The Japan of Donald Keene: Reflecting on a Century of a Dead Literary Scholar


TOKYO – Three years ago, on February 24, 2019, renowned Japanese literature scholar Dr. Donald Keene breathed his last. Born in 1922, he was 18 when a fateful encounter with “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century spectacle of Heian-era court life, set him on the path to devoting his life to spreading the charms of Japanese literature and culture.

Until his death at the age of 96, he published a plethora of works demonstrating the fruits of his academic achievements. Keene left a scholarly legacy of publications, including more than 50 English books written by himself among other works, and more than 150 Japanese books, including transcripts of interviews and dialogues, as well as translations of his writings.

Throughout 2022, the 100th anniversary of his birth, exhibitions and events across Japan will showcase his achievements and pass them on to future generations. What kind of life was led by “Keene Sensei”, who introduced Japan to the world through first-class English? What did the American-born Japanese scholar pass on to us and what did he try to leave for the future? I’d like to navigate that past century using his English-language works and previous editions of The Mainichi, which also celebrates its 100th anniversary in April this year.

1. Trip to Europe that broadened young Keene’s horizons

Keene was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 18, 1922. His family consisted of himself, his father – an international trade businessman – his mother, his sister two years his younger and their dog Bingo. Engraved on the tombstone near his house in the Nishigahara district of Tokyo’s Kita district is an illustration of a yellow dog, whose kanji characters can be read as “kiin”, which is a play on phonetic sound of “Keene” in Japanese. The design is inspired by Bingo.

This 1932 photo shows Donald Keene, aged about 10, left, with his younger sister and his dog Bingo at their home in Brooklyn, New York. Bingo had a yellowish coat. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

Keene was born and raised during the exuberant era of the Roaring Twenties, when the United States was experiencing rapid economic growth while European countries were weakened in the aftermath of World War I. It was the dawn of America’s superpower status, and New York – the new global economic center in a mass consumer society – was in a bubble economy. While young Keene was small and awkward in sports, he was an inquisitive child who dreamed of venturing into an unknown world. This enthusiasm for knowledge lasted throughout his life.

The Great Depression hit when Keene was 7 and his family experienced its fair share of financial troubles. In July 1931, in the midst of the economic crisis, 9-year-old Keene learns that his father is going on a business trip to Europe. Seeing his luck, he begged his father to let him come too. But his father is not easily convinced and Keene ends up crying for three hours. His tears eventually did the trick and he seized the opportunity to travel overseas for the first time. This experience of being introduced to a world of different cultures broadened young Keene’s horizons.

In his autobiography, “Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan”, he writes of the trip as follows.


A young Donald Keene, pictured center right wearing a beret, boards a ship at the port of Bremen in Germany. Her father is on her right. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

My father and I sailed for Europe in July 1931. The ship was the United States Line’s George Washington. It was by no means one of the largest liners to cross the Atlantic, but for me it was a whole new world. On the one hand, it was exciting to be among strangers and to be introduced to them by my father. I’ve traveled on cruise ships several times over the past few years and enjoyed the experience, but my memories of the George Washington are totally different. On this ship, my traveling companions were not wealthy, elderly people less interested in destinations than in life on board. Instead, they were of all ages and professions and, however urgent the business leading them to Europe, had no choice but to accept the need to spend a week or more in sea. Ships were the only way to get to Europe.

The first-class menu was elaborate, with many choices of food for each meal, and once the ship left US territorial waters, it was no longer necessary to obey US law prohibiting the serving of alcohol. Instead, alcohol was consumed ostentatiously. We never had alcohol of any kind in our house during prohibition days. Although I know the location of a speakeasy not far from our house and have seen drunken men come out, I naturally had never thought of entering it. So my first alcohol tasting took place on board the ship when my father allowed me to drink the foam from his beer. .

