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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 5): The linguist's first real taste of combat at the battlefront

Donald Keene, left in back row, and Otis Cary, right in back row, are seen on Adak Island in August 1943. The two landed on the island following the operation on Attu Island, and translated confiscated documents at a U.S. base here. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- Following his encounter with the words of Japanese people through the diaries of fallen soldiers, renowned Japanologist Donald Keene was summoned to join an operation during which he got his first real taste of the Pacific War. The fifth installation of this series continues to navigate the past century on the 100th anniversary of the late scholar's birth -- also the centennial of The Mainichi -- by following 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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    It was the spring of 1943. Donald Keene, who was absorbed in deciphering the Japanese on documents at his post in Hawaii as a U.S. Navy language officer, was informed of a secret mission and headed to California. He was accompanied by Otis Cary, a fellow officer who eventually became a lifelong friend. Cary was born and raised in Otaru in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, and "spoke Japanese fluently without a trace of a foreign accent," as recounted by Keene. With the two aboard, the old battleship USS Pennsylvania left a port at San Pedro, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Contrary to their expectations, the ship did not head south, but northward to Alaska.

    Below is an excerpt from his autobiography "Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan."


    In view of the hint about white uniforms, we assumed that we would be traveling south, but the weather grew steadily colder. But even then we were not told where we were going. Late one night, Cary and I were aroused and told to hurry to the radio room. We made our way in total darkness. The communications officer said, "We've got Jap talk coming over." We listened, but the language was unmistakably Russian. This was the only service we performed aboard ship, but when the war ended the entire crew of the Pennsylvania, including us, was decorated because of the ship's outstanding record.

    On April 30, at a place aptly called Cold Bay, in Alaska, we transferred from the Pennsylvania to a transport. It was pretty clear by this time that we were not bound for the tropics, but only now, aboard the transport, did we learn that we were to participate in a landing on Attu, an island in the Aleutians that the Japanese had occupied. Whereas we still were dressed in summer uniforms, the soldiers aboard the transport were wearing woolens. Although we asked for warmer clothes, we were informed that they had none for naval personnel. This is how it happened that Cary and I, shivering in summer clothes, landed on Attu, where there was snow on the ground.

    Aboard the transport we met some nisei army interpreters. They had been told that the navy interpreters were incompetent, but Cary's fluent Japanese changed their minds. Talking with them made me realize for the first time why the navy had founded the Japanese Language School. It was because it did not trust Japanese Americans. It refused to allow even one nisei to join the navy, and therefore it needed non-Japanese interpreters. Even though the nisei in the army demonstrated their loyalty on many occasions, the navy refused them even the chance to die in its service.

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


    Donald Keene is seen on the cruise ship Asuka II, which he had been aboard for a lecture in the summer of 2004. He viewed Attu Island for the first time in 60 years. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    The young Keene, still in a light summer uniform, landed on the island of Attu enveloped in thick fog. There, he saw the dead body of a Japanese soldier lying on the sand. As it was a battleground on the front, you could say it was an ordinary scene, but Keene, who had no prior experience witnessing an actual battle, felt immense shock. It was the first time he got a taste of the tragedy of war.

    Keene stayed on Attu Island for a couple of weeks. It was not until 2004, when he viewed the island from afar in a cruise ship, that he realized that the island was actually very beautiful.


    Attu was the site of the first gyokusai, called a "banzai charge" by the Americans. On May 28, 1943, the thousand or so remaining Japanese soldiers staged a charge against the Americans, who did not expect such a powerful show of resistance, and came close to dislodging them; but in the end, abandoning hope of success, the Japanese took their own lives en masse, usually by pressing a grenade to their chest. I could not understand why the Japanese soldiers had used their last grenade to kill themselves rather than hurl it at the Americans.

    This image shows a copy of the June 1, 1943 edition of The Mainichi. A headline reads, "Imperial Forces On Attu Exemplify True Nippon Spirit By Final Assault," regarding the battle on Attu Island, and an image of the entire island is shown. It is said that the U.S. military landed on the island on May 12, and that some 2,600 Japanese soldiers had died in the fierce battle by May 29.

    There were only twenty-nine Japanese prisoners. One was from Otaru, and after conducting a brief interrogation, Cary reminisced with the prisoner. Cary seemed extremely happy to have found someone with whom to talk about Otaru, more his real home than any town in America.

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


    Keene's longtime friend Cary later taught for many years at Doshisha University in Kyoto. It was for this reason that Keene chose Kyoto as his first destination to study in Japan. They made a great team as Cary interrogated the Japanese prisoners of war, while Keene recorded the exchanges.

    This image shows a copy of the June 2, 1943 edition of The Mainichi. The paper reports that Japanese military attacks had thrown the U.S. military into utter confusion as they staged a massive charge.

    Below is an excerpt from Keene's autobiography where he gives an account of an operation on another island in the Aleutians.


    The next campaign in which I participated was the attack on Kiska, another island in the Aleutian chain which had been occupied by the Japanese in 1942. For weeks prior to the actual landing on the island we had been informed by the photographic interpreters that they could detect no sign of movement on the island, but the aviators continued to report that they were encountering antiaircraft fire, and their testimony, although deluded, was believed. Preparations for the attack were accordingly made with the assumption that the Japanese garrison was still there and that the resistance would be as severe as on Attu.

    When we landed we discovered, to our great relief, that the aviators were wrong: there was not a single Japanese on the island. It was a mystery how they had managed to escape despite the American naval blockade, and this mystery would not be solved until, a year or so later, I read the diary of a Japanese naval officer who had taken part in the evacuation of the island. This discovery was, I think, my greatest contribution to the war effort.


    The Japanese military had of course anticipated that Kiska would be occupied by the Americans, and they left behind messages such as one I remember seeing on a blackboard at an underground headquarters, "Americans! You are dancing under foolish orders of Roosevelt!" I remember also an inscription in Japanese on a signboard. The least competent of the American translators of Japanese brought me the signboard saying, "Of course I get the general meaning, but I am not sure exactly what it means." The inscription was perfectly clear: BUBONIC PLAGUE VICTIMS GATHERING POINT. I don't know if there were actually any Japanese victims of bubonic plague, or if the signboard was intended for our benefit alone, but a hasty appeal for serum was sent to San Francisco, and for days afterward we searched our bodies for telltale spots.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    After the fierce battle on Attu, Keene participated in an operation dealing with the aftermath of the withdrawal of Japanese forces from Kiska Island -- a major event in the history of the Pacific War. For Keene -- a pacifist at heart -- that he was again able to avoid a situation of engaging in battle with Japanese soldiers was an intense relief. The battle in the cold ended, and the battleship returned to Hawaii, which he later recalled as feeling like paradise on Earth.

    (This is Part 5 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on May 24.)

    (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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