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Are scholars and literary figures reliable?

This section is a serialized section from Shunsuke Yamagishi, who is active as an education journalist, about education problems.

Behinds a speech overflowing with humor

The Japanese National Press Club held a luncheon to celebrate the receipt of the Bunka Kunsho (Culture Award) by Mr. Donald Keene. Participants paid a fee of 2,000 yen in order to eat lunch together with Mr. Keene, the guest of honor. After lunch, Mr. Keene spoke for approximately 30 minutes and then answered questions. The luncheon began at 12:00 PM and ended at 1:30 PM. Mr. Keene's speech was very interesting and filled will humor.

From a young age, Mr. Keene traveled to a surprisingly large number of places to study. The locations were in Europe and Africa, but were filled with an almost dizzying variety. However, Mr. Keene did not have an interest in Japan. It seems that he never considered the existence of literature in Japan.

Mr. Keene's attention was drawn to Japan when, in New York, he accidentally discovered an English translation of the Genji Monogatari (Tales of the Genji) from within a pile of antiquarian books. Upon reading Genji Monogatari, he found it quite interesting, and was overjoyed to realize that this kind of wonderful literature existed in Japan. His reason for using the draft in existence during World War II and applying to a naval Japanese school was that he wanted to use work to improve his Japanese.

Mr. Keene and other commissioned office who understood Japanese read journals written by soldiers in the Japanese navy and other literature of the Japanese army. If there were prisoners of war who were the author of a journal or who knew relevant information, that prison was called in for questioning. In his speech, Mr. Keene emphasized that he never threatened prisoners in order to coerce them into speaking. Rather, he treated them equally as human beings.

After the end of the war, America held power in Japan as an occupying army, and the Japanese people bowed down before that power. However, similar to when America was engaged in war with Japan, Mr. Keene never changed his attitude of interacting equally as human beings with Japanese people. Undoubtedly, Mr. Keene has acted the same way towards any person that he has ever met, regardless of the time or place.

Recently, there are many researchers and literary figures who praise Mr. Keene. This may be because they have come to understand Mr. Keene's attitude towards living. Listening to Mr. Keene's speech reminded me of Mr. Michio Nagai(*).

Mr. Nagai was the first Japanese to realize Mr. Keene's ability. After the war, Mr. Keene studied abroad at Kyoto University. He also boarded in a Japanese home because he wanted to learn the culture of Japan. Mr. Nagai, who had returned from America after obtaining his Ph.D., boarded in the same home as Mr. Keene.

Mr. Nagai introduced Mr. Keene to Mr. Hoji Shimanaka, who was a classmate of Mr. Nagai since elementary school and was serving as President of Chuo-Koron Company at that time. Through the graces of Mr. Shimanaka, Mr. Keene was able to meet top-class literary figures such as Junichiro Tanizaki, an opportunity which was normally unthinkable for an unknown researcher.

Mr. Nagai gave a high evaluation to Mr. Keene's academic work, even saying that it surpassed that of Japanese people. According to what I have heard, the depth of Mr. Keene's academic work was introduced to many Japanese people in the year after the end of the Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, no one believed in the value of his work, saying that no foreigner could possibly comprehend Japanese literature.

(*) 1923 to 2006. Research in educational sociology. 95th Minister of Education.

Work of a scholar and literary figure

This kind of thinking was typical of Japanese people at the time. I am embarrassed to say that, while I had heard of Mr. Keene at the time, I made no effort to research or understand the depth and breadth of his work, and immediately dismissed the idea of a foreigner comprehending Japanese literature as impossible.

I suppose that it cannot be helped if the masses of Japanese public shared my thinking. However, it is unfortunate that the same views were held by the intelligentsia and literary figures that included top-level scholars, researchers and journalists. If doubts existed, then a survey should have been made of Mr. Keene's work to confirm its substance. However, these top-level figures did not do so.

Sensation of groupies

Nowadays, Mr. Keene's name is heard everywhere. Why? When did everyone begin to comprehend Mr. Keene's academic work and become his fans? Are these new-found fans embarrassed by how they ignored Mr. Keene's work in the past?

I used the term top-level scholars and literary figures, but depending on the perspective, there is not such a difference between top-level and third-class, and they all might be better described as groupies. I suppose that it made them happy to band together and trust themselves to the trends of the time. Courage is required to speak out and condemn such action.

During the Q&A session with Mr. Keene, I raised my hand many times and sought the opportunity to speak. However, no matter how many times I tried, I was never called upon, and my valuable questions (at least I think so) were left unasked.

It would be easy for me to ask Mr. Keene directly. However, there would be something lacking from questions asked in such a way. Therefore, I am considering holding a symposium. Participants would be a one representative of top-level scholars/literary figures, one representative of third-class scholars/literary figures, and Mr. Keene. Perhaps we could even request that Mr. Michio Nagai participate from beyond the grave.

The way in which Japanese people evaluated Mr. Donald Keene is related to the fundamental attitude with which the Japanese have viewed culture. This is very important and signifies that the same irresponsible attitude will be repeated in the future if we continue to conduct ourselves based on such vague concepts.

If I may speak bluntly, I would like to ask if something can be done with the host who didn't call on me during the Q&A session with Mr. Keene.

Shunsuke Yamagishi

Graduated in 1958 from the Niigata University Faculty of Humanities Department of Law. Served as a reporter at the Niigata Nippo and the Asahi Shimbun before becoming a Professor at Tama University (teacher-training course). After reaching the mandatory retirement age, served as a Visiting Professor until last year. In 1968, selected as an Honor Student for the First Term of the Oya Soichi Tokyo Mass Communication School. In 1970, received the Kikuchi Award for the series of newspaper articles entitled "The Japanese Sea of Tomorrow". Active as an education journalist. Has authored many works, including "At the Scene of University Reform" (Tamagawa University Publishing Department).