From his first glance of Mount Fuji close to 70 years ago, Donald Keene understood its unique status as a symbol of Japan. The Asahi Shimbun sat down with the noted Japanese literature scholar to talk about Mount Fuji and his views on Japanese aesthetics.
Keene, 91, said he first saw the mountain in December 1945. When the war ended four months earlier he had been on Guam, from where he was sent to China as a naval intelligence officer. There his work in China had been to interview Japanese citizens before their repatriation to Japan. He had learned his Japanese at the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School.
On the way back to the United States from China, he had stopped in Japan. He knew Mount Fuji from photographs but was even more eager to see Nikko because in the textbook from which he learned Japanese it had said, "Nikko wo minai uchi wa kekko to iu na" (Don't say wonderful until you've seen Nikko). He accordingly went by jeep to Nikko, but was rather disappointed by the garish architecture.
A week later he saw Mount Fuji for the first time. He was aboard a naval vessel crossing Tokyo Bay from Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture to Kimitsu in Chiba Prefecture. It was still dark when suddenly Fuji appeared before him, pink in the first light of day. He said, "I have never since seen Fuji look so beautiful." He realized then the special importance of this mountain to Japanese lay not only in its height but its perfect shape. He could not think of any American mountain that held that importance for Americans.
Keene then took out the latest volume to appear of his 15-volume "Collected Works" and read a haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-1696): "Kiri shigure. Fuji wo minu hi zo/ omoshiroki" (A day of mist and drizzle--a day one can't see Fuji is the most evocative).
He explained, "For Japanese the full moon is not necessarily the most beautiful, nor are cherry blossoms beautiful only at their peak. Cherry blossoms in the bud bring the pleasure of expectation of the full flowering; cherry blossoms that have fallen recall the beauty that has passed."
He said he had learned most about Japanese aesthetics from translating "Tsurezuregusa" (Essays in Idleness) by the priest Kenko (1183-1352). Japanese aesthetics were also deeply influenced by the tastes of Yoshimasa, the eighth of the Ashikaga shoguns during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573). Unable to control the war raging between two powerful families, he withdrew to a mountain retreat, now known as the Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) where he gave himself to aesthetic pursuits. The architecture of his temple is still Japanese traditional style. It is marked by a tokonoma alcove where works of art (often sumie) and flower arrangements are displayed, by the square rather than round columns, by the paper shoji over the windows, and by the tatami covering the entire floor.
"The great surprise for me on first visiting the Ginkakuji was that the interior looked so like a high-class Japanese house or restaurant today. I would have certainly been surprised if I went into the kind of room described in 'The Tale of Genji,' but the aesthetic preferences of Yoshimasa in architecture, painting, and the tea ceremony trickled down through the whole of Japanese society.
"In contrast to Western aesthetics, which tends to prefer the grand and rich (as in the palaces of Europe), the Japanese prefer the simple and understated. Beauty can be anywhere--in the wrapping of an inexpensive purchase or even in a small vase above a bus driver or in the flowers in a toilet.
"Of course, not all Japanese are sensitive to beauty, and many cannot afford it, but as a whole the Japanese are exceptional in their appreciation of beauty. I have tried in my writings to transmit the pleasure and excitement of 70 years of studying Japanese culture."