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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In Japan, hundreds of thousands remain in emergency shelters. Many continue to search for the missing and for any remnants of their former lives in the ruins along the Northeastern coast. And the entire country worries about radiation leaks that seem to get worse every day, with no solution yet in sight. But Japan is no stranger to disaster: earthquakes and tsunamis, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and near total devastation in the Second World War.

What can we read to better understand Japan in this crisis? If there's poetry, fiction or non-fiction you've turned to these past few weeks, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join a conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with the eminent scholar Professor Donald Keene, who's received top honors, both here and in Japan, for his writings and his translations. He's the president of the Donald Keene Foundation for Japanese culture and professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Columbia University, and joins us from a studio at Columbia's journalism school.

And thanks so much for coming in today.

Professor DONALD KEENE (Columbia University): My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: I know you have many friends in Japan. I hope everybody's okay.

Prof. KEENE: As far as I know, they are. I've telephoned some. I've got in touch with some by email. And so far, I haven't heard of anybody suffering physical damage, although many people have had great trouble putting their houses back in shape.

CONAN: I'm sure that's true in many parts of Japan. I wonder: What did you turn to? What did this remind you of, if anything, in your extensive knowledge of Japanese literature?

Prof. KEENE: In Japanese literature, the subject of earthquakes or tsunami is not very abundant. They exist. But I think that the excerpt I've heard from the translation of the work of Kamo No Chomei - a Buddhist priest who lived in the 13th century - which described the change of the world, the uncertainty of the world.

These are fundamental Buddhist beliefs, and they're given their most beautiful expression in his account of his hut, where he lived for some time, thinking about the changes he had seen in his life.

CONAN: And as you listen to his words - and, of course, remember them and you clearly know them better than we do - what is it about them, other than the beauty of his language, that communicates itself to you?

Prof. KEENE: He is a person who had been acclaimed as a poet, was very well known in court circles. And he gave this all up to live in a tiny hut, and he lived in great solitude, with no particular comforts at all. But he was - he believed that this was the nature of the world. The world was a place which you couldn't trust, and one could only trust the world to come, the world which was prophesized by Buddha, can be found in the Buddhist writings.

He believed in the impermanence of all things, and yet impermanence for the Japanese was not only a bad thing, but it was a source of beauty. Things that lasted forever, that didn't change at all were not thought to be beautiful. The Japanese have always loved things that show their age rather than things that looked sparkling and new.

This feeling of long time passing before these objects were visible - we in the West are more common to think of old buildings, Greek temples, as looking remarkable fresh, if they hadn't been exploded in the 17th century, the Parthenon buildings would look as fresh today as they did at the time of Pericles. We'd like to think that.

But the Japanese prefer to think of things showing their age, showing that time has passed, that many people have seen these treasures, many people have had this experience. I think that's the other side of - the sad part of impermanence, you can't trust things to last forever. But the good part is one feels that one is part of a stream of people who've seen the same things, loved the same things and recognized beauty in the same things.

CONAN: I've been told of a shrine on an island off Japan, I guess not too far from where this earthquake happened, which is a wooden shrine, and is destroyed every 20 years and rebuilt.

Prof. KEENE: Yes. I'm sure you're thinking of the shrine at Ise. It is the practice to destroy the old building and build a new one. This, to us, seems very strange. But it is - the Japanese have two religions. One of them is Buddhism, a world religion, began in India, spread to China, Korea and then to Japan. The other religion is Shinto.

Now, Shinto is a religion, above all, of purity, of cleanliness. And so the Japanese delight in the newness of wooden building, the smell of a new building, a building that has not been dirtied by any human foot or insect or whatever. And so after 20 years, the old building, it is torn down. It's not completely destroyed. It is sent in parts to other shrines in Japan. But it is a feeling of renewal. This is the new clean, pure world of the Shinto gods, as opposed to the Buddhist gods, who - Buddha, himself, who thought in terms of longevity and the opposite, short-live-ness.

