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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 12): Returning to university to retain ties with adored country

Donald Keene at the age of around 24, right, and his mother Rina, are seen in this 1946 photo taken after he returned to New York following military service. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- The war between Japan and the United States came to an end in 1945. Following its defeat, Japan departed from its militarism originating in the Meiji period (1868-1912) and began to take its first steps as a democratic nation under a new political system. Donald Keene, who returned to the U.S. Navy headquarters in Hawaii, where he belonged as a language officer, also reached the end of an era.

    Experiencing a vague sense of loss, he took procedures to leave the military, and went home to New York. His mother Rina, who was practically the only family he could rely on, was delighted by his safe return more than anyone. However, it seemed that U.S. society's interest in Japan, which grew rapidly after the two countries went to war, had suddenly declined. Keene recalls the time in his autobiography, which was written in the 2000s, as quoted below.


    Strange to say, although I had eagerly awaited release from the navy, I had never given much thought to what I would do afterward. Most of the other language officers planned to return to their work prior to joining the navy, but I had no profession. I knew Japanese, but this was not much of an asset, as it was commonly assumed that it would take at least fifty years for Japan to regain its prewar importance. Some language officers, deciding that China was likely to replace Japan as the leading power in East Asia, shifted to studying Chinese. But most of those who had learned Japanese lost all interest in using the language.


    As an undergraduate, I had not known what I wanted to become. Every profession seemed equally unappealing, but now the study of Chinese and later Japanese opened up the possibility of an occupation. But what, specifically, was I to do with my Japanese? There was no demand for teachers of Japanese literature or history at any American university.

    Donald Keene, front left, is seen in Hawaii, where he served as a U.S. Navy language officer from 1943 to 1945. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    Although the prospects were poor, I decided to stay with Japanese and trust my luck. People sometimes congratulate me for having realized in 1946 that an economic miracle would take place in Japan twenty-five years later, but at this point I did not foresee this miracle. Instead, I made the choice because of a vague awareness that I was temperamentally suited to studying Japan. Years later, when I applied for a visa at the Japanese consulate general in New York, a young vice-consul said, "You were clever to have studied Japanese. You never would have become famous in anything more competitive." It naturally did not please me to be told this, but he may have been right.

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


    This image shows the April 11, 1946 edition of The Mainichi, which reported on Japan's first national election since the end of World War II, and last one under the country's old Constitution, held the day before. The right to vote was extended to all Japanese men and women aged 20 or older.

    Almost no one in 1946 could have predicted Japan's growth that came afterwards. While many of Keene's colleagues drifted away from the Japanese language, Keene apparently found a way to visit Japan again. In his 1983 Japanese essay on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trial, he stated, "As the occupation forces' policy at the time, Japan did not allow entry of foreigners besides missionaries and traders. However, interpreters of the trial were able to enter the country, so I applied from the desire to go to Japan as soon as possible. Soon after, I was informed I was accepted, but after mulling it over, I sent a telegram turning down the offer. Though I wanted to go to Japan, I had too much doubt about judging war criminals, so I did not want to join even as an interpreter."

    Keene also wrote the following in a letter dated Sept. 23, 1945, which was addressed to a comrade while he was in Guam as a Navy officer.


    This image shows the Nov. 13, 1948 edition of The Mainichi, which reported on the sentences handed down to Class A war criminals at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which opened in May 1946. On Nov. 12, 1948, sentences were pronounced on 25 people, including the death penalty to former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six other individuals.

    To punish the leading Japanese under the brand of "war criminals" would be to repeat what every nation has done since earliest history, but giving the act the benefit of a high-sounding name. If our finger of guilt were to point not only at the conquered countries, but also at the English in India or Hong Kong, or the French in Syria, or the Russians in Eastern Europe, or the United States for bombing Japanese civilians in undefended residential areas, the statement that the trials marked a beginning would have some meaning. As it is, they serve rather to mark an end to the war, an end marked as usual by recriminations and self-satisfaction.

    As far as war criminals are concerned, I don't know how many are guilty of murder of our prisoners or of Chinese civilians. I think that these should be found out and punished as for civil murder. As for mistreatment, though, such as forcing prisoners to work in the broiling sun or to eat only rice and fish, I think that we had better forget the matter entirely. It would be too easy to make accusations and too easy for an American to feel that something was an outrage which was almost normal to the Japanese accustomed to severe marches and miserable food.

    (Eyewitness to History -- The First Americans in Postwar Asia)


    Keene also says the following about Japan-U.S. relations after World War II. The letter, written about one month after the war's end, contains the true thoughts of a 23-year-old Keene, who had not yet set foot in Japan's mainland.


    This image shows the April 11, 1946 edition of The Mainichi, which reported on the House of Representatives election held the day before. Photos show women at the polls. A total of 39 female representatives were elected to office.

    If it were possible, I think the best solution would be to forget the past and to attempt a real reconversion of the Japanese nation. I think that we have a good chance of arousing the interest and active cooperation of many young Japanese. Intelligence on our part can really win the war. I wonder if Americans won't find the Japanese the most agreeable people in Asia from almost every standpoint. The Japanese will certainly admire the Americans. With this initial advantage we can create a powerful and meaningful friendship.

    (Eyewitness to History -- The First Americans in Postwar Asia)


    How many people in Japan and the U.S. could have accurately predicted at such an early stage that the two countries' relations would improve after the war?

    Donald Keene looks at a notice announcing his discharge from the U.S. Navy, in this photo taken on Aug. 14, 2011. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    The Tokyo Trial began in May 1946. Meanwhile, Keene moved into a world that was unrelated to handling the war's aftermath. After contemplation, he decided to return to his alma mater Columbia University to stay connected with Japan. Under his professor Ryusaku Tsunoda, he pursued graduate studies of Japanese literature and the history of Japanese thought. He was soon able to read classical Japanese literature, and chose to write about Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play The Battles of Coxinga for his doctoral dissertation.

    * * *

    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 12 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on Aug. 30.)

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

    The original text of Donald Keene's autobiographies is 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, Keene 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, Keene received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. The scholar 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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