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Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 14): Travel to mainland Europe en route to Cambridge University

Donald Keene, left, is seen during a trip to the Netherlands circa 1948, where he studied the country's long relationship with Japan. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- After the Second World War, Donald Keene returned to his alma mater Columbia University and also studied at Harvard for about a year, all thanks to U.S. legislation commonly called the G.I. Bill that provided benefits for young World War II veterans.

    The G.I. Bill allowed Keene to receive a free three-year university education. The opportunities for education and research in the U.S., which far outstripped what was available in Japan, clearly show the difference between the power of the two countries at the time.

    Keene studied hard, but before he knew it the period covered by his tuition grant was almost over. He began to look for a job, but could not find work teaching Japanese in the U.S. By chance, he learned about a fund targeting Americans and others who wanted to pursue research in Britain, and passed the evaluation. He could not have asked for a better option, as this meant he could continue his studies at the prestigious University of Cambridge. In high spirits, Keene headed to Europe in September 1948. Below is his account of the time.


    This June 29, 1947 edition of The Mainichi reports about the Marshall Plan, a U.S. program providing aid to European countries after the devastation of World War II, which was announced by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall on June 5, 1947.

    I was to begin my studies at Cambridge in the autumn of 1948, but before going to England I spent time in France, Belgium, and Holland. I had loved France ever since I was a child. In 1931, when I was nine, my father had taken me with him on a business trip to Europe, most of the time in France, an experience that had left an indelible impression. Unlike the other pupils in my school, who could not imagine why they had to learn a foreign language when so much of the world spoke English, I knew from my unsuccessful attempts to communicate with French children of my own age that English was not enough, and when we returned to America I begged my father to hire a tutor who would teach me French.

    This request coincided with one of the financial disasters that struck the family at this time, and I naturally did not get my tutor. I had to wait until I entered junior high school to begin my study of French, but from then on, until I took up Chinese and Japanese, I continued of the language and literature. France in the autumn of 1948 was still recovering from the effects of the war. Every few months there was a change of cabinets, a situation accepted with cynical good humor by the French.


    This February 2014 photo shows Donald Keene holding a bottle of Burgundy wine at a department store in Tokyo. His favorites were French and Italian wine. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    A friend in New York had told me about an inexpensive hotel in Paris off the Place Monge, and that was where I headed. Most of the other guests in the hotel were White Russians, who still abounded in Paris. Living conditions seemed rather primitive even to me, but the atmosphere was friendly and I was seldom in my room except to sleep. Every morning I would set out walking, sometimes with a specific objective in mind but usually just for the pleasure of seeing the street life wherever my feet happened to take me. This was the first time I had ever fallen in love with a city, and the experience would not be repeated often later in life. Being in a city where I knew almost no one might under other circumstances have made me feel lonely, but during that week or two when I wandered through the streets of Paris, captivated by its charm (even though it was not at its best in 1948), there was never any danger of feeling lonely.


    I went to the theater or opera almost every night. In those days tickets were inexpensive and not difficult to obtain, no doubt because more urgent matters than the classics occupied people's minds.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    This April 6, 1949 edition of The Mainichi reports about the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty by 12 countries, led by the United States, in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949, which gave rise to the NATO security alliance. During the Cold War, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, were ideologically opposed. NATO continued to expand its membership even after the Cold War ended.

    It sounds a lot like Keene to have been curious to experience the different cultures of mainland Europe before going to Britain from the U.S. East Coast. First, he headed to France for the first time since he was 9 years old. He had vivid memories of that boyhood trip, his first overseas, but this time he was traveling as a serious adult researcher specializing in the culture of a foreign country.

    Europe, so recently the battleground of two world wars, was still beset by postwar chaos. The description of White Russians who fled to other parts of the continent following the Russian Revolution reminds one of the current outflow of Ukrainian refugees caused by the Russian invasion of their country. Every spasm of war in modern Europe has produced its own wave of refugees, many of whom moved to France or Britain.

    During his stay in Paris, Keene, who was also a music enthusiast, went to the opera almost every evening. Despite the post-war turmoil, opera performances and classical music concerts were being held in Paris. Going to the opera soon became one of Keene's favorite hobbies, one that lasted a lifetime. After Paris, Keene toured Belgium and the Netherlands.


    My special interest in Holland did not stem from my love of Dutch painting, though if I were asked now to name the greatest painter I would surely answer either Rembrandt or Vermeer, but from my interest in rangaku, the "Dutch learning" that flourished in Japan during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I had begun to study Dutch with a friend while in America and was able to carry on a simple conversation with him, but I was certainly not equipped to converse on any higher level. Fortunately, I discovered, everyone I met in Holland spoke at least three foreign languages -- English, French, and German.

    In the following years I would visit Holland fairly often, and I spent most of one summer in Leiden when I was working on The Japanese Discovery of Europe, the revised version of the master's essay on Honda Toshiaki I had written as a graduate student at Columbia.

    (On Familiar Terms)


    This April 2015 photo shows Donald Keene at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    Still true today, educated Dutch people of the time could speak at least three foreign languages fluently. Even now, this seems to be very surprising to most monolingual American travelers to Europe. Keene's visit there must have been stimulating for him as well. What's more, the Netherlands, which was Japan's window to the West during its "sakoku" national seclusion period from the 17th to the 19th centuries, has a treasure trove of materials recording the long-established ties between the two countries. The history of relations between Japan and the Netherlands later became a crucial research theme for Keene. After the brief trip to mainland Europe, Keene finally departed for the United Kingdom.


    I took the boat at the Hook of Holland for England. I felt not only anticipation, as I had before arriving in France, but also a certain tension at the thought that I would not simply be visiting but living in England for a whole year. (As a matter of fact, I was to spend five years there.)


    Reports I had read about "austerity," the discipline the British had imposed on themselves to surmount the economic crisis of the postwar years, made me wonder if I might even have to go hungry. And almost every account of postwar Britain suggested that, contrary to prewar days when the sun never set on the British empire, it now rained constantly.

    This Nov. 4, 1949 edition of The Mainichi reports about Japanese physicist and Kyoto University professor Hideki Yukawa, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. He became the first Nobel Prize laureate in Japan, lifting the spirit of Japanese people after World War II. Yukawa later took up a teaching post at Columbia University.

    My arrival in Cambridge initially confirmed my worst fears. I had been accepted by Corpus Christi College, and when I presented myself, a "gyp" (a college servant) led me to my rooms, remarking, "Coldest rooms in Cambridge, sir."

    (On Familiar Terms)


    This was Keene's first impression of Britain, where autumn comes quickly. It was September 1948.

    * * *

    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 14 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on Sept. 27.)

    (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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