Office of Public Information and Communications Columbia University New York, N.Y. 10027 (212) 854-5573
The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University, marking its tenth anniversary, has launched a month-long cultural appreciation of the career of Japanese novelist, dramatist and photographer Kobo Abe, the first anywhere since his death in 1993.
The commemoration will include a major international symposium at Columbia April 19-21 that will bring together scholars, critics, translators and other specialists as well as friends of Abe and his wife, Machi Abe, a noted set and costume designer. Mrs. Abe died eight months after her husband.
Exhibitions, a concert of music composed for Kobo Abe's films and dramas, a new production of his play Friends, readings and film screenings are planned as part of the tribute to the world-renowned, multitalented visionary whose work gave voice to the alienation and isolation of modern urban life.
Abe, who was 69 at his death, is best known to Americans as the author of the novel Woman in the Dunes. He wrote the screenplay for the widely seen film adaptation, which won the Best Film award of the Cannes Film Festival in 1964. Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara with a musical score by Toru Takemitsu, it is considered a modern classic of Japanese cinema.
Abe was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, and his novels are widely read outside Japan in translations in English and 20 other languages. He wrote more than a dozen plays and often directed his own works as well as Japanese productions of the plays of Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. In the 1970's he directed the Abe Studio, where actors and artists experimented with language, movement and innovative stage techniques.
"Kobo Abe's greatness transcends national boundaries," said George Rupp, President of Columbia University. "Columbia is gratified to be the catalyst for this long-awaited retrospective dedicated to informing new generations of his important contributions. This university has a long tradition in Japanese Studies and has benefited from its many distinguished faculty scholars, including our treasured Donald Keene, the leading interpreter of Japanese culture to the West, who has been the guiding hand in planning this commemoration. We also proudly note that Columbia, which awarded Kobo Abe an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1975, was the first American university to so recognize a Japanese writer."
The symposium, titled Kobo Abe, Maker and Breaker of 20th Century Sensibility, will feature discussions on aspects of his life and writings by scholars from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan and a reminisence by Abe's daughter, Neri Mano. Among those scheduled to participate are Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and adjunct associate professor of film at Columbia; novelist Philip Roth; writer Susan Sontag; playwright Arthur Miller; Japanese novelists Taeko Kone and Tsujii Takashi; Henryk Lipszyc, Ambassador of Poland to Japan; the Taiwanese specialist on Abe, Chung Chao-cheng, and seven actors from the Abe Studio. The sessions, beginning at 9:30 A.M. Friday, April 19, will be held in the Kellogg Conference Center, 15th floor, International Affairs Building, at Amsterdam Avenue and West 118th Street. The conference is free and open to the public. (Call 212/854-7403 or 854-5036 for further information.)
As part of the commemoration, Columbia will posthumously bestow the honorary degree of doctor of music upon composer Toru Takemitsu April 18 at a private dinner. It will be accepted by his daughter. Mr. Takemitsu, who died of cancer February 20 in Tokyo, had earlier been invited to receive the degree and had planned to attend the Abe appreciation. A concert presenting "Music of Kobo Abe and his Friends" in Columbia's Miller Theatre April 20 at 8 P.M. will feature works of four Japanese composers, including Takemitsu and Abe, performed by the new music ensemble Continuum (Tickets: 212/854-7799).
In other commemoration events, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre will present a new production of Abe's Friends beginning April 16 at St. Clement's Theatre, 423 W. 46th St. (Tickets: 212/245-2660). Ron Nakahara is the director and Tisa Chang the artistic director. Lectures and readings from Abe's works will be presented April 9 and April 16 at 6:30 P.M. by Columbia Professors Keene and Paul Anderer at the Japan Society (Information: 212/715-1210). New books by and about Kobo Abe and Donald Keene will be presented at the Japan Society April 19.
Three exhibitions have been mounted as part of the celebration. AbÚ's photography, considered revolutionary in Japan during the early postwar period, will be on view in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery in Columbia's Schermerhorn Hall April 8-21 (Mon.-Sat. 1-5; Information: 212/854-7288). Memorabilia, including a death mask, and personal items may be seen in the Rotunda of Low Memorial Library on the Columbia campus at Broadway and 116th Street through May 3 (Mon.-Fri. 9-5:30; 212/854-6800). Manuscripts and first editions of his works are on display in the C.V. Starr East Asian Library in Kent Hall April 8-May 31 (Call for hours: 212/854-4318).
Professor Keene, America's foremost translator and specialist in Japanese literature and culture, is Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature and University Professor Emeritus at Columbia, where he has taught for four decades. He began his study of Japanese language and culture as a Columbia undergraduate and continued it as a language officer in the U.S. Navy in World War II. He has written, edited or translated some 40 books and has received Japan's most illustrious prizes and awards. He was a close friend of Kobo Abe, who was instrumental in raising funds in Japan to create the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia.
Professor Keene, who was Abe's escort at the May 1975 Columbia commencement at which AbÚ was honored, traveled to Japan a few days later. He described the reaction of the Japanese in a letter to then Columbia President William McGill: "I thought you might be interested in hearing what a favorable reaction has been aroused here by the honorary degree. . .the television program was shown in the evening by NHK, the Japanese national television service, and attracted very wide attention. This was not merely a part of a news program, but a program in itself, and showed such episodes as Mr. Abe having his gown put on, the procession to the dais, the students massed around the platform, your reading of the citation and the presentation of the scroll and interviews afterwards with Abe and myself. Your reading of the citation was broadcast in English with Japanese subtitles, an indication that some days must have been devoted to preparing the film. All in all, it was a splendid presentation."
Speaking of the commemoration, Dr. Keene said: "Everything Kobo Abe ever wrote - novels, plays, works of criticism - he wrote with every power he possessed. He was determined to lead the way in whatever he did, and although he was familiar with the best of modern writing in many countries, he was never satisfied with the mere addition of Japanese coloring to an existing foreign model. His writings, popular not only in Japan but in the many countries where translations have been made, are monuments of Japanese literature of the 20th century."
In the decades since World War II Japanese studies at Columbia have flourished under such accomplished scholars, in addition to Professor Keene, as Sir George Sansom, Ryusaku Tsunoda, Ivan Morris, Edward Seidensticker, Wm. Theodore deBary, Herbert Passin, James Morley, Gerald Curtis, Hugh Patrick, Barbara Ruch and others. Professor Ruch was founding director of the Keene Center and currently is director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, an international organization based at Columbia. Peter M. Grilli, a Japan specialist who was Mr. Takemitsu's personal representative in the United States, is the newly appointed executive director of the Keene Center.
Considered the nation's leading center of traditional, modern and contemporary Japanese studies, Columbia comprises Japan programs in various disciplines: the East Asian Institute in the School of International and Public Affairs, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Japanese Legal Studies in Columbia Law School, the Center on Japanese Economy and Business in Columbia Business School, and the East Asian Journalism Program on Japan in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The Toyota Research Program sponsors a variety of activities on contemporary Japanese affairs. The University's C.V. Starr East Asian Library houses an internationally renowned collection of books and materials related to Japan.