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

Donald Keene, left, is seen on a trip to the Netherlands around 1948, where he researched the country’s long relationship with Japan. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO – After World War II, Donald Keene returned to his alma mater Columbia University and also studied at Harvard for about a year, all thanks to US legislation commonly known as the GI Bill which provided benefits for young veterans of the Second World War.

The GI Bill allowed Keene to receive a free three-year college education. Educational and research opportunities in the United States, which far exceeded 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, his scholarship period was nearly over. He started looking for a job, but couldn’t find work teaching Japanese in the United States. By chance he heard of a fund targeting Americans and others who wanted to pursue research in Britain, and passed the assessment. He couldn’t have asked for a better option, as it meant he could continue his education at the prestigious Cambridge University. In good spirits, Keene traveled to Europe in September 1948. Here is his account of the time.


This June 29, 1947 edition of The Mainichi reports on the Marshall Plan, an American program of aid to European countries after the devastation of World War II, which was announced by United States Secretary of State George Marshall on June 5, 1947 .

I was to begin my studies at Cambridge in the fall of 1948, but before going to England I spent time in France, Belgium and Holland. I loved France since my childhood. In 1931, when I was nine years old, my father took me with him on a business trip to Europe, mostly to France, an experience that left an indelible impression on me. Unlike other students at my school, who couldn’t imagine why they had to learn a foreign language when so much of the world spoke English, I knew from my failed attempts to communicate with French children my age that the 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 hit the family at that time, and naturally I did not have my guardian. I had to wait until I started college to start my French studies, but from there, until I started Chinese and Japanese, I continued with language and literature. France in the fall of 1948 was still recovering from the effects of the war. Every few months there was a change of cabinet, a situation accepted with cynical good humor by the French.

This photo from February 2014 shows Donald Keene holding a bottle of Burgundy wine in 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 a cheap hotel in Paris near Place Monge, and that’s where I was headed. Most of the other hotel guests were White Russians, who still abounded in Paris. The living conditions seemed quite primitive, even to me, but the atmosphere was friendly and I was rarely in my room except to sleep. Every morning I would go for a walk, sometimes with a specific goal in mind but usually just for the pleasure of seeing street life wherever my feet took me. It was my first time falling in love with a city, and the experience would not be repeated often later in life. Being in a city where I hardly knew anyone might have felt lonely under other circumstances, but for that week or two I wandered the streets of Paris, captivated by its charm (even if it didn’t wasn’t at its best in 1948), there was never any danger of feeling lonely.

I went to the theater or the opera almost every night. At that time, tickets were cheap and easy to get, presumably because more pressing matters than the classics occupied people’s minds.

(In colloquial terms)


This April 6, 1949 edition of the Mainichi reports the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty by 12 nations, led by the United States, in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949, which gave birth to the security alliance of NATO. 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 end of the Cold War.

It’s a lot like Keene to have been curious about the different cultures of mainland Europe before traveling to Britain from the east coast of the United States. First, he traveled to France for the first time since he was 9 years old. He had vivid memories of this childhood trip, his first abroad, 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 in the throes of post-war chaos. The description of White Russians who fled to other parts of the continent after the Russian Revolution recalls the current exodus of Ukrainian refugees caused by the Russian invasion of their country. Each spasm of war in modern Europe produced its own wave of refugees, many of whom moved to France or Britain.

While in Paris, Keene, who was also a music lover, went to the opera almost every night. Despite the post-war troubles, opera performances and classical music concerts are held in Paris. Going to the opera quickly became one of Keene’s favorite hobbies, one that lasted a lifetime. After Paris, Keene toured Belgium and the Netherlands.


My particular interest in Holland did not arise from my love of Dutch painting, although if asked now to name the greatest painter I would surely answer either Rembrandt or Vermeer, but from my interest in the rangaku, “the Dutch apprenticeship” that flourished in Japan in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I had started studying Dutch with a friend while in America and was able to hold a simple conversation with him, but I was certainly not equipped to converse at a higher level. Fortunately, I discovered that everyone I met in Holland spoke at least three foreign languages ​​- English, French and German.

Over the next few years I visited Holland quite often and spent most of a summer in Leiden when working on The Japanese Discovery of Europe, the revised version of the Honda Toshiaki Mastery Essay which I had written as a graduate student at Columbia. .

(In colloquial terms)


This photo from April 2015 shows Donald Keene at 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, that seems very surprising to most monolingual American travelers to Europe. Keene’s visit there must have been stimulating for him too. Additionally, the Netherlands, which was Japan’s window to the West during its period of national “sakoku” isolation from the 17th to 19th centuries, has a treasure trove of documents recording the long-established ties between the two countries. . The history of Japanese-Dutch relations later became a crucial research topic for Keene. After the brief trip to mainland Europe, Keene finally left for the UK.


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

The reports I had read about “austerity”, the self-imposed discipline of the British to overcome the economic crisis of the post-war years, made me wonder if I would not even have to suffer from hunger. And almost every account of post-war Britain suggested that, unlike the pre-war days when the sun never set over the British Empire, it now rained constantly.

This November 4, 1949 edition of The Mainichi reports on Japanese physicist and Kyoto University professor Hideki Yukawa, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. He became Japan’s first Nobel laureate, lifting the spirits of the Japanese people after World War II. Yukawa then took a teaching position at Columbia University.

My arrival in Cambridge first confirmed my worst fears. I had been accepted by Corpus Christi College, and when I introduced myself, a “gyp” (a servant from the college) showed me to my rooms, remarking: “The coldest rooms in Cambridge, sir.

(In colloquial terms)


It was Keene’s first impression of Britain, where autumn comes fast. It was September 1948.

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This series travels through the past century on the 100th anniversary of Donald Keene’s birth – also the centenary of The Mainichi – following the life of the late scholar, who contributed to the upliftment of Japanese culture and literature. in the world.

(This is part 14 in a series. The next “Donald Keene’s Japan” story will be published on September 27.)

(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 Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Over the course of half a century, Keene traveled back and forth between the United States and Japan and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while imparting their charms to the world in English. His major works include a multi-volume history of Japanese literature, “Travellers of a Century” and “The Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912”. In 2008, Keene received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. The researcher 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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