IN THE AUTUMN of last year, Donald Keene, a pre-eminent expert on Japanese literature, said a final goodbye to the United States. Keene packed up his belongings at Columbia University, where he had studied and taught for more than six decades, gave up his subscription to his beloved Metropolitan Opera, and moved to Japan. At eighty-nine years old, he intends to live out his last days in Tokyo.
The timing of his move – not long after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern Japan in March 2011 and triggered several nuclear disasters – earned him even greater respect than he already enjoyed as a scholar. Other foreigners were leaving, but Keene was arriving to stay, confirming his faith in the country’s ability to recover and rebuild. He was awarded Japanese citizenship in March this year, and took the Japanese name Kiin Donarudo, combining two kanji characters derived from locations in Japan: the Kinugawa River and Naruto City. Local reporters captured this historic moment for the Westerner who has become a national hero in Japan.
We meet at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. The lounge on the forty-first floor enjoys views over the capital, stretching to the sea. The location is fitting: the Park Hyatt bar is famous for its role in the hit film Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray nurses a martini and looks glumly out over the soaring skyline. It is a film centered on confusion, about a man who is swamped in the city, a metaphor for his muddled identity. Keene, by contrast, has no doubts. He has dedicated many decades to demystifying this complex, foreign country and is delighted by the opening of this new chapter so late in his life.
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