Within the Family
Building Bridges and Rebuilding Lives
Donald Keene ’42, ’49 GSAS came to Columbia from Brooklyn, Ashley Hayes ’06 from Atlanta, separated by some 64 years. On Morningside Heights, a passion for the culture of Japan — a country some 6,760 miles away — blossomed in both.
Keene was browsing the discount shelves at a bookstore when he came across a two-volume edition of The Tale of Genji. He invested 49 cents and became fascinated by the story and its hero. He went on to study under cultural historian Ryusaku Tsunoda and developed a close friendship with Wm. Theodore de Bary ’41, ’53 GSAS, with whom he helped build Columbia’s program in East Asian languages and cultures.
Keene spent summers in Japan during the early part of his teaching career, then developed an arrangement where he taught fall semesters in Japan and spring semesters at Columbia. He became far more famous in his adopted homeland than he was in the United States. “You can’t go anywhere in Japan and utter the words ‘Donald Keene’ and not have everybody know him,” says Carol Gluck ’77 GSAS, Columbia’s George Sansom Professor of History.
After Keene became ill last winter, he announced his retirement from teaching and his plan to become a Japanese citizen and live full-time in Tokyo, where he has kept a home for more than 30 years. When he taught his final class at Columbia in the spring, the classroom was overflowing with Japanese journalists and camera crews.
Hayes spent two weeks in Japan while in high school and became intrigued by its culture, past and present. She was attracted to Columbia because of its outstanding East Asian studies program. She learned Japanese and spent her junior year in Japan.
After graduation, Hayes worked in Nagano and later in Tokyo, which is where she was when the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11. With the U.S. and other countries urging its citizens to leave Japan, she returned to Atlanta for about 10 days, but her heart was still in Japan and she knew she had to return as soon as possible. She spent the next four months there, and although she again returned to Atlanta in August, she says she still loves Japan, reads Japanese newspapers and blogs every day and would live there again if that is how life unfolds.
Hayes says, “I’d like to be one of those Americans like Donald Keene who’s a bridge between Japan and America.”
One of the great things about a large research university like Columbia is the vast array of possibilities it affords. Wherever you go you will find a renowned expert on something or other.
One of Columbia’s experts on Japan is Gerald Curtis, the Burgess Professor of Political Science who concurrently is visiting professor at Waseda University and senior research fellow at the International Institute for Economic Studies in Tokyo and the Tokyo Foundation. He directed Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute for 12 years and has held appointments at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London; the College de France, Paris; the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore; and in Tokyo at Keio and Tokyo Universities, the Research Institute for Economy, Trade and Industry, the Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies, and the International Institute of Economic Studies.
Curtis visited the disaster zone on Japan’s Northeast Pacific coast in May to prepare a documentary for Japanese television, and he returned there numerous times in the subsequent months. In our cover story, “Tohoku Diary,” Curtis describes the devastation he saw on his visits and takes us to the towns and villages and inside the evacuation shelters and temporary housing to hear of the impact the disaster had on people in the region.
Some of the stories are heart-wrenching. A woman says her only possession is the cell phone she had with her when she fled the tsunami, yet she still manages to smile and say she will be OK. Another woman speaks of her husband, who was swept away by the tsunami, the tears in her eyes betraying the smile on her lips.
Yet in the face of disaster, there is hope. Mayor Sato of Minami Sanriku speaks of consolidating ravaged fishing ports into larger centers with more modern equipment. The owner of a fish packing plant in Ofunatu wonders where he will raise the $5 million–$10 million he says it will take to recover from his loss, but adds that he is determined to get his plant up and running again and to rehire employees he had to let go.
Curtis describes the excessive government regulations and segmented bureaucracy that often hampers recovery efforts. But he also says the story is “one of resilience, community solidarity and self-help,” of a people determined to rebuild their lives.
What does this have to do with the College? In this age of globalization, what affects one part of the world often impacts the rest of it, or at least carries global implications. The November economic crisis in Europe is a perfect example, its impact being felt by the U.S. and other countries around the world. We all can learn from the tragedy in Japan and the response of that country’s people, companies and layers of government. And Curtis and Keene are examples of the quality of faculty members who have taught, and in Curtis’ case continue to teach, these lessons to Columbians throughout the years, something that should never be taken for granted.