelf). And by manga I mean things of actual entertainment or literary value, not the propaganda and lies “Yoshirin” pumps out (though I support his free speech, he’s never going to be on my bookshelf). The right wingers have been targeting manga pretty heavily as of late. Japan and Japanese culture is not something that can be minimized down. Tanka is in there, but so is anime and manga.

    I have to agree that Debito is being more than a tad harsh here, but they sure did emphasize the anti-foreigner slant, ironic in an interview with Keene, who didn’t bother to go for Japanese citizenship until this came up.

    As much as the message I’m annoyed by the outlet. Why grant them an interview? As much as I admire Keene’s scholarship, I am disappointed by this.

  • It’s unfortunate the rag emphasized that part of his speech, but it would’ve been nice if he gave a little thought as to WHY his reaction was the opposite of theirs. His circumstances are also exactly opposite.

    As he tells us earlier – in this article – he’s lived in Japan over half his life, and the majority of his friends are Japanese. He’s also made a career spanning over half a century based specifically on Japan.

    How about the people who left? Here on we’ve seen complaints about Disney performers and dispatch English teachers. These positions are temporary by design – those that hold them have mostly not been in Japan very long, and most don’t expect to. They have lots of friends and family (including living parents and grandparents, which I must sadly conjecture is not the case for Mr. Keene) in their home countries. And it seems like quite a stretch to really say that they are お金を儲けている – these aren’t exactly well-paying positions.

    Taken in that context, their actions seem pretty reasonable to me. If Japan wants NJ to show it loyalty, perhaps it should make a place for them in society instead of just rotating them in and out like pieces of a museum collection on loan.

    — Thank you. The more I hear Old Donald’s reasons for naturalizing, the more myopic his life in Japan up to now appears to me.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    For the benefit of those whose Japanese language skills are not so good, Keene says at the bottom of page 1:
    “When I heard foreigners were fleeing Japan I thought it was horrible. People make money in Japan, even form various relationships and when something bad happens they run away, that’s disgraceful (or unforgiveable). I was the opposite, when I knew the horrible nature of the tsunami etc. I instead was filled with the very strong thought of wanting to go to Japan, to live in Japan.”
    People make money…run away…disgraceful/unforgiveable?!
    Anti-‘flyjin’ Keene is brown nosing old coffin dodger who hasn’t got a clue what ‘the Japan experience’ is like for most NJ.
    Quite frankly, Debito’s on the money this time.

  • “As he tells us earlier – in this article – he’s lived in Japan over half his life, and the majority of his friends are Japanese”

    Maybe we should have gotten his input on the #2000 debito post: making “friends” in Japan.

    Mr.Keene seems to forget that the majority of jobs for NJs in Japan are of the low skill, low pay nature. Not to mention many institutional barriers put up against us, doesn’t make it worth our while to stay and “tough it out”

  • Criticize him if you want Debito. But what’s the point of using childish name calling and insults. Referring to what Keene said as “prattling” or “geriatric navel-gazing” does noting to support or cause. It only makes people think you are a very bitter person Debito.

    — Go ahead. The emperor has no clothes, except maybe a turncoat, after this article.

  • I agree in that he’s being a bit of an arrogant academic jerk, but I don’t think the people who ran off after the quake should get off so easy. I love the town I work in as an ALT in Iwate; it’s in the mountains and very safe, and was not affected by any earthquake or tsunami damage at all. But the previous ALT basically ran away a day or two after the quake for no good reason, taking advantage of the disaster to break his contract a few weeks before his job ended, probably skipped the students’ graduation ceremony, and left the house (now mine) a real mess. People who ran off like this deserve to get criticized in my opinion – but of course, I don’t think all foreigners in Japan should be painted with the flyjin-brush.

    — But that’s essentially what you’re doing now.

  • re: grumpy old men, many of us either resemble or aspire to resemble that remark 🙂

    I’m puzzled as to how he thinks he will get citizenship – is he sufficiently honourable to just get awarded it as a “prize”? Cos otherwise he has 5 years to wait, assuming he actually does go through with his promised move. On what grounds will he even get a visa for long-term residence?

    Japan is probably a pretty nice place to be, as an old wealthy man. Deference, facilities, politeness, food already cut up into small pieces…wouldn’t mind ending my days here myself.

  • flyjin revenge says:

    People make money…run away…disgraceful/unforgiveable?!

    I lost money for 4 years in Japan, I ran away indeed, they still want money off me even now (“saigo dakara”), and if I went back my mum would never forgive me.

    I think its disgraceful how Japanese utilities (es. the water comapany I know) try to wring out “basic fees” from you like a yakuza because “saigo dakara” even though I havent used water for three months, (as it was radioactive).

