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Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  233 ratings  ·  44 reviews
Hailed as the 'leading expert on Japanese literature' by the New York Times Book Review, Donald Keene has devoted more than half a century to the study and appreciation of Japanese art and culture. This memoir chronicles his extraordinary life and intellectual pursuits. ...more
Hardcover, 1st, 196 pages
Published 2008 by Columbia University Press
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Jim Coughenour
Mar 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
Any American reader of Japanese literature owes a debt to Donald Keene, an eminent translator and long-time professor at Columbia. My first encounter with his translations (over 25 years ago) was Essays in Idleness by the Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, a book I still unearth from time to time.

Keene's memoir is, in most respects, a quiet tale of an uneventful life. Other than serving as an interpreter for Japanese prisoners during World War II, the highlight of Keene's life seems to have been traveling
What an absolute joy, what a way to finish this year.

A short-ish autobiography written by Donald Keene, one of the main translators and critics who brought Japanese literature and arts to a US audience. For most of his life, Keene taught Japanese literature at Columbia University, all the while writing essays and non-fiction for a general audience (in English as well as in Japanese!) as well as translating Japanese art to English. To sound like a cliche, I feel like this describes a more civiliz
Jan 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: newly-read-2009
How did I not write a review of this?! Probably because I have too much to say about it, but a lovely memoir. It often shocks me that when I'll be talking to a fellow self-professed student of Japanese and mention Donald Keene, they have no idea who he is! May they wonder no more through these handy dandy memoirs!

Still, this book is just lovely for ... so much. First, a look at Keene's amazing life. I smiled at his recollection of that cabin in the Carolinas where he first started studying Japan
Sep 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: japan
Quite moving but mainly insanely interesting account of Donald Keene's life and work - his books, the people he met, the times during the war, his love for opera and, above all, his passion for Japan. A must-read for every Japanophile. ...more
This is the best autobiography/memoir I have ever read! It is my favorite book I have read this year, I would rate it 10 stars if I could. This is not just a chronicle of a man's life and passionate scholarship/work (though it is that), this is a story about PEOPLE and their influences and impacts on our life, no matter how brief or deep. Also, how luck and chance often shape the course of life. Keene's love of music and travel figure greatly into his recollections.

I was moved and impressed by
Jan 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
this is a wonderfully heartfelt & humble memoir from the pre-eminent Japanese Scholar. Keene recounts how he fell into his love for the Japanese culture & language quite by accident, but how those early events would shape the rest of his life. The reader gets a vivid picture of the often solitary life of a working scholar, as well as glimpses into Keene's friendships with leading Japanese writers of the day. Writers like Mishima, Kenzaburo Oë, & Kobo Abe. The book was originally written for seri ...more
Apr 20, 2019 added it
As I have enjoyed a long relationship with Japan, Prof Donald Keene's thorough and sensitive telling of his studies about Japan, time as a US Navy interrogator of Japanese prisoners, world travels, and his many, many tales of learning from, and partying with, the most esteemed of all Japanese scholars and authors (Mishima, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Oe, Abe, et al), this book touched my heart. The autobiography includes personal accounts of the background considerations leading to his most interesting ...more
Arvind Radhakrishnan
Aug 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is easily one of the best memoirs I have read.Donald Keene's erudition is truly astounding.I had started exploring Japanese literature seriously after reading his essays and books. So it was a treat to read about his life and experiences as a Japanologist. Through his wise insights he has transmitted to the world the beauty of Japanese literature. Keep teaching us Keene-san! ...more
Charlie Canning
Apr 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
For anyone studying Japanese culture, and especially Japanese literature, the name Donald Keene is a familiar one. In a career dating back to the 1950s, Keene has published more than thirty books of translation, criticism, and history. His latest offering, Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan (Columbia, 2008), is an autobiography that was first serialized in The Daily Yomiuri newspaper in 2006 as "Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century."

Keene begins the narrative with his
Aug 15, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Chronicles of My Life" is a short autobiography and memoir written by Donald Keene, who is arguably the leading American scholar of Japanese literature, poetry and theater. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught for over 50 years, and he has written several dozen books about Japanese history, culture and literature, including "Modern Japanese Literature", "Twenty Plays of the No Theatre" and "Five Modern Japanese Novelists". His lat ...more
Feb 15, 2013 rated it liked it
Donald Keene became one of the only American who has been allowed to be a Japanese citizen. He became a Japanese citizen at the age of 90. This is how and why I read about him in the NY times. He is a professor emeritus at Columbia where he taught for over 50 years. Japanese scholar, teacher, writer and translator of Japanese literature. It all begun after he had been an intelligence officer during the WWII. The book is a little disappointment because he doesn't speak a lot about him and about h ...more
Apr 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is the autobiography of Donald Keene, a famous scholar of Japanese literature. I found the first 2/3 of the book very interesting, especially the stories of how Keene ended up studying Japanese language and literature. I found the last third of the book kind of boring, though--there is a lot of discussion of whose books he translated and who he visited with. It seemed at the end as if he felt he had to mention everyone who might be still living, or whose families would want to be mentioned ...more
Masanaka Takashima
Nov 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have come to like Mr Keene through this stunning memoir. Chapters where he meets my literary heros like Kenich Yoshida and Arthur Waley excited me a lot, but I enjoyed the earlier development of how he met and learned Japanese language, and joined the US Navy as a linguist officer working in war-operations against Japan. There he translated huge amount of various Japanese sources into English. Among them were killed Japanese soldiers' diaries. Japanese soldiers were encouraged to keep a diary ...more
Jason Keenan
Jun 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: japan
What a wonderful journey and what a wonderful life. Donald Keene traces the chains of his long life (he's now in his 90s) that lead from sitting next to a Chinese student in his youth to a life as one of the world's preeminent experts on Japanese literature (and quite the writer on culture and history as well).

