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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt.3): War and fate linked scholar with Japanese language

Donald Keene is seen at his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward, in this July 16, 1998 file photo. (Mainichi/Takashi Nishimura)

TOKYO -- It was in the autumn of 1940. An 18-year-old Donald Keene came across a copy of The Tale of Genji, which sparked his interest in Japan, and set him on a path to study about the country and its language. The U.S.-born scholar, who died at age 96 in 2019, is known for his lifelong devotion and contribution to elevating the international reputation of Japanese literature through a vast collection of publications.

    What kind of life was led by "Keene Sensei," what did the renowned 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 marks its 100th anniversary in April this year, the same year Keene was born.

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    A young Keene encountered Japanese for the first time after being invited to learn the language from a tutor in a house in the mountains of North Carolina. The first word he memorized was apparently "sakuranbo," or "cherry" in Japanese. The tutor, Tadashi Inomata, was a Japanese American born in California, and there were two other students besides Keene. After these rather spontaneous lessons on Japanese, Keene went on to Columbia University, where he met the professor he would admire as his "sensei" throughout his life. Below is an excerpt from his autobiography "On Familiar Terms."


    Dr. Ryusaku Tsunoda, Donald Keene's mentor at Columbia University, is seen in this Oct. 15, 1963 file photo. (Mainichi/Tetsuo Abe)

    Of more importance to me than these classes in Japanese language was the course on the history of Japanese thought offered by Ryusaku Tsunoda, the man who, more than any other, I think of as my sensei (teacher) in the old-fashioned sense of the term. When I went to Tsunoda-sensei's office to ask permission to take a graduate course even though I was an undergraduate, he readily agreed. Soon afterward, I discovered that I was the only person who planned to take the course. The steadily deteriorating relations between Japan and the United States seemed to have diminished the interest of Columbia students in Japan. I went to see Tsunoda-sensei again and offered to drop the course, to spare him the necessity of teaching it for the benefit of only one student. He answered, "One is enough."

    Tsunoda-sensei had lived in America for more than twenty years, but he spoke with a strong Japanese accent. His vocabulary, however, was rich, and (most important for me) there was no mistaking his passionate interest in the matters he discussed.

    He communicated his enthusiasm to every student, and he was so beloved by his students, who refused to let him retire, that he was still teaching after the war at the age of eighty. I know that I shall never fully repay the indebtedness I owe him as a scholar.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    Keene dove into increasingly strenuous research on Japan after meeting Tsunoda. As the professor specialized in the history of Japanese thought, his lectures spanned a wide range of topics, including the history, tradition and religion of Japanese society. Of course, he also gave talks on literature. It can be said that this matched well with Keene's inquisitive nature, and became a major foundation stone for his flexible and broad view of Japan by going beyond the boundaries of a "Japanese literary scholar."

    Keene's extensive historical knowledge and viewpoint served as the groundwork for his published writings not only on literary giants like playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and poets Matsuo Basho, Masaoka Shiki and Ishikawa Takuboku, but also on "Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912" and "Edo Japan Encounters the World." And all this can be attributed to his fateful encounter with Professor Tsunoda.

    However, fate intervened in both Keene's budding studies and the course of Japanese and U.S. history on Dec. 7, 1941. Below is Keene's account of the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack that brought the United States into World War II.


    This image shows a copy of the Dec. 9, 1941 edition of The Osaka Mainichi, with a headline reading "Nippon At War With USA, Britain!" Though the surprise attack conceived by Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet during World War II, was praised in Japan, the Allied powers condemned it as war declarations were delayed and the attack happened without explicit warning. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 have been compared to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Americans to remember Pearl Harbor and 9/11 during a plea to U.S. Congress to send more help following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

    On December 7, 1941, I went hiking with Inomata on Staten Island. When the ferry returned to the southern tip of Manhattan Island, a man was selling the New York Enquirer with the headline "Japs Attack U.S. Hawaii, Philippines bombed by Airmen." I laughed at the headline. The newspaper, the only one published on Sunday afternoons, often resorted to sensational headlines in the hopes of attracting customers. Inomata and I separated, he for Greenwich Village, I for Brooklyn. When I got back home, I discovered that for once the newspaper had not exaggerated. Realizing how upset Inomata would be by the news, I wanted to find and reassure him. I searched everywhere in Greenwich Village without success. He later told me that, fearing violence against Japanese, he had spent the night in an all-night cinema where he remained undetected.

    The next day at the university, students formed little clusters exchanging rumors on how many ships had been sunk in Pearl Harbor or what the American strategy would be. At noon, eating with Lee in the Chinese restaurant, we heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt announce that war had been declared. My longtime nightmare had become a reality. I went as usual to Tsunoda-sensei's classroom, but he did not appear, having been interned as an enemy alien. At his trial, some weeks later, he was accused of taking long walks without a dog, proof that he was a spy. The judge dismissed the case, and Tsunoda-sensei returned to Columbia, where he spent the war teaching as usual.

    More than the newspapers or the gossip of my classmates, the empty classroom made me aware that my student days would soon end and that I probably would have to join the military. I could not imagine myself charging with a bayonet or dropping bombs from an airplane, but I learned of another possibility: the U.S. Navy had a Japanese-language school where it trained men to be translators and interpreters.

    (Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan)


    This image shows a copy of the Dec. 13, 1941 edition of The Osaka Mainichi. After the United States declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941. Photos of the leaders of the three principal members in the Axis alliance -- Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler, Japan's Hideki Tojo, and Italy's Benito Mussolini -- are seen on this edition's front page.

    This was a nightmare for Keene, a pacifist at heart. Though he had guessed the time would come sooner or later, he could not believe that the United States and Japan were really at war. After Pearl Harbor, the language he was thinking of studying for the rest of his life turned into the language of the enemy. Considering his age, there was also the very real possibility he would soon have to face Japanese soldiers on the battlefield.

    On the other hand, because Japan and the United States were at war, the military suddenly needed servicemen proficient in Japanese. In later years, Keene said to me, "Is fate something of this nature? Though it was a different way of learning from what I originally had in mind, at any rate, the United States was in need of Japanese. I thought this was a chance for me."

    (This is Part 3 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:

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    Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus at 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 Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. 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 died on Feb. 24, 2019, at age 96.

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