    Maybe theres some truth in what a certain blogster signs off with
    “Japan .. an old people`s home run by the yakuza and obtuse bureaucrats”

    Funny, said blogster has been saying that even before Donald entered this home.

  • Personally I am shocked…[i]shocked I tell you![/i] that people are motivated to work for money or that they might remove themselves and their families from potentially dangerous situations.

    And seriously, when will the myth be dispelled that Japan is some kind of land of milk and honey for immigrant workers? In my experience, foreign workers are generally underpaid in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. That’s the reality I see – the Tokyo investment bankers etc are the minority not the majority.

  • Are you really calling Donald Keene a traitor?! It makes me feel sad that anyone–especially a Japanese citizen–would think that, worse yet write it. As a lover of Japanese literature, I deeply respect Donald Keene for his immeasurable contributions to the field, both though his translations and his scholarship. Having read the article, I respect him all the more. I can see your point about the one sentence quoted above, but overall the article was a touching account of why he has decided to apply for Japanese citizenship. Basically, he loves Japanese literature, Japanese people, and the country. During his three-week stay in the hospital, he was touched by the kindness of the nurses and started to reflect on his life. His decision to naturalize is basically a decision to die here–and a reflects his love of Japanese literature and the Japanese people. His comment on people leaving the country is quite vague: he is not talking about anyone specifically, and the focus is less on those people than on his own reaction to what he heard. His point: when things get tough and unpleasant, some people leave; others, are made aware of their love and commitment. To tell the truth, I recently acquired Japanese citizenship myself, for many of the reasons that Keene mentioned.

    — Good for you. But if you ever achieve the position and status of Donald Keene, yet publicly bad-mouth NJ who made the choice to leave Japan for reasons he’s clearly ignorant of, I’ll express my criticism of you too.

    Keene is not a sacred cow. And neither my nor his (soon, probably) having Japanese citizenship is relevant to his or my thinking.

  • Quick note to James at 10, he makes reference to already having 永住権, permanent residency, so he’s most of the way there.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Keene says: ‘when I knew the horrible nature of the tsunami etc. I instead was filled with the very strong thought of wanting to go to Japan’. Really? What’s the old geezer going to do? Help with reconstruction? Deliver food, water, and medicine? I doubt it, at his age. At best, he could at least rush up to Tofuku and read them all a quick haiku, couldn’t he? Just to remind them what a beautiful country Japan is, and how ‘in touch with nature’ they all are. I’m sure they would love it.

  • Huh? The article was ABOUT why he is applying for Japanese citizenship! How can you say that that is irrelevant? He wrote ONE vague sentence about people leaving the country. He said nothing about those who may have left for good reasons, or those who suffered. I am quite sure he would be sympathetic to such people. He is obviously referring to those who left without good reason, just because life here became inconvenient. But even that was a passing reference. His obvious point was to emphasize that the incident made him more aware of his own attachment to Japan. Basically, you are talking about ONE sentence. If you read the entire article, you can see quite clearly that he is merely talking about his love of the country, especially his respect for how Japanese people have really pulled together in fighting to help those who suffered during the recent catastrophe. This is current news–not the “good old days.” How can you read that article and say it’s about bashing NJ? You are discussing one sentence. Of course, Professor Keene is not a sacred cow, but he deserves much, much more respectful treatment than you have given here. To be frank, I am very disappointed in you–both for your distortion of the original article and for insulting a man that has dedicated his life to making a lot of great literature available to the world.

    — Too bad. He’s out of touch. He deserves to be called on that. Chill.

  • What sticks in my throat is why he had to turn around and single out these people for comment.

    When on the Tuesday after, when the enormous hydrogen explosion occurred, I tried to find my wife (who was heavily pregnant) places to stay out west just in case. There was a flood of Japanese people who got out of Tokyo, as well as Ibaraki, Fukushima and Tohoku. Stay with Japanese friends in Kansai, Fukuoka? Tokyo families had already moved there! Why weren’t these people flyjin?

    Japan was full of nipponfleejin. They had places to go and resources to flee inside Japan. I know rich foreigners who looked at the disparity between what was coming out of places like NHK and the French Embassy and decided for safety’s sake to visit their families in France, the U.S. etc. as a sensible precaution.

    Why when I would guess hundreds of thousands of people were moving out west as a precautionary measure, not also targeted, just a few thousand (I guess) foreign people living here.

    And how about the many of us who decided to stick it out despite panicked calls from parents, relatives and friends (for me it was my sister and brother-in-law and my oldest friend who hasn’t called me in Japan for 15 years!) who called in the middle of the night, etc.