His life and his career and his friendships with modern writers like Yukio Mishima, as well as his focus on the history of Japanese literature, will have you taking copious note for your t
Nov 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
Have you ever read an obituary of a semi-famous person and think, "Hey, this person was awesome! Why didn't I know about them?" That's the way I feel about Donald Keene, though (thankfully) he's still alive and kicking.

Keene is a translator, professor, and scholar of Japanese literature. Those who know even a little bit about post-war writers like Mishima and Kawabata will love the anecdotes Keene relates. And anyone who has ever visited Japan, especially Kyoto, will enjoy his stories about what
Sep 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in Japan
Professor Keene's memoir is all the more powerful because of his understated style. Anyone who has lived in Japan will get a lot out of this, as will anyone who translates for a living. This is a memoir that actually has a lot to impart to its readers. It inspired me to both continue translating Japanese writers and to try to maintain even closer ties with Japan. His anecdotes about working with and becoming friends with Mishima, Abe, Tanizaki, Oe and others give us a fascinating glimpse of the ...more
Karl Lion
Mar 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
I've finished reading the book. I love many parts in it which I cannot tell you without citing almost the whole book that are still so alive and vivid in my mind. It thrills me a lot as if I've met in person with Mr. Keene. I've made a plan to read other books of his and of those he mentioned in this one. I especially love the conclusion he made for the book as well as for his life: "I hope that this chronicle, for all its deficiencies, has at least suggested how one human being spent an essenti ...more
Jan 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Received this book as part of a prize after meeting Mr Keene himself as well. It's really amazing to read about this man's life. Even though he might seem slightly reserved or retiring, it's clear that he didn't let anything hold him back all these years! The people he met, the times he experienced, they're all so fascinating. Definitely inspiring. I wonder who's going to be able to top his achievements in this field in the coming years... ...more
Feb 01, 2013 rated it liked it
Good quick read. To fully enjoy it, some knowledge of famous Japanese figures (especially from the literary world) may be required. He also talks about opera and theater a bit more than I was expecting, but overall I was satisfied, and I particularly enjoyed the illustrations.
Oct 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Love Japan. Love this book.
Alexander Páez
Oct 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Anson Cassel Mills
May 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
First a disclaimer: I know nothing about Japanese literature, and I read Keene’s autobiography only because I am fascinated with people who are gifted at mastering other languages, especially difficult ones. (Apparently even some Japanese were surprised to discover that Keene read their language.)

Donald Keene (1922-2019) was a lucid writer who chronicled his life with grace and modesty. As is typical with academic autobiographies, the general reader will probably find Keene’s early career more i
Johan Åkerman
Mar 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: japan, autobiography
If you have an interest in Japan, and in particular in Japanese literature, and possibly above all how it came to be known in the West, this book is for you. It's very easy to read, the text being straightforward and divided up into short chapters. If anything, the text might come across as a bit dry and barren, as it is very direct. It is not the literary quality that makes me give it 5 stars, but the content, following the life of the Donald Keene from childhood to his 80s. He has obviously le ...more
Rich Uncle Pennybags
Dec 10, 2021 rated it really liked it
The first couple of chapters were a bit dull, but Keene led a fascinating life, serving as an translator and interpreter in the Pacific War and rubbing shoulders with great Japanese authors and scholars of Japan seemingly immediately thereafter.

Keene's attention is strikingly focused on Japanese literature. There are very few women in this story and zero romance, he doesn't have more than a sentence or two to say about events that one would presume affected him deeply, and episodes that might h
Sep 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: japan
I did not know Donald Keene before reading this book, but I will have to check out some of his translations of Japanese literature.
The "chronicles" are an autobiography and wonderfully written, anecdotes and memories strung together to form a picture of his fascination with Japan. It is not a complete account of his life, but it shows glimpses of it.
Keene has a beautiful style, clear and warm, it's a joy to read.
David Cowhig
Sep 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Enjoyed reading Donald Keene's adventure of a life and in particular his friendship with some Japanese writers including Yukio Mishima and his World War II service. Look forward to reading some of his other books. ...more
Nancy  Miller
Dec 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, owned-kindle
Very interesting account of an American academic who becomes so immersed in Japanese culture that he is fully accepted by his Japanese colleagues.
Ron Gormley
Feb 23, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Engaging description of his Japan experience in earlier stages of this life
Oct 26, 2018 rated it liked it
I’m sorry, this was a very interesting life story told in a very boring way.
Patrick Wallace
Jan 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Donald Keene is one of the premier translators and scholars of Japanese literature. If you have read Mishima or Kawabata in English, likely it was in a book that he either translated or edited. He is also an important literary critic in the Japanese language, making him one of the very few westerners who is celebrated within Japan for works originally written in Japanese.

His memoirs are beautifully written, and form an important record of his life and his interaction with some of Japan's best mo
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Donald Keene was an American-born Japanese scholar, historian, teacher, writer and translator of Japanese literature.

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