Japan Society bids sayonara to Donald Keene

Columbia University Professor Emeritus Donald Keene, left, will talk with Carol Gluck at Japan Society's Farewell Evening with Donald Keene June 13. Credits: Courtesy of Japan Society

By Justin Tedaldi (JETAANY) for NY Japanese Culture Examiner

This evening (June 13), New York’s Japan Society adds another page to its storied history by hosting the Farewell Evening with Donald Keene, a final talk with Columbia University’s Professor Emeritus and Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature.

A scholar, author and translator for over 50 years, Keene is a paragon in the field of Japanese studies. As the translator of legendary works from Mishima, Chikamatsu and Bashō and the writer of dozens of books in his own name (some written in Japanese), Keene’s achievements in bringing the island nation’s culture closer to the West are incalculable.

Upon his decision to retire this spring and become a Japanese citizen, the indefatigable Keene—who turned 89 last week—will speak at Japan Society about his appreciation for Japan, its literature and culture, his recollections of the past, and his hopes for the future as he discusses what motivated him to move permanently to Japan in light of the recent tsunami and earthquake. Moderated by his Columbia University colleague (and fellow celebrated Japanologist) Carol Gluck, the evening will be full of memories.

A professor at Columbia since 1955, Keene received his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the school in the 1940s as well as a Litt. D. from Cambridge University in 1978. In 1985, the native New Yorker became the first non-Japanese to receive the Yomiuri Literary Prize, honoring the best book of literary criticism in Japanese. In 2002, Keene was presented with one of Japan’s highest honors, the title “Person of Cultural Merit” (Bunka Koro-sho), for his distinguished service in the promotion of Japanese literature and culture. Keene became the third non-Japanese to be designated an individual of distinguished cultural service by the Japanese government.

In 2008, the same year he published his landmark memoir Chronicles of My Life, Keene received another lofty honor, the Order of Culture (Bunka Kunsho), which the Japanese Government presents to those who have greatly contributed to Japanese art, literature, or culture. He became the first foreign national to receive such an award.

A Q&A and reception will follow tonight’s talk, giving patrons one last time to wish the professor well on his new life in the country that gave so much not only to him, but to the world in turn.

Farewell Evening with Donald Keenetakes place Monday, June 13, 6:30 p.m. at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street (between First and Second Avenues). Tickets are sold out, but standby ones may become available at the box office prior to the event. For more information, click here or call the box office at (212) 715-1258.