Donald Keene
Henry Holt & Co: New York, 1993.
1,265 pp., $50.00 (cloth).

When Donald Keene first conceived of writing a history of Japanese literature, he expected to draw from his own lecture notes and complete the work in a couple of years. Twenty-five years later, he has published the fourth (following the earlier World Within Walls and the two-volume Dawn in the West) and final volume, Seeds in the Heart, a history of the first millennium of Japanese writing. This is scholarship of epic proportion.

Keene begins with the pre-Buddhist myths, legends, and songs of the “Record of Ancient Matters,” the eighth-centuryKojiki, then brings the reader along through the four thousand poems of the Man’yoshu, through the invention of the novel and Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh-century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, and on through the Middle Ages, concluding with chapters on Noh literature and the Ch’an influenced “Literature of the Five Mountains” that produced or influenced such remarkable poets as Muso Soseki and Ikkyu Sojun.

As with any book of this kind, there are a number of dubious assertions and questions of omission. In his mostly brilliant introduction, Keene says,

The waka (tanka) poets of the Kokinshu did not attempt to cram as many meanings into their poems as possible in order to overcome the limitations of the thirty-one syllables allowed them, nor did they free themselves of their Procrustean bed by sneaking an extra syllable here or there; their chief desire was to make their poems perfect.

Great poets, first of all, do not “cram” poems, nor do they “sneak” things into them. Keene apparently believes that poetic “perfection” is of numerical derivation, an absurd assertion. I seriously doubt that classical Japanese poets in general felt that their thirty-one-syllable architecture was any more a “Procrustean bed” than Shakespeare found the sonnet to be. And it is not extraordinary to find a “perfect” waka of twenty-nine or thirty-two syllables, nor for that matter a haiku of sixteen. As for omission, no mention is made, for instance, of the great Zen poet Koho Kennichi, one of the most important of the “Five Mountains” poets. And because the translations Keene includes are drawn from a wide variety of hands, they range in quality, and this is especially evident in the poetry. But all are reliable.

For the most part, Keene has a great knack for getting into the heart of the Japanese ethos. He argues persuasively in favor of the literary value of generally overlooked Kamakura period romances. He resurrects a wonderful thirteenth-century tale of a young woman raised as a male who develops the power of invisibility and eventually marries an emperor.

His research is exhaustive, and his bibliographies at the end of each chapter are a great resource, although they miss a few things, such as The Dance of Dust in the Rafters (David Jenkins’ translation of the folk song collection Ryojin hisho) and other recent translations of classical Japanese literature. Scholars should note that Keene’s bibliographies name, he says, only “the books I have consulted,” and are therefore not meant to be exhaustive. The list is, nonetheless, formidable.

Keene’s greatest strength is his ability to maintain the breadth of vision his work demands. This is clearly evident as he moves from genre to genre, tracing the development and influence of Buddhist thought in literary aesthetics, or analyzing the invention and use of kana (the Japanese phonetic syllabary) and its poetic achievement as used by Heian court women.

Necessarily subjective, delightfully provocative, all four volumes of Keene’s masterwork are rewarding reading and should be required reading for MBAs who plan to conduct business in Japan and for tourists planning to visit, as well as for all those interested in virtually any other aspect of Japanese literature. To understand why the Japanese are reluctant to buy American rice, one must understand the traditional Japanese attitude toward rice. Basho wrote, “Culture’s beginnings: / from the heart of the country / rice-planting songs.” Donald Keene has presented us with an unprecedented view of Japanese culture as understood through its literature of the past fifteen hundred years. This is a monumental achievement.