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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 1): 100 years since the birth of the late scholar

Donald Keene is seen during an interview at his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward in this Dec. 15, 2006, file photo. The room is still used by his bereaved family. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

TOKYO -- Three years ago on Feb. 24, 2019, the lauded Japanese literature scholar Dr. Donald Keene drew his last breath. Born in 1922, he was 18 when a fateful encounter with "The Tale of Genji," an 11th century pageant of Heian-era court life, set him on a path to devoting his life to spreading the charms of Japanese literature and culture.

    Until his death aged 96, he released a plethora of works demonstrating the fruits of his academic achievements. Keene left a scholarly legacy of publications, including over 50 English books written by himself among other works, and more than 150 Japanese books, including transcripts of interviews and dialogues, as well as translations of his writing.

    Throughout 2022, the 100th anniversary of his birth, exhibitions and events across Japan will introduce his accomplishments and pass them down to future generations. What kind of life was led by "Keene Sensei," who introduced Japan to the world through first-class English? What did the U.S.-born Japanese scholar convey to us, and what did he try to leave for the future? I'd like to navigate this past century with the help of his English works and past editions of The Mainichi, which also mark its 100th anniversary in April this year.

    1. Trip to Europe that expanded young Keene's horizons

    Keene was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 18, 1922. His family consisted of himself, his father -- an international trade businessman -- his mother, his sister two years his junior and their dog Bingo. Engraved on the tombstone near his home in the Nishigahara area of Tokyo's Kita Ward is an illustration of a yellow dog, whose kanji characters can be read as "kiin," which is a play on the phonetic sound of "Keene" in Japanese. The design is inspired by Bingo.

    This 1932 photo shows Donald Keene, aged around 10, left, with his younger sister and pet dog Bingo at their home in Brooklyn, New York. Bingo had yellowish coat. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    Keene was born and raised in the exuberant age of the Roaring Twenties, when the United States experienced rapid economic growth while European countries were weakened in the wake of World War I. It was the dawn of the United States' status as a superpower, and New York -- the new global economic center in a mass consumer society -- was in a bubble economy. While the young Keene was small and clumsy in sports, he was an inquisitive child who dreamed of venturing to an unknown world. This enthusiasm for knowledge lasted his entire lifetime.

    The Great Depression struck when Keene was 7, and his family experienced their fair share of financial problems. In July 1931, amid the economic crisis, 9-year-old Keene learned his father was going on a business trip to Europe. Seeing his chance, he pleaded for his father to let him come too. But his father would not be easily persuaded, and Keene finally resorted to weeping for three hours. His tears eventually did the trick, and he grasped his opportunity to travel overseas for the first time. This experience being introduced to a world of different cultures broadened the young Keene's horizons.

    In his autobiography, "Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan," he writes about the trip as follows.


    A young Donald Keene, pictured in the center toward the right wearing a beret, boards a ship at the Port of Bremen in Germany. His father is to his right. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    My father and I sailed for Europe in July 1931. The ship was the George Washington of the United States Line. It was by no means one of the grandest passenger liners that crossed the Atlantic, but for me it was a whole new world. For one thing, it was exciting to be among strangers and to be introduced to them by my father. In recent years I have traveled several times aboard cruise ships and enjoyed the experience, but my memories of the George Washington are totally different. On this ship, my fellow passengers were not rich, elderly people less interested in the destinations than in life aboard ship. Instead, they were of every age and occupation and, no matter how urgent the business that took them to Europe, had no choice but to accept the necessity of spending a week or more on the sea. Ships were the only means to get to Europe.

    The first-class menu was elaborate, with many choices of dishes for each meal, and as soon as the ship left U.S. territorial waters, it no longer was necessary to obey the American law against serving alcohol. Instead, liquor was ostentatiously consumed. We never had liquor of any kind in our house during the days of Prohibition. Although I knew the location of a speakeasy not far from our house and had seen drunken men emerging, I naturally had never thought of going in. My first taste of liquor was thus aboard ship when my father allowed me to drink the foam on his beer.

