Book fanned long love of Japan for noted scholar

Thu Sep 15, 2011 12:53am EDT
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By Yuko Takeo

TOKYO (Reuters) - An ancient Japanese book believed to be the world's first novel helped U.S.-born scholar Donald Keene fall in love with Japan more than 70 years ago.

Now 89, the man who befriended giants of Japanese literature such as Yukio Mishima has returned to his adopted home to take up citizenship and live out the rest of his life.

"1940 was the worst year of my life. I think it was the worst year of their life for most people in the western world," Keene told reporters.

But reading "The Tale of Genji," a 11-century book depicting the life and loves of a prince at the Japanese court nearly a thousand years ago, changed everything.

"I realized how there was another world possible. The contrast between my daily world, which was horror, and their world, in which they made everything they touched beautiful, talking poetry," he said.

"I felt like a barbarian, but a grateful barbarian."

Keene, who graduated from university in 1942, studied Japanese language under the auspices of the U.S. Navy and subsequently worked in military intelligence during World War Two, interrogating prisoners and translating documents.

He then went on to a career as a noted scholar of Japanese literature and is credited with playing a key role in gaining recognition for "The Tale of Genji" as world-class literature.   Continued...