Cataloging Donald Keene’s Large Estate of Cultural Items; Japan Scholar Left Trove of Letters, Calligraphy, Antiques

The Japan News photos
Top: Some of the 6,500 books in Keene’s collection after organization and sorting
Bottom: A copy of Arthur Waley’s translation of “The Tale of Genji” is one of the books in the collection.

The Donald Keene Memorial Foundation in Kita Ward, Tokyo, is sorting and organizing the vast trove of letters, calligraphy, paintings, antiques and ceramics left behind by cultural scholar Donald Keene (1922-2019) at a Kita Ward government facility. I visited the site in December to report on the process and recognized that the hard work they were doing requires a lot of perseverance.

“He was a frequent letter writer, so there were a lot [of letters] coming in,” foundation staff member Toshiyuki Shimada said as he sorted the letters. More than 2,000 letters, roughly 80% in Japanese and 20% in English, were in baskets arranged alphabetically on the floor.

“There are also about 1,000 precious letters from Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and other famous people,” said Seiki Keene, who became the scholar’s adopted son in 2012, “They were all donated to the Columbia University library in New York.” In other words, what remains here are other letters, many of them from acquaintances and students who had been friends over the course of Keene’s long life.

Letters from ambassadors of various countries, famous pianists and haiku poets are also included.

In addition to the letters, the sorting process includes calligraphy, paintings, antiques, ceramics, letters of appreciation from academic societies, university gowns, gifts, records and CDs, and much more. Seiki showed me a small silver case that Keene gave to his mother in New York, a foreign souvenir knife given to him by Kobo Abe, and a medal related to Yasunari Kawabata. These items had been kept at Seiki’s parents’ house in Niigata Prefecture or at their summer cottage in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.

Many more such items are still in cardboard boxes from moving companies and have not been touched. Shimada and Nobuo Ohashi, a former Kita Ward official and researcher at the foundation, have been going through the material little by little, and according to Shimada, it will probably take about another year to complete.

The Japan News
Top: Nobuo Ohashi, left, and Toshiyuki Shimada sort calligraphy, paintings, antiques, ceramics and gifts. After organization and sorting, the items are stored in plastic cases.
Bottom: Letters are sorted into baskets in alphabetical order.

About 350 items of calligraphy paintings and antiques have been sorted out, and they are stored in plastic storage cases along with inventory lists. From here, the collection is lent out to Donald Keene exhibitions that have been held in various locations in Japan.

However, many of the items have yet to be identified with any episodes about which they may hold memories. That is Seiki’s role. Keene was a lover of opera, with Maria Callas at the top of his list. He had about 1,000 records and CDs of opera alone. Seiki said: “My father used to teach me about opera. He was a wonderful teacher.”

Meanwhile, the organization of approximately 6,500 books in Keene’s collection was undertaken by Toyo University under an agreement with Kita Ward, and that project has already been completed. Since 2022, a total of 33 students have taken turns cataloging and organizing all the books under the guidance of university professors and officials from the Kita Ward Central Library. Toyo University also produced reports in both English and Japanese and Kita Ward will consider how to utilize the collection of books in the future.

The Japan News
One of the catalogs created for items from Donald Keene’s estate