Autobiographical Essays by Donald Keene

Yomiuri newspaper published a long series of autobiographical essays by Donald Keene which I somehow missed until today. Professor Keene is one of the most important Western scholars of Japanese literature of the past century and is still very active. Appropriately enough, his most recent work, published by Columbia University Press in 2006, is entitled Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841 (BF).

From the historian’s point of view, Keene’s own life and experiences are themselves of great interest. He served the US military as a Japanese translator and interpreter in World War II before resuming his academic studies after the war. Letters by Keene, Otis Cary and others published various as War Wasted Letters, Eyewitness to History, and From a Ruined Empire give us a fascinating look into the early postwar realities of Japan and East Asia. In these essays in Yomiuri Keene shares many more of his stories from his earliest childhood to his thoughts about old age.

I believe the essays were serialized in Japanese in the print version of Yomiuri (「私と20世紀のクロニクル」) but I can’t seem to find the full originals (Commentators in the Japanese blogosphere abound), so perhaps they are destined for publication in book form. You can find a full listing of the 49 essays in English here:

Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century

Below I have excerpted a few of the passages in the articles that I read through this evening and found especially interesting…

In one article we learn that he had his first encounter with Chinese characters through a fellow Chinese student at Harvard named Lee. Keene notes his fascination with the Tale of Genji, which he read in translation but notes that his friend Lee, who by now was teaching him Chinese over lunch in a Chinese restaurant near Columbia University (Despite the time leap, I can’t get an image of him sitting in Ollies, the Chinese restaurant now across from the entrance of Columbia on 116th and Broadway, out of my head), was no fan of Japan:

Until this time I had thought of Japan mainly as a menacing militaristic country. I had been charmed by Hiroshige, but Japan was for me not the land of beauty but the invader of China. Lee was bitterly anti-Japanese. When we went to the New York World’s Fair we visited the various foreign pavilions, but he absolutely refused to enter the Japanese pavilion. I sympathized with him and his country, but this did not prevent me from enjoying “The Tale of Genji.” No, “enjoy” is not the right word; I turned to it as a refuge from all I hated in the world around me.

In another essay Keene talks about how, together with his friend Inomata, he learned of the outbreak of war:

On December 7, 1941 I went hiking with Inomata on Staten Island. When the ferry returned to the southern tip of Manhattan Island, a man was selling newspapers with the headline “Japs Attack U.S. Hawaii, Philippines bombed by Airmen.” I laughed at the headline. The newspaper, the only one published on Sunday afternoon, often had sensational headlines in order to attract customers. Inomata and I separated, he for Greenwich Village, I for Brooklyn. When I got back home I discovered that the newspaper, for once, had not exaggerated. Realizing how upset Inomata would be by the news, I wanted to find and reassure him. I searched everywhere in Greenwich Village without success. He later told me that, fearing violence against Japanese, he had spent the night in an all-night cinema where he remained undetected.

In the same article Keene reports what happened to one of his professors, Tsunoda Ryusaku:

I went as usual to Tsunoda sensei’s classroom, but he did not appear. He had been interned as an enemy alien. At his trial, some weeks later, he was accused of taking long walks without a dog, proof that he was a spy. The judge dismissed the case and Tsunoda sensei returned to Columbia where he spent the war teaching as usual.

He talks about his decision to join the Navy and continue his language studies under military instruction:

Not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor I heard a radio commentator declare that only 50 Americans knew Japanese. I wondered if, on the basis of my summer in the mountains, I was one of the 50. The commentator was misinformed. Not fifty but hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans knew Japanese and some had been educated in Japan. The best I could do, with the help of two dictionaries, was to read a simple newspaper article. I could not utter one sentence in Japanese, and did not understand Japanese when it was spoken.

I was painfully aware, of course, of these limitations. That is why, when I learned of the Navy Japanese Language School, I wrote to the Navy Department asking to be admitted. A letter came from Washington soon afterwards requesting me to appear for an interview. I don’t recall what I was asked during the interview, but a few weeks later I received a notice stating that I should report to the University of California for induction into the language school.

