A New Japan

Turning Japanese

A renowned Japan scholar shows his dedication to the country by announcing plans to become a citizen.

An interesting piece of news I came across recently: Donald Keene, a former professor of Japanese literature at Columbia University in New York, announced that he planned to become a Japanese citizen. Keene has seen for himself the many facets of life in Japan through extensive study of its traditional literature, as a translator and interpreter for the US Navy during World War II, as a student at Kyoto University, and then through annual summer visits.

The decision by Keene, 88, is apparently intended to be a show of solidarity with a nation he has been intimately connected with for most of his life.

Keene is fluent in Japanese and has been a prolific academic, having translated several works of Japanese literature into English. He has also published several books proffering his own analysis and critique of Japanese literature, and he was awarded the Yomiuri Literary Prize in 1985—the first foreigner to receive the prize—and the Order of Cultural Merit in 2008.

It’s uplifting to see a respected figure like Keene making a gesture like this to a nation facing some of its darkest moments, and it adds an interesting addition to the whole discussion on the flyjin phenomenon following the Tohoku earthquake and radiation fallout.

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Still, modern Japan is clearly a marked departure from the romantic sensibilities of Japanese literature, so it will be interesting to hear how he responds to being fully immersed in the culture again.