CONAN: You spoke of a relative paucity of material about hurricane - excuse me, about earthquake and tsunami. There is a relatively much shorter time since the radiological horrors that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Is there something, though, that you think you might reflect on and read in a new light and gain wisdom from at this time on that subject?

Prof. KEENE: I think that for many people, the old Japan, the Japan of the wartime, and particularly the post-war period when the Japanese suffered so much, almost every city in Japan was destroyed. Almost every facility was deliberately destroyed by the American occupation, if not by the Japanese themselves. This time, it is totally unexpected. Of course, there have been earthquakes before.

The great earthquake of 1923, which affected particularly Tokyo and Yokohama, was very well described by people of the time. But this time was something much more terrible, much more frightening, and it was particularly so because people had somehow come to think that the new kind of architecture that was being built was immune to such disasters as a typhoon, or even an earthquake, that the Japanese engineers had so constructed buildings that there was no particular danger.

I often thought, when I was in some tall Japanese building in Tokyo, what would happen if there were an earthquake. But I was told that the new buildings were able to sway with the earthquake, and there was nothing to be afraid of. I think people now have come to feel a greater uncertainty. What is really as strong as an earthquake or a tsunami? The tsunami, in particular, I think I've never seen anything more horrifying than the television shots of the tsunami, this great, black wave crushing everything in sight. Nobody has ever written any horror story that equaled it.

CONAN: We're talking about what we might read that would help us better understand Japan. Our guest is Professor Donald Keene. You can go to our website at npr.org and take a look at some of his recommendations.

We'd like to hear yours: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Laura, Laura with us from Davis in California.

LYRA(ph) (Caller): It's Lyra.

CONAN: Lyra, excuse me.

LYRA: That's all right. I - my family has a painting from the artist Chiura Obata, who was a - he was born in Japan, but came to the United States very early. And he taught at Berkeley. And he was my dad's art professor.

And my dad, this painting we have was the last one that Obata painted before he and his family were sent to an internment camp. And in kind of doing some research about the painting, I found this wonderful book by Obata's granddaughter, Kimi Kodani Hill, called "Topaz Moon," which is the - Topaz, Utah is where he and his family were sent, the internment camp.

And the things that he wrote about, he started an art school there, and in his letters, he wrote - like one of the things he said was: Any circumstance, anywhere in any time, take up your brush and express what you face and what you think without wasting your time and energy, complaining and crying out.

And I've taken great strength from that. The painting we have, it's a painting of a tree in a - it looks like in a flood, and our farm in the Yuba City area of California was destroyed by a flood. And my dad, who was also an artist, but he was a farmer, kind of had to just take care of the farm and fix it. And I've found the work of the artists who were in the internment camps, who were facing things that I think are appalling, just made beautiful art.

CONAN: And, of course, the internment camps during the Second World War, after Pearl Harbor. Professor Keene, I wonder if you're familiar with that?

Prof. KEENE: Yes, I was very familiar with it. I learned my Japanese in the U.S. Navy Japanese language school. Our teachers were mainly Japanese-Americans. There were some Japanese, and there were a few missionaries, too. But the school was at Berkeley, California.

But the Army ordered the Navy to remove the school from the West Coast because our teachers, perhaps 20 or 30 Japanese-Americans, were a danger to national security. And so the school was moved to Boulder, Colorado.

Now, Boulder's also a very nice place, but it was a shock to us that such a thing would happen, that even people who were serving the United States by teaching people Japanese were subject to being sent to an alien place.

CONAN: Lyra, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LYRA: Thank you.

CONAN: What can we do, and what can we read to better understand Japan in this crisis? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. Our guest is Professor Donald Keene at Columbia University. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In times of crisis and tragedy, people often turn to literature, to poetry, to process and to gain perspective on what's happened. The process has played out many times in Japan's long history.

And as the country now deals with the aftermath of back-to-back-to-back disasters, we're taking suggestions on what we might read to better understand Japan in this crisis.

