Archive | November 3, 2012

Donald Keene Takes Japanese Citizenship: Now Let’s Move On

Donald Keene took Japanese citizenship. Keene is a nearly 90 year old retired Professor of Japanese Studies at Columbia University. He was notable for his many excellent English translations of some of Japan’s most important literary works. Keene served in the US military during World War II working as an interrogator. Keene went to Japan, fell in love with the country and stayed. The New York Times wrote a short article detailing his life and reporting that he had finally retired to Japan.

Truthfully, I found the article quite annoying. Keene was an important member of the unofficial “Chrysanthemum Club,” a group of military associated academics and culturalists who were tasked with repackaging Japan as a friendly and tranquil ally of the United States. The incredibly deep cultural legacy of Japan most certainly cannot be denied, and is deserving of study. The “Chrysanthemum Club,” however, not only whitewashed Japan’s awful militaristic history, but exacerbated the existing “Nihonjinron,” a soul seeking quest of nationalistic Japanese academics hell bent on proving Japan to be “the most unique culture on the planet.”

The myth of Japanese “uniqueness” would go on to inform the manner in which Japan presented itself to the world and the way that Japanese departments and language education would educate. I studied Japanese briefly in the early 90’s at the University of Michigan. We were told that the author of the textbook (Jordan) believed the Japanese language so unique, that it is impossible to foreigners to achieve any level of proficiency. Presumably, because Japanese is “difficult” and that foreign brains are inherently unequipped to handle Japanese’s special nuances.

This “uniqueness” of the Japanese language is, of course, nonsense. Korean and Japanese are so grammatically similar as to almost be dialects of the same language. As for foreigners not being able to learn Japanese, well, come on over for dinner sometime. I’ll invite some of my friends and we can hang out.

As much as I want to venerate Keene, whose great contributions are many, I found my blood pressure rising while reading the NYT article. On taking Japanese citizenship, Keene states:

“When I first did it, I thought I’d get a flood of angry letters that ‘you are not of the Yamato race!’ but instead, they welcomed me,” said Dr. Keene, using an old name for Japan. “I think the Japanese can detect, without too much trouble, my love of Japan.”


““I have not met a Japanese since then who has not thanked me. Except the Ministry of Justice,””

These statements appear innocuous, but they are anything but. “A Japanese” grates on my nerves, sounding more like an animal than a human*. Worse yet, it implies that all people in Japan are the same, which they are certainly not. Anyone who speaks Japanese knows what a deeply diverse place Japan is. Keene’s probably well-intentioned statements are, to me, the worst kind of friendly racism out there.

This antiquated idea of Japan’s people as a “race” and the toxic “us vs. the other” attitude that dominated discussions of Japan following the War has got to go. Keene, as a thoughtful academic, should know this. Though I feel bad beating up on an old man, an esteemed individual like Keene should know very well how important semantics are.

When I was in Osaka last June, I had dinner with the head of the Economics Department at Osaka City University. He told me that Japan needed people like me (Japanese proficient academics) because it was so academically behind the United States. While I believe that he was just being kind, I quickly corrected him. Japan and the United States in 2012 are equals and we deserve to treat each other as such. Pandering and antiquated ideas of a strong US and a cute, child-like and fluffy Japan, an idea which Keene still appears to hold, have to finally be put to rest.

* “An American” is purely a statement of statehood to me. “Americans” are holders of blue passports.

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