Photo/Illutration A photo of Donald Keene is on display at the Donald Keene 100th Anniversary Exhibition being held at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama's Naka Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

American-born Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene (1922-2019) was 16 when he encountered kanji Chinese characters.

So different from the English alphabet, the ideograms captivated him.

Keene became partial to kanji made up of many strokes. He was exhilarated when he successfully wrote "eichi" (wisdom) and "yuutsu" (melancholy), each written with two multiple-stroke characters.

I visited the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature where the "Donald Keene 100th Anniversary Exhibition: A Life-long Pursuit of Japanese Culture" is being held until July 24.

The exhibits included a "meishi" business card Keene used as a U.S. military officer dispatched to Qingdao, China. On the card was his surname in "ateji"--kanji used to phonetically represent Keene.

While living in Japan, he often signed his name in various ateji versions of his surname.

Also shown at the museum was a photo of him holding a gun in his right hand and clutching a Japanese-English dictionary under his left arm.

During World War II, Keene landed on one of the Aleutian Islands and was shocked to witness a Japanese soldier commit suicide by slamming a hand grenade to his chest.

But from the letters and diaries of Japanese soldiers he read, he was also deeply impressed by the refined dignity with which they penned their death poems and farewell notes.

This experience later inspired him to research the diaries of poets Ki no Tsurayuki (circa 872-945) and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

Looking at various exhibits, I recalled the one and only time I audited professor Keene's lecture at Columbia University in the United States.

Speaking in Japanese as well as English, he explained archaic literary expressions in contemporary Japanese, including “adashi gokoro” (temptation to play around) and “hiyoku renri” (marital vow for eternal love and fidelity).

He freely moved from one topic to another, including "Kokin Wakashu" (Collection of Poems of Ancient and Modern Times), the famed Chinese imperial consort Yang Guifei and Japanese author Yukio Mishima.

I was spellbound throughout the two-hour lecture, which was given in March 2011--right after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Keene expressed his deep concern for the affected areas, noting that the Tohoku region occupies a special place in his heart because when he was younger, he retraced the journey Basho chronicled in his "Oku no Hosomichi" (The Narrow Roads to the Deep North).

He also voiced his desire to live permanently in Japan after retirement. And he fulfilled his wish by acquiring Japanese citizenship and living his final years in Tokyo.

June 18 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. I contemplate anew the serendipity of this extraordinarily talented man encountering kanji for "wisdom" and "melancholy."

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 17

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.