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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 6): Symphony echoes friendship on battleground

This 1944 photo shows Donald Keene, left, when he was a U.S. Navy lieutenant and studied at the University of Hawaii. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- Donald Keene, who was a language officer for the U.S. Navy during the Pacific War, got his first real taste of combat and death during campaigns in the Aleutian chain. This was followed by war years that were memorable not for their violence, but for memories of friendship.

    In September 1943, he left the extreme cold of the Aleutian Islands and returned to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he performed duties for one year and a half including interrogating Japanese prisoners. This was an opportune time for him to acquire conversational Japanese -- a different experience from the world of written text that had been his main gateway to the language.

    When he told me about his memories of this time, there was no sense of brutal tension in his accounts, and they did not sound like events that happened during the war. Keene had rather been overflowing with joy over being able to "meet and interact with Japanese people in the flesh at last."

    Below is an excerpt from his autobiography "On Familiar Terms."


    Donald Keene is seen during a visit to Hawaii in March 2013. He enjoyed walking in the Waikiki neighborhood. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    The most vivid memories of my life in Hawaii during the war years are of the prisoners I interrogated.


    At first, however, most of the prisoners were not Japanese but Koreans. They had been conscripted into "patriotic labor corps" by the Japanese army, but extremely few of them entertained patriotic sentiments toward Japan. Unlike the Japanese, they saw no reason to die in combat, and, when they could, they became prisoners. They possessed very little military information, and the interrogation sessions usually drifted into conversations about the prisoner's family or work. Many were of the same age as I, and it was easy to become friends. I felt so enthusiastic about them that I started taking Korean lessons from a priest in Honolulu. Whenever I went to the stockade I brought them kimchi and other Korean food.

    I could not think of these Koreans as enemies. Were they not victims of the Japanese? Sometimes I would go to the stockade in the evening just for the pleasure of talking with them.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    Many prisoners of war, who were expected to be Japanese, turned out to be Koreans conscripted into the armed forces and labor during the Japanese rule of Korea, which continued for 35 years from 1910. As this information is rarely introduced in Japanese references, this may come as a surprise. That the Koreans supposedly surrendered without any patriotic feelings is very natural. By coincidence, Keene came into contact with Korean culture as he spoke with those held captive. This eventually worked in his favor when he searched for a job in Britain in his future years as a scholar. (This episode will be reserved for a later time.) Keene also showed his side as an ardent music lover in attempts to maintain friendly relations with the prisoners.


    The most memorable experience I had with the Japanese prisoners of war occurred the night I took a phonograph to the stockade. A prisoner with whom I had become especially friendly, a young naval officer who had been captured on Saipan while unconscious from an explosion, had told me how much he missed hearing classical music. It was easy for me to imagine what a deprivation this would be, and I decided to let him and the others hear some music. He said that his favorite piece was Beethoven's Eroica symphony, and that was what I chose.

    The phonograph was an inexpensive portable, and the sound was poor, but I arranged to hold the "concert" in the shower room where the sound would echo and be amplified. I assembled the prisoners and told them I would play first some Japanese music, and then the Beethoven symphony. I had bought the Japanese records at a shop in Honolulu without any knowledge of which songs were likely to please the prisoners. It occurred to me only much later that it might be a painful rather than an enjoyable experience for these Japanese to hear music that would surely remind them of home and the people they loved. My first consideration was the Beethoven, and the popular songs were intended to keep prisoners who did not like classical music from feeling they had been ignored.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    The Beethoven music concert on the battleground seems to have remained as an unforgettable memory not only for Keene himself, but also for the soldiers who survived the war. Army surgeons, war correspondents of Domei News Agency, the predecessor of Kyodo News, and others apparently continued to keep in touch with the scholar until several years prior to his death. They developed a friendship that transcended countries and sides of war.

    This image shows a copy of the June 17, 1944 edition of The Mainichi. It reports that the U.S. military was repulsed twice following attempts to land on Saipan. However, U.S. forces eventually landed on Saipan and Guam, the latter of which saw some 18,000 Japanese soldiers killed by the battle's end on Aug. 10.

    The Battle of Midway in June 1942 marked a turning point that allowed the U.S. military to be at an advantage in the war, and American forces intensified attacks on Japanese bases at multiple areas in the Pacific. The U.S. military landed on Saipan in June 1944, and on Guam in July. The battlefront inched closer and closer to Japan. Then, finally, Keene was informed of an operation in Okinawa.


    It was therefore with excitement, rather than fear, that one day in March 1945 I reported to CINCPAC, the headquarters of the commander of the Pacific Fleet. I knew this meant I would be sent out on an operation somewhere. A group of us translators and interpreters were ushered into a room at the headquarters building near Pearl Harbor and were briefed by an officer. The next objective, we were informed, was Okinawa. I could hear a gasp go through the group at this news. The American forces had been "island hopping" ever since the battle for Guadalcanal, but Japan still seemed very remote, and nothing had shaken my basic conviction that the war would probably last forever. But Okinawa was part of Japan -- the war might actually end!

    (On Familiar Terms)


    This image shows a copy of the June 8, 1944 edition of The Mainichi, which reports that "enemy" troops (the Allied forces) began landing operations in northern France, including Normandy, on June 6. The Allied forces went on to liberate Paris from Nazi occupation on Aug. 25, 1944.

    After passing Samar Island in the Philippines, Keene arrived in Leyte, where 1,300 battleships of all sizes were gathered. While the historic Normandy invasion took place in Europe in June 1944, an operation of a scale second to this had been planned for Asia. On his way from Leyte to Okinawa, Keene narrowly escaped death, as recounted in the excerpt below.


    Very early one morning, unable to sleep, I went out on deck where it was cooler. I could see the other ships of the convoy moving in parallel courses. Suddenly I noticed that a distant dark point in the sky was approaching. I realized that it must be a kamikaze plane. The speck grew larger, and soon it was apparent that it was headed for the ship I was on, by far the largest of the convoy. I stared at it in fascination, unable to think of anything. There was nowhere I could run to, no escape.

    The plane began to descend, aiming all the while at my ship. It was perfectly clear that the pilot intended to crash against it with a bomb or torpedo. I was incapable of movement or even of crying out. Then, the incredible happened: the descending plane struck the top of the mast of the adjacent ship and plunged into the sea. All this happened in the space of seconds. I later heard that the pilot had been rescued.

    Donald Keene gazes at the sea from Halona Beach Cove on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    I suppose that this was the closest encounter with death I have ever experienced.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    On April 1, 1945, Keene's unit landed on Okinawa's main island.

    * * *

    This series navigates the past century on the 100th anniversary of Donald Keene's birth -- also the centennial of The Mainichi -- by following the life of the late scholar, who contributed to the elevation of Japanese culture and literature in the world.

    (This is Part 6 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on June 7.)

    (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 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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