    The one unpleasant aspect of the voyage was the presence of some American boys who were about my age. The first thing they wanted to know was which position I played in baseball. I could not very well tell the truth, that I was no good at any position, so I had to pretend. Without thinking much, I said I was a catcher and from then on dreaded the possibility of having to demonstrate my skill. In the effort to establish a relationship with these new acquaintances, I joined them in their furtive smoking of cigarettes in a corner of the ship where we were unlikely to be observed. For six months after this I stole cigarettes from my father and smoked covertly, largely as a gesture of incipient maturity. I continued to smoke until one day I realized that it gave me no pleasure and I never smoked again.

    [Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan]


    Keene's account makes clear how much the young boy enjoyed the journey by sea, which was completely removed from his daily routine. His first taste of liquor, during U.S.'s nationwide ban on alcoholic beverages, and introduction to smoking also became a good memory that opened doors to the unknown.

    The ship passed through Cobh, a seaport in Ireland, and arrived at Cherbourg, France. This was the first foreign country he set foot in. By train, he then headed to the beautiful capital of Paris. There, he met a girl around his age. In the vehicle they were both aboard, Keene attempted to talk with the girl who spoke a different mother tongue, as he describes in his autobiography below.


    I was seated in the back of a car with a French girl of about my age, the daughter of one of my father's business associates. She spoke no English; I spoke no French. So in a desperate attempt to communicate with her, I sang the one French song I knew, "Frere Jacques."

    Ever since then I have felt strongly attracted to foreign languages. Japanese often ask me how many I know, and it is extremely difficult to answer. I have studied to varying degrees perhaps eight or nine languages, but I have totally forgotten some and others I can understand but not speak or can read but not write. Yet even in the case of a language like classical Greek, which I have almost totally forgotten, I am happy that I have had the experience of reading Homer and the Greek tragedies in the original. But I sometimes think that if, as the result of an accident, I were to lose my knowledge of Japanese, there would not be much left for me. Japanese, which at first had no connection with my ancestors, my literary tastes, or my awareness of myself as a person, has become the central element of my life.

    [Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan]


    One can gauge the large impact this childhood trip had on Keene's life, and it can certainly be said that this bittersweet encounter widened the boy's interest in foreign countries.

    At age 11, his sister passed away from illness. He was 15 when his parents divorced, and Keene began living with his mother, in what can be called a rather tough time in his childhood. But his grades remained excellent through elementary, junior high and senior high school and were supported by his strong admiration for foreign countries. In another autobiography, "On Familiar Terms," Keene touches on memories from around the time Japan entered his orbit. Surprisingly, Keene's initial impression of the country he chose to spend his final years as a citizen in was not a good one.


    While I was growing up in New York someone told me that if I dug a deep enough hole in the garden I would eventually reach China. Japan seemed even farther away. I certainly began to distinguish between the two countries in the early 1930s, when I was eleven or twelve. I still have the notebook I kept for the year 1933 in which I carefully pasted articles I had cut from the newspapers every day. This was a particularly fateful America, Roosevelt became president; in Germany, Hitler seized power; and in China, the Japanese army occupied Shanghai. Probably the first time I ever seriously thought about Japan was in connection with the war in China. Japan seemed like a very frightening country. I am sure that if anyone had predicted at the time that when I grew up my life would be devoted to Japan, I would have been absolutely astonished.

    [On Familiar Terms]


    In autumn 1938 and aged just 16, Keene entered Columbia University, one of the world's most prestigious universities, on a Pulitzer scholarship. It was the first step in his lifelong devotion to academia.

    (This is Part 1 of a series.)

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer and Donald Keene Memorial Foundation director)

    The original text of Donald Keene's autobiographies is being used with permission from the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation. The foundation's website can be reached at:

    * * *


    Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus of Columbia University. After earning postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Cambridge University, he received a fellowship to study at Kyoto University in 1953. Keene developed friendships with prominent Japanese authors, including Tanizaki Junichiro, Kawabata Yasunari and Mishima Yukio. Over the course of half a century, he traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while conveying their charms to the world in English. His main works include a multivolume history of Japanese literature, "Travelers of a Hundred Ages," and "Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912." In 2008, he received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. Keene obtained Japanese citizenship in the year following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He passed away on Feb. 24, 2019, at age 96.

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