If there's poetry, fiction or nonfiction you've turned to these past few weeks, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Donald Keene, president of the Donald Keene Foundation for Japanese Culture and university professor emeritus and professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Columbia University.

And joining us now is Kimiko Hahn, a contemporary poet of Japanese descent. She lives in New York, where she's a distinguished professor in the MFA program in creative writing at Queens College.

And nice of you to be with us today.

Professor KIMIKO HAHN (Creative Writing, Queens College; Poet): Thank you very much. My pleasure.

CONAN: As I mentioned earlier, we've posted Professor Keene's suggestions on our website. We've posted some suggestions by you, Kimiko Hahn, as well. And interesting, I saw the first three of them were by Donald Keene.

Prof. HAHN: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAHN: He's our best translator of Japanese literature, and the two anthologies are just a wonderful, wonderful introduction to Japanese culture and, of course, their literature.

CONAN: And if you had to pick one, what would be your favorite?

Prof. HAHN: I would say the first one, "From the Earliest Era" - "Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century." It's absolutely gorgeous.

CONAN: And what about that tells us something about Japan we need to know today?

Prof. HAHN: Well, it really establishes the sensibilities and the forms that the Japanese worked in, so the kind of very spare aesthetics that were established.

We know that in the haiku - which came later on, but certainly way before then we had the tanka, also called the waka. And the reliance on nature and the changeable and uncertain life that we all live, but that became a sensibility, as Professor Keene said. And all that you find in the earliest literature.

CONAN: Professor Keene, as you think back on that volume, what in there might you point to?

Prof. KEENE: When they get to composite the volume, I forgot almost - there was almost nothing except for some translations by the great Arthur Waley of Japanese literature, which I would want to include. So most of the translations were made for the first time.

And I tried to give as varied a collection of works, and ones that could be appreciated as literature, not simply oddities or works of interest to people who wanted to see the difference in the ways that Japanese express themselves. I wanted to find something that - in each work that was particularly apt in showing the reader what the Japanese believed in, what their sensibilities have been and how they've expressed themselves, whether in poetry or prose.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Luanne, Luanne with us from Vacaville in California.

LUANNE (Caller): Yes. I have been a Japanophile ever since I was five years old. I'm a 56-year-old cross-cultural psychologist, and I have always wanted to live in Kyoto. And I always say: (Foreign language spoken), which means my heart is Japanese. So I have been really heartbroken in the past few weeks about the tragedy in Japan.

I'd like to recommend a book that's a classic by a woman named Ruth Benedict. It was printed around 1946, after the war, and it's called "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword." And it's a book describing the sociology and the psychology of the Japanese and why they think the way they do and their group culture, and just really gives a great deal of insight.

Even though it's a rather old book, I think most of it is still quite accurate. And I have another book to recommend, too, but I don't know if you want me to do two.

CONAN: Well, if you can make it quick, and we can give somebody else a chance.

LUANNE: It's called "Lost Japan," by Alex Kerr from 1996, and he's an American who's lived in Japan for more than 40 years. And it's his reflections on all the beautiful places, like the temples and the little villages and the countryside that he's visited and trying to find the old Japan amidst the modern world there. And it's quite lovely, also.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the recommendation. Appreciate it.

LUANNE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And Kimiko Hahn, I wonder if you're familiar with those books.

Prof. HAHN: I've heard of them, yes, but I'm not that familiar, sorry.

CONAN: Okay. Here's an email we have from Eva: I found a travel book series written by the Japanese government to be most helpful when learning more. They talk about each major city in both an historic and a tourist light.

I wonder: Is there something, Professor Keene, that might tell us something about the region where this disaster struck most forcefully on the northeastern coast?

Prof. KEENE: I have visited that part of Japan on a number of times - many times, even. I went there originally in 1955. I wanted to go on the same tracks as the great haiku poet Basho. I followed his route, which went through this whole area and then crossed over the middle of Japan to the other coast, the Japan Sea coast.