    Of course it turns out that things WERE/ ARE seriously wrong with the reactors, multiple meltdowns, and now a leak at the bottom of the containment vessel in Fukushima Dai-ichi Unit 1 that is extremely disturbing. I only had sensible information published by the British Embassy I could trust, which suggested that even in the event of an explosion, there wasn’t enough stuff that was radioactive enough, that could fly high enough, etc. to harm us here in Tokyo. But even with that I got my wife and unborn daughter out.

    I think anybody with an ounce of heart would fully sympathize with those who decided to go. In the end, isn’t passing comment like that a little mean spirited and ignorent. Of course, he may not have meant to create scapegoats, but that’s what he’s done.

    What a silly old man.

    What on earth does Donald Keene sitting in his Columbia Ivory Tower have to pass comment on other people.
    Was he even here?

    Did he have to flee under his desk when the 14:46 jolt turned into a horrible, horrible swinging that just didn’t stop?

    And that’s just how much I was frightened and disturbed – absolutely nothing compared to what friends in Tsukuba went through, and that absolutely nothing compared to what a good friend went through in Morioka, who left Japan for Oslo because his mansion he bought is wrecked, and the infrastructure he relies on to do his design work gone. What was he supposed to do, sit there with his wife and baby and fall into penury? He got out because it was the sensible thing to do- he didn’t flee; he wasn’t/ isn’t a flyjin. He was looking after his family the best way he could.

    I recognize that the minor things we went through in Tokyo are nothing, nothing at all compared to what befell so many people (not Japanese- Japanese people, foreign people, everyone) up there.

    What does Keene know to pass comment?

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I just read the article above. Although it’s not convincing enough for me to indict him as an anti-NJ(he doesn’t discuss the issue further), I found his arrogance as a renowned academic scholar and his ignorance of problems within the Japanese public disturbing. While I personally appreciate his enthusiasm in Japanese culture and his choice to naturalize, I put a culture/gender card right in front of his face for generalizing “foreign residents” as those who are well-off in Japan. This is the representative of ‘whiteness’ discourse–a strategic rhetoric* that masks the characteristic and ethnic differences of ‘others’ by placing your cultural and ethnic identity in the center.

    * Thomas K. Nakayama & Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81(1995): 291-309.

  • I’m puzzled as to how he thinks he will get citizenship – is he sufficiently honourable to just get awarded it as a “prize”? Cos otherwise he has 5 years to wait, assuming he actually does go through with his promised move. On what grounds will he even get a visa for long-term residence?

    Donald Keene has done more than almost any other Westerner in helping create the post-War Japanese “brand”. So, yeah, he definitely deserves citizenship.

    — Agreed. That is not in dispute in this blog post. Donald can do what he wants with his life. What’s in dispute is whether he should be so critical of others he seems to know so little about doing what they want with their lives. Let’s confine our discussions to that.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    First of all, Keene’s choice to acquire a Japanese citizenship is one thing. His view on non-Japanese (NJ) is quite another. They are separate issues. Your rant on the criticism of Keene indicates that you are apparently mixing the things up. Debito never says he is anti-NJ or distorts his words in the article. It doesn’t have enough evidence to prove that. However, it can’t be denied that Keene is ignorant of the social problems occurring in Japan, although that doesn’t necessarily make him bad. Remember he’s a new comer. He wasn’t living in Japan long enough to grasp life and social challenges of NJ. His view toward foreign residents becomes problematic especially when he doesn’t have a clear understanding of their struggles. You can’t make a singular representation of “foreigners” like– Caucasian, middle-class Europeans and Americans coming to Japan for making the tons of money. That’s ludicrous. Such assumption only flies in the face of Japanese policymakers and mainstream media who disseminate the discourse of “whiteness” in a way to subjugate all NJs to Japanese standards! [In this respect, Japanese-ness could be a discursive platform of centralization just like whiteness, but who the heck is willing to take the plunge?]

    Counterpoint: I guess it would be better for Keene NOT to know what is going on with NJ’s human/civil rights for the sake of his own. I don’t think he’s keen enough to get a whole picture and the time left for him is too short. In my opinion, his romantic narrative of post-war Japan in the 70s and 80s is a product of postmodern nostalgia. He seems to be the one who got caught in a loss of time and memory–just like an Old Pasadena (!), and he just doesn’t want to see his mirror ball shattered like a broken glass.

  • I think it goes without saying that Donald Keene is somewhat out of touch with social problems existing within Japan. As brilliant an academic as he is, he comes across as someone who indeed lives in a mirror ball world of classical literature. Like the romantic ideal of Hikaru Genji (in the Tale of) he might find the reality a little less to his liking. His take on the NJ who fled Japan following the earthquake is based on the same paucity of real information that coloured the opinion of others who read about it in the sensationalist and often innacurate reports in foreign media (remember the UK’s SUN “newspaper” headline of “Exodus from Tokyo” anyone?)

