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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt.4): Discovering the words and diaries of Japanese soldiers

This 1943 photo shows Donald Keene at the U.S. Navy Japanese language school located at the University of California, Berkeley, before he served as an intelligence officer in Hawaii. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- Through the diaries of fallen soldiers during the Pacific War, renowned scholar Donald Keene encountered the words of real Japanese people for the first time. The fourth installation of this series navigating the past century on the 100th anniversary of the late scholar's birth -- also the centennial of The Mainichi -- follows Keene's experience as a U.S. Navy language officer, which led him to delve into Japanese literature and eventually introduce it abroad.

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    In January 1942, about one month after the United States declared war on Japan, Keene, who was a student at Columbia University, entered a Japanese language school set up by the U.S. Navy. After an interview in Washington, a young Keene headed to the University of California, Berkeley, where the language school was located. Though it was snowing in New York, flowers bloomed outside his room's window in California, as women in sweaters of pastel colors could be seen walking along the street.

    This image shows a copy of the Dec. 11, 1941 edition of the English edition of "The Tokyo Nichi Nichi," a predecessor of the Mainichi Shimbun. The paper reported that on Dec. 10, 1941, shortly after the United States declared war on Japan, the Japanese military sunk Prince of Wales, one of Britain's most powerful warships, during the naval battle of Malay, and that Japanese forces landed in Guam and the Philippines. In later years, Japanese newspapers were criticized for promoting the war during this time.

    Classes were held four hours a day, six times a week, with exams carried out every Saturday. As he required four hours of study the day before in preparation for each lesson, he spent most of his days immersed in the Japanese language. In his autobiography, he said, "After two weeks I had passed beyond all that I had learned at Columbia. I have never taken as much pleasure in study as at the Language School." He claimed that each and every kanji he learned became a "precious possession," and that he "gladly spent hours memorizing long lists of vocabulary." Below is an excerpt from his autobiography "Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan."


    Our teachers were mainly kibei -- Japanese Americans who had been born in the United States, had been sent to Japan for schooling, and then had returned to America. Very few had previous experience teaching Japanese (or any other subject), but they threw themselves into their work with devotion. It did not take long for the students to become fond of the teachers, a feeling that was reciprocated. I did not know until recently that they had been subjected to pressure and abuse from other Japanese Americans, interned in camps in the desert, for their willingness to cooperate with their oppressors. I never noticed the slightest reluctance to teach us; instead, they seemed delighted with our progress in learning Japanese.

    Donald Keene, right, and his adopted son Seiki Keene are seen in the Shimofuri Ginza shopping district near his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 5, 2017. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

    The students were divided into two groups. Members of the first had grown up in Japan, the sons of missionaries or businessmen. Some had lived in China rather than Japan, but the navy seems to have considered that this would help them learn Japanese. The other group consisted of people like me who had done well in their studies, particularly in foreign languages. Mostly from major universities on the East Coast, we formed a assemblage of exceptional talent.

    For foreigners, the experience of learning Japanese is a major event linking them to everyone else who has studied Japanese. Years later when I traveled in Europe, it was easy to make friends with professors of Japanese wherever I went. Regardless of the country or the differences in our political opinions, the experience of memorizing characters and learning Japanese grammar created important ties between us.

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


    This image shows a copy of the June 11, 1942 edition of "The Osaka Mainichi." The paper reports that the Japanese military occupied U.S. territory on the Aleutian Islands -- including Attu Island and Kiska Island, which Keene later visited -- in order to thwart the U.S. military's invasion from the north.

    Keene and his fellow classmates graduated 11 months later. Though the other group stayed in the school for 18 months, Keene's class of officers-to-be were required to acquire knowledge in a short period to head to the battlefield and perform duties on the front line. At this point, Keene said he was able to read not only printed Japanese, but also cursive script and letters. He was also able to write short reports in Japanese. As the valedictorian of his class, Keene gave a 30-minute speech in Japanese. In later years, Keene recalled the time, saying, "While I was unable to speak Japanese at all a year and a half earlier, I somehow managed to speak the language at this time, although I have no memory of what I spoke about." It was at this time that Keene wore a Navy officer's uniform for the first time.

    In January 1943, the majority of graduates were sent to Hawaii where they served as translators at a Navy yard. Although he set about his duties with enthusiasm, many of the documents collected on the battlegrounds were lists of military equipment, rosters with soldiers' names, and other items he found extremely boring. As he was looking through the seized articles for more interesting writings, he found a wooden box filled with small books that gave off an unpleasant smell. He gave an account of his encounter with the diaries of fallen Japanese soldiers, as written below.


    One day I discovered a pile of documents nobody wanted to read because the handwriting was so bad. They looked more interesting than the usual field reports, and I decided I would try to decipher them. These diaries and letters were sometimes blood-stained or soaked in salt water, but I gradually developed a technique of guessing what the writer was likely to say, and then attempting to match my guesses against the hastily scrawled kanji and kana. As I read the last documents of men killed in action I began to sense for the first time what the war was really like.

    The diaries often spoke of Guadalcanal as "Starvation Island", and the accounts of the hardships endured by the Japanese soldiers were overpowering. By contrast, the letters of the American sailors I had to censor once a week revealed no ideals, and certainly no suffering, but only their reiterated desire to return to their former lives. Throughout the war this contrast haunted me -- the consecration of the Japanese to their cause and the total indifference of most Americans to anything except returning home. Although I did not in the least accept the ideals of the Japanese militarists, I could not help but feel admiration for the ordinary Japanese soldiers, and in the end I came to believe that the Japanese really deserved to win the war.

    (Meeting With Japan)


    This image shows a copy of the Nov. 19, 1942 edition of "The Osaka Mainichi." As full-fledged battles had been underway in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific since August that year, the Nov. 19 paper reported on the Imperial Japanese Navy's achievements on Guadalcanal during fighting that took place from Nov. 12 to 14. The Japanese military also suffered great losses, and decided to withdraw troops at the end of 1942.

    By continuously reading the soldiers' diaries, Keene deepened his understanding of the Japanese language as well as the country's people, which he did not yet know much about. The writing -- though that of fallen Japanese soldiers -- contained the unembellished, plain-spoken words of ordinary Japanese youths. In later years, Keene said, "Japanese people are the world's only ethnic group with a custom of ordinary citizens writing diaries. Japanese people's diaries were an important teacher for me."

    Among Keene's lifetime works is a multivolume history of the literary form of Japanese diaries, titled "Travelers of a Hundred Ages." In the work, he introduces diaries spanning over 1,000 years, from the ninth century Buddhist monk Ennin to the late Meiji-era novelist Kafu Nagai (1879-1959). The origin of this interest lies in his experience as a Navy language officer.

    Incidentally, English literature scholar Hisao Kanaseki, who translated "Travelers of a Hundred Ages" into Japanese, wrote the following in the translator's afterword: "Keene's English writing is clear and concise, like a modern version of English literary masters of the 18th century. And curiously, they translate well into Japanese, so much so that I feel as if he wrote it just for me."

    It is likely that Keene had constantly been taking care to write in a way that could be easily translated into Japanese. He was a person overflowing with consideration and thoughtfulness for others.

    (This is Part 4 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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