Among the marvelous things that I saw was the Chusonji, a great temple, which is - has a hall filled with golden Buddhas. It's an incredible sight. It has been suggested, even, that when Marco Polo wrote about Japan and people thought he was crazy - no such place, he described buildings made of gold - that he actually had word from someone who had seen the Chusonji, and that's why he wrote in those terms. In any case, I've been very, very worried not to have heard anything at all about whether this temple has survived the earthquake.

And then there are the islands of Matsushima, hundreds of small islands off the coast of Sendai, each one covered with pines, an incredible sight, one of the most beautiful in Japan. I have not had any word at all whether the tsunami crossed over these islands and submerged them forever. I've been most upset about this.

But in this part of Japan, there are many things that have always attracted me, and I only hope that the silence in the newspapers or the television is because they're all right. There's nothing to report.

CONAN: Kimiko Hahn, I know you brought something to read for us that you think helps us understand a little bit more about Japan. I was wondering if you could tell us what it is and go ahead and read it for us.

Prof. HAHN: Certainly. It's a classic, "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon." And she was writing around the year 1,000. It is, as I said, a classic. And I'd like to read one of the pieces: "Things That Have Lost Their Power."

(Reading) A large boat, which is high and dry in a creek at ebb tide, a woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains, a large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air, the retreating figure of a Sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match, a man of no importance reprimanding an attendant, an old man who removes his hat, uncovering his scanty topknot, a woman who is angry with her husband about some trifling matter leaves home and goes somewhere to hide. She is certain that he will rush about looking for her, but he does nothing of the kind and shows the most infuriating indifference. Since she cannot stay away forever, she swallows her pride and returns.

CONAN: And what do you think that tells us?

Prof. HAHN: Well, this is a piece that is from a collection of - it's called "The Pillow Book." We would find them very strange. We really have nothing similar in Western literature, no genre that is similar. And what I love is that this particular one is in the form of a list.

And what that tells us is the kind of contradictions that we find. On the one hand, we have, you know, something about someone's hair going thin, that a person has lost their power, if you will. And on the other hand, we have a large tree that has blown over. So in terms of nature, that large tree has lost its power. It is no longer going to be alive much longer.

So these various elements expose contradictions, and also what is important to Japanese.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Eleanor: My father, Lawrence Vincent(ph), also attended the Navy language school in Boulder, Colorado, which Professor Keene mentioned. He went on to become a translator for the Marine Corps and stopped many Japanese soldiers from committing suicide in the Khe Sanh, Iwo Jima and Guam, and successfully ensured their surrender during the Second World War.

I was struck by my father's respect and admiration for the Japanese culture. As a child, I saw many of his Japanese scroll paintings and art. When I hear the graciousness and stoicism of the Japanese people interviewed following the horror of the earthquake and tsunami, I am again impressed by the beauty and courage of their culture.

Professor Keene, I wonder if you knew Lawrence Vincent, and if you knew - if you could tell us a little bit about some literature that might exemplify the resilience of the Japanese.

Prof. KEENE: I did indeed know Lawrence Vincent. I remember him very well. I remember him not so much as a translator - which I was, too - but because we both loved classical music. And under the most un-providing circumstances, we were able to get recordings of classical music and played it, even in huts in -on the island of Guam, I remember particularly. I remember him with affection.

As for the Japanese and their courage, I think courage is something that comes to the Japanese very easily. It is the basic element in their - in a child's education. And it's not a foolhardy courage - or shouldn't be a foolhardy courage, but it is an expression of sincerity, which is among the most important of the Japanese desiderata, to be someone - to be truly truthful, sincere. This is what Japanese - perhaps under the influence of Shinto -religion, thought of as most important virtue.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brandon, Brandon, with us from Ontario, California.

BRANDON (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to recommend "After the Quake" by Haruki Murakami. I think it's an excellent - it's a collection of short stories. And it's really - it's about after the Kobe earthquake. And while it never mentions the earthquake specifically, it talks about how the earthquake affects different people in their lives, like, subtly.

