The Japanese, by the Japanese : TRAVELERS OF A HUNDRED AGES The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries <i> by Donald Keene (Henry Holt: $35; 447 pp.; 0-8050-0751-2)</i>


In the introduction to his new book, Donald Keene notes that his first contact with Japanese diaries came when he was assigned to read and translate journals left behind by soldiers in places such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Peleliu during World War II. The reason Keene was asked to read the records of the defeated (“the first Japanese I ever knew intimately,” he confesses, nostalgically) was, of course, that he could read Japanese--something that very few Americans at the time could claim. Quite naturally, this special knowledge, coupled with his general interest in the study of literature, decided his career. After the war, he continued his studies, eventually becoming professor of Japanese at Columbia University, where he has spent the last 35 years. During that time he has produced 10 scholarly volumes and as many translations (of medieval Noh plays, the essays of the medieval monk-poet Yoshida no Kenko, the Kabuki plays of Chikamatsu, novels by Dazai Osamu, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo, and so on), becoming, along with Edwin Reischauer and a handful of others, a chief interpreter of Japanese culture to the West.

Not surprisingly, Keene’s new book shows his breadth of knowledge and the unflagging curiosity that has served him so well as a scholar for the last four decades. Many of the 67 diaries he introduces to his readers are not easy to approach. Written in a variety of difficult literary dialects, they span 1,000 years of literary history, demanding of the interpreter an encyclopedic knowledge of writers and their social environments, not to mention an understanding of historical events that only a scholar with Keene’s credentials could avow.

Keene’s task is thus a daunting one; but such a book has been needed for a long time, since, as he says, the diary in Japan has never been a marginal genre, but rather one “comparable in importance to novels, essays, and other branches of literature.” Indeed, one can claim that in Japan various kinds of diaries and journals, most of them punctuated with the poetic forms that were perceived as the very heart and soul of the literary enterprise by purveyors of culture, were deemed of greater significance than outrightly fictional works. Imaginative works such as “The Tale of Genji,” however superior they may appear today, were, after all, attacked regularly by the pious of their own time as soragoto , or “lies,” while diaries, because they were based on the reality of lived experience, were thought somehow to be more authentic, more sincere. Perhaps for this reason, diaries outlasted all other genres, forming the foundation of literary expression in Japan from the 9th Century to the middle of the 19th Century.


Keene’s approach to his task is straightforward. He proceeds chronologically, beginning with the diary of Ennin, a monk who left behind an account of his pilgrimage to the great Buddhist monasteries of China, and ending with the notes of a samurai official describing negotiations with “Russian barbarians” at the coastal town of Shimoda in 1854. Along the way, he deals with all of the most famous diaries, including those written by court ladies of the Heian Period such as Murasaki Shikibu and her rival Izumi Shikibu; those written as travel records by itinerant monk-poets such as Sogi and Socho and those written by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho (perhaps the best-known of all works of Japanese literature), whose highly polished journals Keene rightly presents as the supreme examples of the art. Keene’s essays are subjective in tone and quite short, betraying their original publication as pieces for a newspaper column in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, which he has translated and adapted for English readers; but, as a result, they are also pithy and to-the-point. In each case Keene’s estimations--and they are just that, for he does not shy away from appraisals of literary worth--are rendered in fine style, with humor, humanity, and, occasionally, frustration, as when he loses patience with one too-conventional diarist, saying: “Stop telling us about the origins of tea drinking, the history of all the famous bridges of Japan, or the sound of the bells of the Miidera, and tell us about yourself, without any allusions to classical poetry or plays on words. Did you finally get a job? What did you do? Who were your friends?”

Perhaps it was just such frustrations with the works of the traditional canon that led Keene to consider a number of neglected diaries as well. In any case, and to his credit, he saves some of his best writing for works that are little known even in Japan. One such is “Account of the Takemuki Palace,” in which the court lady Hino Nako describes the intrusion of violent “savages” from the East Country into her placid surroundings in terms that adequately convey her shock but somehow seem out of keeping with her status. Another is the travel diary of the regent and statesman Ichijo Kaneyoshi, whose author, despite having been burned out of his house, chased out of his city, deprived of his income and made to undertake a tiring and dangerous journey in order to beg for sustenance from a provincial warrior, remains cheerful to the end, noting of his hosts that they “seem not to have abandoned the arts of poetry, music, and dance,” thus mentally restoring himself and his class to their proper position at the top of the cultural hierarchy. But even more interesting are a handful of works by a few 18th- and 19th-Century eccentrics, the most interesting of whom may be Shiba Kokan, a painter-philosopher whose individuality Keene establishes by relating how once, at a deer hunt, the man tackled a wounded deer and tore off its ear to suck its blood, which he had heard was an elixir for long life. Other anecdotes, not of the sort one usually associates with the Japanese, enhance the image of a true individualist, which Keene constructs with great relish.

In short, then, Keene’s portraits of the Japanese made by the Japanese themselves provide a more concrete view of Japanese history than can be had from narrative histories. Throughout, he is motivated by “the pleasure of discovering people.” This is a limitation in some ways, since it means concentrating less on the examination of writing itself and more on ideas of personality and its expression that are foreign to the culture that produced both. But, still, Keene does what he sets out to do well: He is a good guide who introduces us to some fascinating people.