That time of life I suppose but sometimes I see a chapter of my life flash before me in the obits. It happened again today. Donald Keene was his name, 94 when he died. His life was intertwined with my parent’s lives since just after WWII when they’d all been working in post war Japan. He came back into their lives and into the fabric of my childhood when my folks moved again, this time with my sister and me in tow, to Japan for the shank of Dad’s civilian career. Donald was a pioneer into in depth understanding of the Japanese culture. He cultivated an extraordinary ability to translate that land’s values and beauty to Western sensibilities. He was especially capable when it came to seeing, really seeing the inscrutable heart of the Japanese. He showed the way for so very many and companioned people like my parents, long term expats, on their cultural odyssey. His life was filled with purpose and meaning and his death is a tangible loss.
Perhaps because he never ceased to identify first as an American, he was able to safe guard an objective view of the ways and mores unique to Japan. What I wouldn’t give for a sage, loving yet objective view of what’s happening in our United States of today.
Donald’s legacy makes me think about other cultural scholars whose brilliance provide much needed insights to foreign brethren. Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria and James Fallows come to mind. Those gentlemen help me make sense of a world gone, in some ways, mad. Who, I wonder are the scholars currently working to advance a nuanced understanding of countries that can seem so distant to American sensibilities? Syria, Iraq, all of Central America top my list. I wish those current and future scholars well in their studies for surely it from the seeds of understanding they sew that the fruits of lasting peace will bloom. I hope their good voices find the kind of appreciative platform Donald’s did. We need them now, perhaps more than ever.