The only unpleasant aspect of the trip was the presence of a few American boys who were around my age. The first thing they wanted to know was what position I played baseball. I couldn’t tell the truth very well, that I wasn’t good at any job, so I had to pretend. Without thinking too much, I said that I was a receiver and therefore I feared the possibility of having to demonstrate my talent. In an effort to establish a rapport with these new acquaintances, I joined them in their stealthy cigarette smoking in a corner of the ship where we were unlikely to be observed. For six months after that, I stole cigarettes from my father and secretly smoked, largely as a gesture of burgeoning maturity. I continued to smoke until one day I realized that it gave me no pleasure and I never smoked again.

[Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan]


Keene’s account clearly shows how much the young boy enjoyed the sea voyage, which was completely removed from his daily routine. His first taste of alcohol, during the nationwide liquor ban in the United States, and his introduction to smoking also became a fond memory that opened doors to the unknown.

The ship passed through Cobh, a seaport in Ireland, and arrived in Cherbourg, France. It was the first foreign country in which he set foot. By train, he then headed for the beautiful capital of Paris. There he met a girl his own age. In the vehicle they were both in, Keene attempted to speak with the girl who spoke a different native language, as he describes in his autobiography below.


I was sitting in the back of a car with a French girl about my age, the daughter of one of my father’s associates. She didn’t speak English; I did not speak french. So in a desperate attempt to communicate with her, I sang the only French song I knew, “Frere Jacques”.

Since then, I feel strongly attracted by foreign languages. Japanese people often ask me how much I know, and it is extremely difficult to answer. I have studied to varying degrees maybe eight or nine languages ​​but I have totally forgotten some and some that I can understand but not speak or read but not write. Yet even in the case of a language like Classical Greek, which I have almost completely forgotten, I am glad to have had the experience of reading Homer and the Greek Tragedies in the original. But I sometimes think that if, following an accident, I lost my knowledge of Japanese, I wouldn’t have much left. Japanese, which at first had no connection with my ancestry, my literary tastes or my awareness of myself as a person, became the central element of my life.

[Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan]


One can measure the significant impact of this childhood trip on Keene’s life, and one can certainly say that this bittersweet encounter broadened the boy’s interest in foreign lands.

At age 11, her sister died of an illness. He was 15 when his parents divorced, and Keene began living with his mother, in what can be called a rather difficult period of his childhood. But his grades remained excellent in elementary, middle and high school and were supported by his strong admiration for foreign countries. In another autobiography, “On Familiar Terms”, Keene evokes memories of when Japan entered his orbit. Surprisingly, Keene’s initial impression of the country in which he chose to spend his final years as a citizen was not good.


When I was growing up in New York, someone told me that if I dug a hole deep enough in the garden, I would eventually reach China. Japan seemed even further away. I certainly started to distinguish between the two countries in the early 1930s, when I was eleven or twelve years old. I kept the notebook that I kept for the year 1933 in which I carefully pasted articles that I had cut out from the newspapers every day. It was a particularly fateful America, Roosevelt became president; in Germany, Hitler took power; and in China, the Japanese army occupied Shanghai. The first time I seriously thought about Japan was probably in connection with the war in China. Japan seemed like a very scary country. I’m sure if someone had predicted back then that when I grew up my life would be devoted to Japan, I would have been absolutely amazed.

[On Familiar Terms]


In the fall of 1938, at only 16 years old, Keene entered Columbia University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, on a Pulitzer scholarship. This was the first step in his lifelong dedication to the university.

(This is part 1 of a series.)

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Mainichi team writer and director of the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

The original text of Donald Keene’s autobiographies is used with permission from the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation. The foundation’s website can be accessed at:

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Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922 in Brooklyn, New York. He was a scholar of Japanese literature and professor emeritus at Columbia University. After earning postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Cambridge University, he received a scholarship to study at Kyoto University in 1953. Keene developed friendships with prominent Japanese authors, including Tanizaki Junichiro, Kawabata Yasunari and Mishima Yukio. Over half a century, he traveled between the United States and Japan and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while conveying their charms to the world in English. His major works include a multi-volume history of Japanese literature, “A Century Travelers” and “The Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912”. In 2008, he received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. Keene was granted Japanese citizenship within a year of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. He died on February 24, 2019, aged 96.


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