In another installment we learn about his secretive translation work on captured Japanese documents in the military and efforts to make it more entertaining:

For the first few days we were excited to think that our secret work was going to help end the war, but the documents were so unmistakeably without value that the euphoria did not last long. The documents had been picked up on Guadalcanal, an island in the South Pacific where a long battle took place between the Japanese, who had seized the island, and the Americans who eventually succeeded in taking it back. By this time the fighting on Guadalcanal had ended and the Japanese there had been killed, but we went on translating routine reports on platoons that no longer existed or on the number of sheets of paper and bottles of ink in their possession.

Translating such materials was so tedious that we tried making it more interesting by rendering the Japanese documents into old-fashioned English or into the language of popular fiction. The lieutenant, who knew Japanese, sometimes read over our translations. He would then summon us and point out our errors in a rage, translating our English into Navy language.

I was particularly moved when he discusses the diaries of dead Japanese soldiers he comes across:

One day I noticed a large wooden box containing captured documents. The documents gave off a faint, unpleasant odor. I was told that the little notebooks were diaries taken from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers or found floating in the sea. The odor came from the bloodstains. I felt squeamish about touching the little books but, carefully selecting one that seemed free of bloodstains, I began to translate it. At first I had trouble reading the handwriting, but the diaries, unlike the printed or mimeographed documents I previously had translated, were at times almost unbearably moving, recording the suffering of a soldier in his last days.

Sometimes the last page of a Japanese soldier’s diary contained a message in English, asking the American who found the diary to return it to his family after the war. I hid such diaries, though it was forbidden, intending to return the diaries to the diarist’s family, but my desk was searched and the diaries were confiscated. This was a great disappointment. The first Japanese I ever really knew were the writers of the diaries, though they were all dead by the time I met them.

In addition to translating captured documents Keene also frequently interacted with and interviewed Japanese and Korean POWs. He talks about his first prisoner on Okinawa:

Soon we had our first prisoners, an Army lieutenant and a Navy ensign. The Army officer was quite cheerful, ready to exchange jokes with his captors. After the war I had a letter from him in which he styled himself “Prisoner Number One.” The Navy officer, much younger, was morose. I guessed that he was ashamed to have been taken alive. He seemed reluctant to respond to simple questions, but a few days later he asked me if I would talk with him as one student to another, not as enemies. I agreed. He asked whether there was any reason why he should remain alive. This was not the first time a prisoner had asked me this question. Although I was barely twenty-three and knew little of the world apart from books, I answered the question with confidence, urging the prisoner to stay alive and work for the new Japan.

Unlike some of his fellow translators, Keene did not go straight to Japan with its surrender but served with the Marines in Qingdao, where he had a number of unpleasant experiences he talks about in an article about his time in early postwar China:

My worst experience was investigating war crimes. One day, while talking with a Korean, I happened to mention the name of a Japanese naval officer with whom I was friendly. The Korean said with an ironic smile, “Yes, he’s a nice man who eats human liver and boasts of it.” I asked him in astonishment what he meant, and this led to an investigation of how Chinese, accused of various crimes, had been executed. The accused, without trial, were tied to stakes and used for bayonet practice. It was hoped that this would harden young recruits. Sometimes, I was told, a Japanese soldier cut the liver from the corpses.

I had not been trained in criminal investigation and the work was distasteful especially because it involved people I knew. I asked to be allowed to return to America. I was told that if I continued my work on war crimes another month I would be given a week in Peking, but I refused. I regret now I did not see Peking. It was before the brutal modernization of the city.

I haven’t read through all the postwar articles, but I found both his article on his friendship with Mishima, and reflecting on aging to be interesting as well.

Keene is familiar to most students of Japan here in the West, who often find that their course reading of Japanese literature in translation is by him, but he is also widely known and loved in Japan, which perhaps explains the fact that a search on the title of the series turns web pages by many Japanese who have clearly eagerly followed each installment as it emerged.

1 Comment

  1. I read the English versions in the Daily Yomiuri this last summer while I was living in Fukuoka.
    They were accompanied by witty illustrations by a Japanese artist.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.