Photo/IllutrationDonald Keene stands in front of the “Muhinjuan” hermitage in October 1993, which he called the world’s best house, in Kyoto’s Kamigyo Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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KYOTO--Donald Keene spent his final days in Tokyo, but in his early 30s, the “Muhinjuan” hermitage here was home sweet home for the renowned scholar of Japanese literature.

“I thought the house and its environment were the best in the world as there was a green valley deeply spreading and the murmur of a brook,” Keene said.

He was smitten on sight with the old wooden-beamed dwelling thought to have been built over 700 years ago, after close friend Otis Cary (1921-2006), a professor at Doshisha University and a researcher of Japanese culture, showed it to him. Keene lived there for about two years after enrolling in Kyoto University in 1953.

It proved to be a productive period for Keene, who died at age 96 on Feb. 24, revered by the country he adopted, and around the world, as the individual primarily responsible for spreading the wonders of Japanese literature abroad.

Kyoto was Keene's first love, although he went back and forth between his home country, the United States, and Japan after returning to New York in 1955.

His bond with Japan was so intense that following the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, he returned to Japan after taking Japanese citizenship at age 89.

The name of the house aptly fits Keene's relationship with it: Muhinjuan means "house without any separation between its owner and a guest."

True to its name, moving into Muhinjuan seemed to quickly open up new and vital social doors for the blossoming Japanologist, key contacts that would last a lifetime and cement his love of Japan's history and culture.

While there, Keene met Michio Nagai (1923-2000), an assistant professor of educational sociology at Kyoto Uiversity, who later served as education minister. He brought Keene together with Hoji Shimanaka (1923-1997), president of the publishing firm Chuokoron-sha.

Keene's encounters with them prompted him to deepen his friendship with other Japanese authors and delve further into researching Japanese literature.

The lover of Japanese letters would learn “kyogen,” a traditional form of comedic theater, from Shigeyama Sennojo (1923-2010), a performer of the art who belonged to the Okura school, and practice it at Muhinjuan.

The hermitage that Keene so adored is believed to have been built by surviving warriors of the defeated Taira clan in a mountainous area of the Hida district in today's Gifu Prefecture, before being relocated to Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward.

In 1979, it was again moved to the Imadegawa Campus of Doshisha University in the city’s Kamigyo Ward.

When the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, a body that tries to assess the impact of Japanese culture from an international perspective, was founded in the city’s Nishikyo Ward in 1987, Keene took up a professorship there.

"Keene created an atmosphere at the center where scholars with star quality gathered for research,” said Susumu Nakanishi, 89, a Japanese literature scholar who worked with Keene and lives in the ward.

“Keene was so popular that he would always draw a crowd during a party. He played a key role to spread Japanese culture to the rest of the world,” Nakanishi added.

In New York at age 18, Keene picked up a book that would change his life: an English translation of "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji), written in the early 11th century by a noblewoman in the imperial court and regarded as the world's first novel.

He was instantly hooked on Japanese literature.

Even in his twilight years, Keene would exhort the joys of reading Japanese literature to all who entered his orbit.

“If you ask Japanese high school students what their least favorite subject is, many of them will answer, ‘classic literature of Japanese.’ The tendency is deeply related to (the way of holding) entrance examinations,” Keene said in 2014 during a discussion with Nakanishi.

To get as high a score as possible on tests, students have no choice but to focus on the grammar details of classical Japanese and rarely savor the stories, Keene pointed out.

“If students want to raise their grades, they should read Page 1 to 5 or 6 of "Genji Monogatari" in the original Japanese to learn how to use postpositions,” he added.

“However, they should read the story in modern Japanese (for the purpose of understanding the plot) to enjoy reading it. Learning grammar can be postponed,” he advised.