  • The bottom line: don’t earn money in a country and then leave it, like Keene just did. Keene say’s that’s wrong, although he just did it.

  • Since, like Keene I imagine, I really didn’t come to Japan 48 years ago to live or work with other non-Japanese, that they happen to leave here, for whatever reason, rather regales me. It’s like getting unwanted visual components in the local scenery edited out, and like it or not, the fewer foreigners here, the more marketable and special a commodity I become.

  • -Love Keene’s books, but he screwed up here

    Donald Keene, is a great scholar and everyone who has read his books knows where his mind lies. His views are not all shared by Japanologists today, in fact he is the last of the old school 50s generation scholars who saw their mission as improving Japans terrible bad reputation.

    His “Japan” is that as depicted by its finest literature. His “Japanese friends” are usually great authors and intellectuals. This is “his Japan”.No wonder he likes it so much.

    I respect him as a scholar, and I understand why he is so enamored with the people he has met here.I commend his books and translations to anyone here. You won’t find a translator with a better instinct.

    BUT his comments above were wrong and unthoughtful.They were ignorant.
    He looks at Japan through rose colored glasses. He doesn’t see the bad.

    This is coming from a soon to be fly-jin.

  • Update on Donald Keene’s making the rounds to cheer Japan up. At least this time he’s not reportedly doing it at the expense of bashing his fellow NJ. No word as yet on whether he’s gotten his Japanese citizenship. Courtesy JK.

    Scholar Donald Keene gives words of encouragement in Sendai
    PHOTO: Scholar Donald Keene speaks to reporters in Aoba Ward, Sendai, on Oct. 19. (Mainichi)
    (Mainichi Japan) October 20, 2011

    SENDAI — Donald Keene, 89, a pre-eminent scholar of Japanese culture, spoke to reporters in Sendai on Oct. 19, giving words of encouragement for the disaster-hit Tohoku region.

    “The world saw how the Japanese remained calm during the disaster and did what they needed to do,” said Keene. “My respect for the Japanese multiplied.”

    Referring to Tokyo’s postwar reconstruction, Keene said, “People predicted that it would take 50 years to return to prewar conditions, but (in less than 50 years) it turned into a huge city. The same miracle can happen in Tohoku.”

    He added, “I am opposed to reconstruction that consists of just spending money and building whatever comes to mind. Sendai is also known as ‘Mori no Miyako’ (the forest capital). The Tohoku region as a whole should think of how to create beautiful cities.”

    After talking about Chusonji, a temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, Keene said, “I hope that (scenic areas) will recover while holding profit-seeking in check.”

    Keene was awarded the Order of Culture in 2008. He is known for his interactions with major Japanese literary figures like Yukio Mishima.

    東日本大震災:ドナルド・キーン氏、仙台で被災者激励 「日本への尊敬、何倍にも」





    毎日新聞 2011年10月20日 東京朝刊

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Dpnald Keene has chosen a kanji name for use in his return to Japan:

    Officially (on his jūminhyō he’ll be plain old キーン ドナルド), but his tsūshōmei will be 鬼 怒鳴門. He borrowed the characters from the KIdo River in Tochigi and the city of Naruto in Tokushima.

    The article didn’t say if there were any special circumstances attached to his obtaining nationality. Debito, I know you’re going to disagree, but I personally hope that the Emperor himself stepped in to grant it to him. Keene is a living legend and academia and society are better for having him.

    — Again, as I’ve said before here and here, I don’t mind if Keene gets Japanese citizenship. Congratulations to him. I do mind, however, that he’s making himself out to be the “better foreigner” than all those who he believes allegedly fled Japan. As he does once again in the Asahi article you very kindly sent. Do what you like, Donald, just don’t denigrate others.

    ドナルド・キーンさん、日本国籍取得 震災後永住を決意
    朝日新聞 2012年3月8日


     キーンさんは1974年から東京都北区に暮らし、同区の宣伝役「アンバサダー」を務める。戸籍名は「キーン ドナルド」、通称で「鬼怒鳴門(キーンドナルド)」という漢字名も使う。栃木県の鬼怒川と、徳島県の鳴門からとった。


  • Actually, I feel Donald has America to thank for his creativity. These things come around full circle, you dis all that is near to you, only to find out latter that they are the reason for your being. I think Donald got asorbed in all things Japan, as I once did, as its something totally different than the raw experience we get from the states. The raw, however, is what everybody copies/improves. There isnt much room for raw in Japan, only copy / improve. For me, its getting old to witness. Donald will realize in 10 years, if he is alive, what a great mistake he made. Never trust an intellectual or any other goof to teach about life. The only way to learn it is for yourself.

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