September 15, 2011 / 4:54 AM / 8 years ago

Book fanned long love of Japan for noted scholar

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.

But after more than half a century teaching at New York’s Columbia University, he retired this spring and came to Japan.

On Mishima, who was notorious for committing ritual suicide in 1970 after trying to carry out a coup the day he delivered the final book of a series to his publisher, Keene said aspects of his friend of nearly two decades were always hard to understand.

“I received one of the last three letters he wrote. What he said was that he thought I understood him. Perhaps I did understand him, but not enough,” he said.

“He was a unique person. There’s no one like him now in the world of Japanese literature, I’m sorry to say.”

After spending most of his life bringing Japan and the West closer through literature, Keene felt that his return was appropriate, largely as a way of thanking his Japanese friends.

Asked why he had finally decided to take up Japanese citizenship, Keene said, “I got tired of being different. I wanted to become Japanese, as much as my face permits.”

Editing by Elaine Lies

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