The Real Meaning of “Sensei”: Donald Keene and His Students

Photo by Michael Dames, and used with permission from the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University.

By Carol Gluck

Readers, writers, and scholars in Japan and the West celebrated the life and work of Donald Keene in the days after his death on February 24. At the same time, a smaller, but still quite large, group of his former students consoled one another in criss-crossing e-mails that recounted the importance of Donald Keene in their own lives. From around the world came the warmth of personal remembrance: studying with Professor Keene at Columbia had challenged and inspired them in the classroom and for decades afterwards.  From undergraduates who took only one course from him to doctoral students who later became his scholarly colleagues, they never forgot him as he never forgot them. Their eyes light up when they speak of him, as his eyes did when first he taught them and ever after when he met or thought of them.

I am a member of this grateful group, who remember Donald Keene not only as a master scholar, prodigious writer, and sparkling lecturer, but as a teacher who transported us with his passion and erudition into the worlds of Japanese literature and culture. I have long wondered how he worked this magic on so many students for so long. I tried to answer this question first by re-reading my class notes from Professor Keene’s famous lecture course on Japanese literature in translation, which I took as a graduate student in Japanese history at Columbia in 1968-69. There I found certain often repeated words that suggest part of the secret of his classroom sorcery.

From the Manyōshū to Mishima, Professor Keene led us into each work, making us feel as if were walking around inside the poem, play, or novel, inhabiting it, breathing it, feeling it. “Feeling,” for him, was the key to literature. Murasaki was right, he told us, when she said that a story comes about when an experience has moved a writer “to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in the heart.” Professor Keene’s love of Japanese literature was itself “an emotion so passionate” that he had to communicate it to others, and especially to his students.

Closely connected to feeling—and being moved by a literary work—was the importance of “heart.” Seeds in the Heart is the title of the first volume of his magisterial History of Japanese Literature. And he preferred characters, like Genji, who had the capacity to feel and to affect the feelings of the reader, rather than those, like the man who spent his life in love (Saikaku’s Kōshoku ichidai otoko), whom he considered “heartless.” In his own work he “tried always to detect something that comes from the writer’s heart…that makes me feel I know the author…and knowing one person well can sometimes make it possible to know the world he or she lives in.” Through feeling and heart, Professor Keene ushered his students into those worlds, one class session and one writer at a time.

“Worlds” was another of his favorite words. The second volume of the history of Japanese literature, World Within Walls, referred to the cultural world of Tokugawa Japan, which he recognized as confined within its borders. But from his 1954 book on rangaku (The Japanese Discovery of Europe) and throughout his life, he stressed Japan’s openness to the world, whether China or the West, even during the supposedly walled-off Tokugawa centuries. And in his teaching he never spoke of Japanese literary works in isolation from the wider world: Shakespeare, Defoe, Proust, Pushkin—not to mention, opera—appeared throughout, making the point that the worlds of literature transcend national boundaries.  Hamlet, said Professor Keene, does not care what people think. In comparison, Chikamatsu’s hapless heroes act within the social morality of their times, which makes them, Professor Keene concluded, more sympathetic than the Danish prince. None of us of course had ever thought or heard such a thing before. We were delighted. And so we were swept along with Donald Keene as he traversed worlds presenting Japanese literature as world literature, open to anyone willing to read with care—and feeling.

It was often said that Donald Keene knew more about Japanese culture than many Japanese, but as a teacher he did not seem to be imparting his knowledge from on high to a classroom of untutored students, even if taken altogether, we may still not know as much about Japan as he did. I recall Abe Kōbō, a good friend of Donald’s, once asking him please to resolve each day in the new year to forget one thing he knew about Japan, just to make things more equal between the two of them. But for his students, whom he treated as equals in appreciation, Professor Keene’s encyclopedic knowledge made the classroom a cultural cornucopia, overflowing with stories and histories, characters, genres, and beauty (another of his favorite words). We used to say that class was like going to the movies—a pleasure just to listen and learn.

Donald Keene sparked a contagion of interest in Japan in several hundreds of students who took his lecture course on Japanese literature. For the smaller number who were studying advanced Japanese language, he offered a series of seminars in which he and the students read Noh plays, the works of Chikamatsu, Bashō, and others, one writer or genre for each semester. These seminars, too, were a tour de force but of a different nature. I was studying modern Japanese history, not literature. But like others who had taken his lecture course, I signed up for the Bashō and Chikamatsu seminars just to have more of Donald Keene. They were among the hardest and most exhilarating academic experiences I ever had. We read the entire text, word by word, translating passages at home and reciting and explaining our translations in class.

If this sounds boring, it was just the opposite, not because of our wretched translations but because of what Professor Keene did with them. He used them to talk about the content and the context of the work, the writer and the times, the language and images. It was scholarly improvisation of the highest order: on-the-spot mini-lectures and insights that were worth the price of admission, that price being the hours of homework spent translating what were for us quite difficult texts.  

And without making a point of it, Donald Keene showed us the way a master translator works. Not only did his English make sense—ours often did not—but he never omitted even one word of the Japanese original. Many translators when they encounter something they don’t understand simply skip the troublesome words. But in Keene’s translations, even the complex puns and wordplay of Chikamatsu’s michiyuki found their English counterparts on the page. He did this, once again, by inhabiting the text so completely that he understood every word; only then did he begin to translate. Needless to say, very few of us ever mastered his skill, but it was breathtaking to watch how he did it.

Donald Keene treated all his students the same way. It did not matter who you were. As long as you were interested in Japan, he was yours. Many of his most accomplished  students were women, who succeeded at a time when there were few women in the academy. Some who remained close to him to the end had been young undergraduates who went on to careers of different sorts, but never forgot the man who taught them about Japanese literature. It helped that Donald Keene was not only a prolific scholar but also a copious letter-writer of the kind that no longer exists, and indeed did not exist for most people even while he was alive. Reflecting on the close relations between Donald Keene and his former students over the years, I decided to re-read my correspondence with him from the early 1970s until late last year. It is a thick file, several inches high, stuffed with letters and postcards, filled with news, much humor, some sadness, questions about Columbia, battles with the waporo [word processor], concern for me and my family, and always the complaints about my not replying soon enough. (Here I could sympathize with Abe Kōbō. I often asked him please not to answer my letters so promptly because there was no way I could match his epistolary powers.)

A lifelong relationship between teacher and student, which may seem normal in Japan, is less common in the United States. Or at least, a relationship like the one between Donald Keene and his far-flung students, many of whom are not properly speaking deshi (academic disciples). They are simply students whose mind and life were touched by Donald Keene in such a deep way that even those who did not exchange letters or later meet with him cherish his influence to the present day. That is the reason for the many e-mails over the past few weeks and for the growing list of former students now sharing remembrances of their time in the classroom with Professor Keene.  

Donald used to say that he hated the term sensei and wished people would not call him that. But he always liked the word “teacher.” He revered his own teachers at Columbia, especially Mark van Doren and Tsunoda Ryūsaku. Donald Keene graduated from Columbia College in 1942, received his Ph.D. in 1951, and began to teach Japanese literature in 1955. After he retired from the university in 1992, he returned to teach at Columbia every spring for twenty more years, until he moved to Tokyo permanently in 2011. Teaching was central to his soul, or as he would have said, his heart. And his students understood that. For us Donald Keene, in addition to everything else he was, embodied the real meaning of Sensei. We mourn and miss him together.

Carol Gluck is George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University.