Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 33): Insight on family, friends, lifestyles in 1950s

Donald Keene is seen visiting his acquaintance's home in Kyoto in around 1955. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO -- Donald Keene depicted Japan in the 1950s in the book "Living Japan," where he provided insight on the Westernization of lifestyles among Japanese people, as well as interpersonal relationships among family and friends. The reader can glimpse the Japanese literature scholar's side as a "sociologist" or a "folklorist." Let's take a look at his descriptions of Japanese homes amid Westernization at this time.


    The Japanese uncertainty in dealing with foreigners is often repeated in their use of foreign things. Most modern houses, for example, have at least one Western-style room, furnished with overstuffed chairs, tables covered with doilies and ashtrays, and other appurtenances of modern life which one would not be surprised to find in a lower middle-class home in America or England, but which offer a dismal contrast to the serene, sparse elegance of the Japanese-style rooms next door. In part the ugliness of the furniture is the carpenters' fault: because they themselves never use overstuffed chairs and Western furniture in their own homes, they have no feeling for its comfort or beauty of line. But the Japanese, though blessed with a razor's edge perceptivity when dealing with anything native to the islands, often seem to lack the power of distinguishing the qualities of foreign things. In the tokonoma (the alcove in Japanese-style rooms for displaying hanging scrolls and flower arrangements), one may see yellow-haired dolls and rosy kewpie dolls, which seem charmingly exotic to the Japanese, and the gardens and parks often boast plaster replicas of "Mannikin Pis," the pride of Brussels.

    [Living Japan: The land, the people and their changing world]


    Antique calligraphy, paintings, and other goods, which were gathered over many years, fill Donald Keene's home in Tokyo's Kita Ward, as seen in this photo taken in January 2017. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    The description shows that while Japan is trying to incorporate Western culture, it is not blending well. Incidentally, Keene's home in the Nishigahara district of Tokyo's Kita Ward overflows with various books, antique items, decorations, and small objects purchased around the world over the course of half a century.

    As for food, Keene wrote briefly, "The meal itself will probably be much the same as a hundred years ago." He loved this traditional taste of Japan.

    On that note, Keene's adopted son Seiki recently told me of his father's memory of "chicken ramen" -- the world's first instant noodles -- which were invented by Nissin Foods founder Momofuku Ando and was sold from August 1958. This inventive product captured a young Keene's heart. Seiki said, "He bought a couple of boxes and brought them home to New York. He apparently ate all of them himself without giving them to anyone." In his final years, Keene was not someone who could be imagined as eating ramen on a street corner. This memory is evocative of his youth days when he must have been pressed for time.

    Keene also talked about Japanese families, as seen below.


    This Dec. 24, 1958, edition of The Mainichi reports on the Christmas and New Year shopping season in Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo.

    The family system and the self-sacrifice it requires have made Japanese women into the models of femininity so praised by the rest of the world. The husband's duty to his family is to marry a wife chosen for him, even if he does not love her, and to beget children. If he complies with these two rules he may have as many extramarital connections as he pleases, and even boast of them before his wife. He assumes that his wife will tolerate his lapses from fidelity and all lesser discourtesies. If he returns at midnight after carousing with his friends, he does not feel it necessary to apologize for having missed dinner.

    Far from it, he may be annoyed if a hot meal is not waiting for him even at that hour. His wife may be dressed in threadbare clothes, and wintry gales may be whistling through broken window-panes, but the husband will not hesitate to spend the evening at a bar drinking liquor which costs far more than the needed clothes for his wife or a new window.


    Of course, not all husbands, even of the traditional variety, behave so outrageously, and "enlightened" husbands, whose attitudes are similar to those of men in Western countries, are increasing. However, a wife in a traditional household must always be prepared to accept abuse without a murmur. Only in the large cities is divorce socially acceptable as a woman's defense against a brutal husband; elsewhere, women are still expected to endure anything in the interests of the family.

    Under the family system, the desirability of having children does not stem from the fact that they make a house a home, or that they add joy to the lives of the parents; sons are necessary to carry on the family line and to pray for the spirits of their ancestors.

    [Living Japan: The land, the people and their changing world]


    Donald Keene celebrates his birthday with close friends and family at a French restaurant near his home in Tokyo's Kita Ward on June 18, 2014. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

    Were Japanese couples really like this? Keene was someone who was kind toward men and women alike, and it can be gauged that he detested the old Japanese custom of belittling women. At the time, he was in his late 30s. He did not marry for a lifetime and had no family until adopting his son Seiki at age 89. Seiki says, "As far as I've heard, he had no intention to marry a certain woman throughout his life."

    As for friendship, Keene wrote the following.


    Friends seem less important to the Japanese than they are to most other peoples. A man may have numerous drinking pals and lady friends, but in moments of crisis he usually turns to his family rather than to friends. Japanese are surprised when they visit the United States to hear how often the word "friendship" is used, and with what emphasis. In Japan friends are for the most part former classmates. The Japanese have unbounded nostalgia for old acquaintances, and even kindergarten classes regularly hold reunions twenty or thirty years after graduation. Grown men can grow maudlin about events which took place when they were seven or eight years old. But it is extremely difficult to make close friends with anyone who was not a schoolmate. Fellow students at an elementary school are equals and can therefore become friends, but as a Japanese grows older the sense of hierarchy interferes with his associations. For some Japanese it is easier to make friends with foreigners than with fellow countrymen, because foreigners stand outside the Japanese hierarchy.

    Because of the family system, the fewness of friends does not matter as much to the Japanese as it would to Americans. As this system is weakened, however, the Japanese will taste more of the pleasure of free association and the pangs of solitude, and friends will be as essential as elsewhere.

    [Living Japan: The land, the people and their changing world]


    This Dec. 19, 1958, edition of The Mainichi introduces "The Makioka Sisters" ("Sasameyuki"), a film adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki's novel which hit theaters the next month amid an unprecedented film boom with the popularity of actors such as Yujiro Ishihara.

    For Keene, friends were an extremely precious presence. Besides his masters and seniors, he also interacted with people younger than him. Around 20 years ago, I interviewed Keene, who was around 40 years older than me, for the second time. At the end of the interview, he shook my hand and casually remarked, "Let's become friends." I remember this moved me.

    Yukio Kakuchi, a translator who was friends with Keene for many years, laughed and said, "Keene really was a people person and won everyone's hearts." He was undoubtedly an expert at making friends.

    * * *

    This series navigates the past century by following the life of the late scholar Donald Keene, who contributed to the elevation of Japanese culture and literature in the world. News from The Mainichi that made headlines in Keene's time is introduced alongside Keene's personal history. The series began in 2022, the 100th anniversary of Keene's birth -- also the centennial of The Mainichi.

    (This is Part 33 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on June 20.)

    (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.

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media