Friday, May 10, 2013
Donald Keene is perhaps the world's best known living non-Japan-born scholar of things Japanese. Keene taught Japanese studies at Columbia University, his alma mater, for over fifty years, and where there is now a Japanese studies center named after him.
Last year, Keene moved to Japan to live, saying he wanted to spend the rest of his life (however many years that may be: he is now 90) with the Japanese people in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. He expressed disappointment at so many foreigners having left Japan in the wake of the disaster, and wanted to show his solidarity by becoming a citizen, which he did by naturalization, relinquishing his American citizenship.
This reason is a little suspect. One wonders about the authenticity of an impossibly broad gesture of "solidarity" like moving to Tokyo, where he is just one in a sea of millions who generally seem to show little meaningful solidarity with the victims of the Tohoku disaster, the capital operating with close to effective disregard for what happens elsewhere in Japan. And why didn't Keene decide to make his permanent home in Japan a long time ago, after the even greater disaster that was the Pacific War?
However, the latest development in Keene's life perhaps makes some retrospective - and rather more level-headed - sense of his decision to move here. Just last week Keene adopted a 62-year-old shamisen player, Seiki Uehara, who has now taken Keene's surname as his own. Keene has never come out as being gay, but it is a pretty open secret that he is, and this adoption episode is no doubt an example of a common solution to the absence of gay civil unions or gay marriage in Japan.
The adopting of adults by adults is by no means unusual in Japan, in fact Japan has a very long history of it. Nearly all adoptions in Japan are of males in the 20s and 30s for the purpose of assuring a household an heir. Gay men who wish to live as a married couple can therefore take advantage of Japan's adoption system, one adopting the other into his registered household (such household registration, or the koseki system, being a foundation of Japanese society), and thus enjoy the taxation, and other, benefits of being members of the same family.
Out of respect for Keene's never having come out as gay, the major news organs describe this new relationship in mentor-student terms, made more plausible of course by the almost three-decade age gap between the two. Such reports only manage to sound coy, however, describing how the younger Keene will be "putting Donald Keene's extensive library in order," "doing the cooking," "organizing Donald Keene's busy schedule," and other such lampoonable phrases.
Gay relationships are not officially recognized in Japan, and the institution of the family in Japan maintains an almost feudal significance, requiring an heir. Therefore, gay relationships in Japan are seen socially as fundamentally frivolous, i.e., not truly respectable - even if there is none of the moral opprobrium in the Japanese that typifies many other peoples.
Donald Keene has lived a very privileged life, mostly as an Ivy League academic, and no doubt has a degree of princely disdain for the idea of a sexual identity - being an identity that those more prone to life's hard edges adopt as a way of finding strength in solidarity. Nevertheless, as someone who knows Japan inside out, and as someone at a stage of life when you'd think neither the praise nor disdain of others mattered anymore, Keene (and his "son") would have done well to be bolder and show some meaningful solidarity with gay men in Japan by leveraging a little of their status and reputation to help bring Japan - along with its gay community - a little closer to where it should be as a 21st century nation.
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