And that's kind of how I've always - been my impression of the Japanese people that I've met. They never let anything come out and bother them outright, but they take everything in and internalize it. That's why I think that this book is a great one if you're trying to understand what's going on in Japan right now.

CONAN: We should mention Ted in Mountain View, California, also recommended "After the Quake" by Murakami. Kimiko Hahn, what do you think?

Prof. HAHN: Well, I have to admit that I'm not completely update on contemporary Japanese work, although, obviously, Murakami is world-renowned. I have read "The Tale of Genji" about 10 times, and I intend to read it again this summer. I completely find myself overwhelmed by the world that that's created around us in reading that. And so I would definitely put that high on my list.

CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much for the call.

We're talking about a reading list for Japan in this crisis. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Heather in Lawrence, Kansas: I lived in Japan as a student for a year and a half about 10 years ago. I would highly recommend John Dower's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the U.S. occupation, "Embracing Defeat." It's a fascinating book and explains many of the differences between the culture of U.S. occupiers and ordinary Japanese, as well as how different each culture's expectations of the other were. My other recommendation would be anything by Haruki Murakami, whose stories and novels vividly and beautifully remind me of some of the many things I love about Japanese culture.

Professor Keene, I wonder: Are you familiar with John Dower's work?

Prof. KEENE: I have read him. My political views are not necessarily the same as his, but I respect him. I think he's tried to find out what the situation was during the difficulties after the end of the war. I have recently published a book, which has a long, long title, "So Lovely a Country Will Not Perish," which consists of excerpts from Japanese - the diaries by Japanese authors who describe what - how they felt during the war, and then the period immediately after the war. It's rather different from Professor Dower's, but I do respect his work.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Scott, and Scott with us from Johnson City, Tennessee.

Scott, are you there? Scott may have left us.

Let's see if we can go to Kevin, Kevin with us from Murfreesboro in Tennessee.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it. This is a great opportunity to talk about some really fantastic stuff. I wanted to toss out there T.R. Reid. He was The Washington Post bureau chief in Japan back in the '90s and I think late '80s, and spent quite a bit of time over there and had enrolled his children in the elementary school system there and things of that nature.

And it's a - he wrote a book called "Confucius Lives Next Door," which is a recounting not only of his experiences and his children's experiences and the differences. A lot of the content regarding that is actually fairly light. But he does go into the impact of Confucius on the Japanese culture, the Japanese mindset.

And it's a really striking difference between how we think in the United States about individualism and how - from his perspective, anyway - the Japanese people consider individualism, and specifically the concept of wa, which I found to be just a wonderful idea. Wa, meaning harmony, or as it boils down to an individual, you as an individual owe your neighbor something. You as an individual owe your society something. If you've committed an offense against the individual, you have to make amends for it.

And I'd love to hear Professor Keene talk about that. Maybe - Confucianism may be probably too broad, but specifically the concept of wa, I found to be so lovely. And I'd like to hear more input about that.

Prof. KEENE: I think that the Japanese tend to avoid face-to-face conflicts. They prefer to find some way of settling things amicably. And that must be a part of the wa that you mentioned. Sometimes there are criminal cases where someone has done something really terrible, and he doesn't get punished for year after year. He's left in a prison rather than have the terrible confrontation with a punishment. This is found elsewhere.

It's found in Japanese literature, too. But I think that Confucianism is less a concern with wa - though it appears to us - than it is with order and decency in society, people living in a group, in a world, and getting along with them somehow, rather than confronting them.

CONAN: Professor Keene is going to be honored next month at Columbia University for his many decades of work there. He is professor emeritus of Japanese literature, also president of the Donald Keene Foundation for Japanese Culture, and joined us from a studio at Columbia School of Journalism. Professor Keene, thank you very much.

And Kimiko Hahn is a poet and distinguished professor at Queens College. She joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. And we thank her, too.

Coming up, we're going to be talking about perhaps the most unpopular government program ever: the bailout.

Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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