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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 13): Discovering potential as a 'missionary' of Japanese culture

Donald Keene during his years at Harvard University is seen in this undated photo. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- After World War II, Donald Keene threw himself into academia as a graduate student at his alma mater Columbia University. Though he originally wanted to study abroad in Japan or China as soon as possible, it was not feasible given the international situation at the time.

    People were not allowed into Japan, which was under occupation by the Allied powers, save for those with military-affiliated jobs, and in China, a civil war continued between the Nationalist Party and Chinese Communist Party. Neither countries offered an environment for a comfortable life as a researcher.

    As a result, in the autumn of 1947, Keene chose to study at Harvard University, the oldest and one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States.

    This June 7, 1947 edition of The Mainichi reports about Emperor Hirohito's visits and interactions with people across Japan following his Humanity Declaration where he denied his divinity. In June 1947, the Emperor visited west Japan, including the Osaka head office of the Mainichi Shimbun. Around this time, Keene was studying at Columbia University.

    Excellent researchers of Japanese studies taught there, including Professor Edwin Reischauer (1910-1990), who later became U.S. Ambassador to Japan during President John F. Kennedy's administration. At Harvard, Reischauer, who was 12 years older than Keene, taught Japanese history as an assistant professor. Touching on the researcher's studies on Heian period (794-1185) high Buddhist priest Ennin, of the Tendai sect, Keene wrote the following in his autobiography.


    One of his former students was a close friend of mine, and the three of us would have lunch together from time to time. His interests extended to every aspect of Japanese civilization, and again and again I would be surprised by some remark which, though diffidently spoken, revealed his unquestionable understanding of Japan. No doubt many of the "discoveries" I have made had their origins in these lunchtime conversations.

    In 1955 Professor Reischauer published the two volumes of his study of the ninth-century Japanese priest Ennin. One volume consists of a translation of the diary Ennin kept while he was in China from 838 to 847. Ennin's Diary is a superb work of scholarship. The text is in a difficult mixture of classical and colloquial Chinese, and at the time the translation was made there was hardly anything in the way of commentaries and very few studies of the contents of the diary. The translation is elucidated by close to 1,600 explanatory footnotes, each one the product of hours of research. But Professor Reischauer made a crucial decision when he prepared the second volume, Ennin's Travels in Tong China. He wrote in the Preface, "I have written this book not only for those with a specific interest in the Far East, but also for those with a more general interest in the broad record of human history."

    (On Familiar Terms)


    Donald Keene, center in the front row, then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer, left in back row, Japanese authors Yukio Mishima, right in center row, and Kenichi Yoshida, right in front row, who were close friends of Keene, are seen at a luncheon which was held on the occasion of Keene being awarded the Kikuchi Kan Prize for his achievements of introducing Japanese literature, on March 5, 1962. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    Reischauer was born and raised in Japan as a child of a missionary, and was a member of the U.S. Army who engaged in information warfare by decoding secret messages as a Japanese language expert. The war between his two home countries must have had a significant impact on him. As Keene also had a similar experience, Reischauer was someone who felt special and close to him. Keene was influenced by his professor, who specialized in Japanese history, and grew an interest in the Eastern history and religious background behind classical literature pieces. This interest eventually expanded to the political and social systems unique to Japan.

    Keene also aspired to teach at university as a scholar in the making, and Reischauer's presence as his teacher opened his eyes to his own possibility as something other than just a "pure" scholar, as written below.


    Professor Reischauer was the son of a missionary, and he himself retained some of the characteristics of a true missionary. But his chief object was to proselytize in America, not in Japan. Painfully aware of the immense ignorance of Japan in the United States and other countries of the West, he began to write books that would be both accurate and readable, in the hopes of enlightening people who would make the effort to learn. His work of enlightenment was not confined to books. He was the moving force behind a television series of Japanese films, the most popular program ever shown on American public television, and he actively promoted the preparation of a series of films on Japanese culture that could be shown at colleges throughout the country, especially at institutions that lacked teachers of Japanese.


    This Oct. 3, 1949 edition of The Mainichi reports on the proclamation by Communist leader Mao Zedong regarding the establishment of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, amid an ongoing civil war between the Kuomintang nationalists and Chinese Communist Party.

    These activities of Professor Reischauer influenced me considerably. I had thought at one time that I wanted nothing more than to be a "pure" scholar, the kind of person who would spend months investigating a subject and then publish a two- or three- page article that was pure gold in a learned journal. But I gradually came to realize that there was something of the missionary in me too, and if my work is remembered at all it will probably be because of the books addressed to the general public, not my attempts at "pure" scholarship.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    It is interesting that Keene says, "I gradually came to realize that there was something of the missionary in me too." Around this time, as a researcher, Keene began to study and work on the English translation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play The Battles of Coxinga, which has roots in both Japan and China. Keene's encounter with both Japanese puppet theater, which was popular entertainment among commoners during the Edo period (1603-1867), and Reischauer, who was a role model as an educator, widened the scope of Keene's cultural activities that followed. He began to regard himself as not just a scholar limited to a narrow range of academic studies, but someone with the role of serving as a "missionary" of Japanese culture to present the existence of Japan, which was still unknown, to the world.

    Some 15 years after their initial encounter at Harvard, Keene and his teacher who became the U.S. ambassador to Japan met again in Tokyo. Keene recounts the reunion in his autobiography, as seen below.


    This April 20, 1961 edition of The Mainichi Daily News reports about the arrival of Edwin Reischauer, the new U.S. Ambassador to Japan. His remarks became politically controversial amid the Cold War, such as his January 1963 request to have U.S. nuclear submarines enter Japan's ports.

    The years that Professor Reischauer spent as the American ambassador to Japan were no doubt the climax of his career. It was not an easy assignment. He took up his post just the year after the massive demonstrations against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty of 1960, which tied Japanese security to American power. Those who participated in the demonstrations were not necessarily anti-American, but there was certainly an anti-American strain to the slogans and pronouncements. This strain continued to be sounded in publications aimed at intellectuals even after Ambassador Reischauer arrived on the scene, with repeated denunciations being made of the "Kennedy-Reischauer offensive."

    This was the only time in my years of residence in Japan that I have been invited to the embassy for an informal meal, and on several occasions I heard the ambassador discuss Japanese public opinion. He was never discouraged, never pessimistic. The friendship and understanding of the two countries he loved was too important to him to be affected even by serious clashes of opinion. He was the best exemplar I have known of a scholarly ideal, belonging to more than one country.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    As Reischauer served as ambassador between 1961 and 1966, in the midst of the Cold War, he was hit by the wave of anti-American sentiment in Japan, which was heightened due to protests against the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Later, only Reischauer's political remarks were brought to the fore, including his 1981 claim that American vessels carrying nuclear weapons entered Japanese ports -- a move which runs counter to Japan's three non-nuclear principles of "not possessing, producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons." However, Reischauer was someone who deserves to be appreciated for his scholarly achievements as a true Japanologist. For Keene, Reischauer was a model educator who was the greatest of his kind.

    * * *

    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 13 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on Sept. 13.)

    This June 2013 photo shows Donald Keene at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he carefully viewed the Japan collection. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    (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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