Donald Keene’s Japan (Pt. 11): Saying goodbye to Mount Fuji after a brief stay in the country
TOKYO – It was mid-December 1945. Donald Keene stopped in Tokyo en route to the United States, having left an occupation unit in China, where he had been assigned to serve as a language officer . During his week-long stay in Tokyo, Keene visited families of Japanese he encountered on the battlefield to inform them that their loved ones were alive. It’s a heartwarming episode that shows his generous character. He also had the chance to see Nikko, the only tourist destination he visited throughout the trip. In his account below, taken from one of his autobiographies, Keene describes the state of the eastern region of Japan shortly after the end of World War II.
The only visit I made during my week in Japan was a trip to Nikko. A phrase from the Japanese textbook, Nikko wo minai uchi wa, kekko to iu na (don’t say “wonderful” until you see Nikko), lingered in my memory, and I was glad to accept when several nisei from my old office in Honolulu invited me to accompany them to Nikko. We naturally went by jeep, the preferred means of transportation of the American military. I had traveled in this uncomfortable but sturdy vehicle through the tundra of the Aleutians and through the forests of the Philippines.
The road to Nikko was mostly deserted and there were hardly any road signs. We had to stop again and again to ask if we were going in the right direction, and people seemed happy to tell us. At that time, even the Japanese living in the country knew about jeeps, and as we passed through villages, children lining the road waved their hands and shouted greetings to us and the jeep, seemingly delighted that we had visited them.
Before leaving for Nikko, we had been invited to take rice with us for our evening meal. We gave the rice to the innkeeper, and that night a miracle happened. The white rice we gave her had turned into unpolished brown rice.
When I woke up the next morning, there was snow around my pillow. I walked to the Toshogu, the mausoleum of the Tokugawa shoguns. It was completely deserted under a light snowfall. A boy in a college uniform approached and offered to guide me, pointing out famous sites. “Before the war, an American offered a million dollars for Yomei Gate,” he noted, “but it was turned down. Now I guess the Americans will take it without having to pay.”
I’ve been back to Nikko twice, but the first visit was the only one that I found “wonderful”. I guess I’ve been touched by a more typical Japanese aesthetic, and Nikko’s lavish decorations no longer appeal to me. Or maybe Nikko was so beautiful in December 1945 because the garish colors of the sculptures were softened by the snow and there were no other tourists there.
(Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan)
Nikko Toshogu Shrine was one of Japan’s first treasure-class national cultural properties that was seen by Keene, who has spent his life conveying the charms of Japanese history and culture to the world through academic work. It sounds a lot like Keene when he remembers being impressed only on his first visit, and more so because of the tranquil snow scenery. It was like her that she no longer found Nikko’s “lavish decorations” enjoyable.
At his home in Tokyo, Keene had decorated various art objects collected from around the world, many of which are of a simple and understated nature. Shows of power and wealth were not to suit his taste. In a way, he may have been lucky that Nikko was placed in a monotonous setting at the time.
Keene also encountered some memorable dishes while in Tokyo.
During my week, I had seen very little of Japan. I hadn’t seen Kyoto, Nara, or even any of the famous Kamakura temples. The only view of Tokyo I remember noticing was General MacArthur’s headquarters across from Hibiya Park. I had not met a single Japanese scholar or, for that matter, visited a university. I hadn’t even asked if the museums were open or not. If I remember correctly, when I expressed my interest in seeing a performance of Kabuki, I was told it was off limits to US military personnel.
But during my wanderings in search of the families of my friends, I had repeatedly encountered a remarkable kindness. When I stopped at a house to ask directions, I would sometimes be invited in and offered tea with perhaps a segment of sweet potato as a substitute for the cake. I certainly didn’t want to deprive these people of food, so rare at the time, but it was hard to resist their hospitality. And I’ve always marveled that this kindness came after American planes destroyed not only military installations but also the little wooden houses where people totally unrelated to war had lived and died.
(In colloquial terms)
Keene also told me this sweet potato anecdote as a memory of his time in Japan shortly after the war. “More than anything, the sweet potatoes offered in ordinary homes in Japan were delicious. I remember the taste clearly, as well as the surrounding scenery,” he said. It’s funny that rather than the famous Nikko Toshogu Shrine landmark, sweet potatoes have lingered in his memory.
Before he knew it, it was Keene’s last day in Japan.
The next morning, before dawn, I was woken up and told that I had to board a boat for Kisarazu, on the other side of Tokyo Bay. As usual, after being led to the pier in the cold darkness, I was forced to wait interminably before the ship left.
Finally, the ship entered the still dark bay. I was standing on the deck looking for a sign of dawn when suddenly Mount Fuji loomed before me, pink in the light of the rising sun. It was an almost too perfect farewell to Japan. Due to the widespread destruction in Tokyo, almost nothing obstructed my view of the mountain. It looked impossibly large and as close as it appears in early 19th century city engravings. I watched the mountain as it gradually changed color, almost moved to tears by the sight. Someone told me that if you see Fuji just before leaving Japan, it means you will come back to Japan. I really wanted to believe it, and I thought maybe it was true. But it took almost eight years before I saw Japan again.
(In colloquial terms)
Keene’s description of Mount Fuji is reminiscent of artist Katsushika Hokusai’s famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period (1603-1867), such as “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” (Kanagawa oki nami ura) and “South Wind, Clear Sky” (Gaifu kaisei), which depicts a glowing view of the mountain. At this moment, he surely must have felt that he was inside Hokusai’s footprints, believing that he would one day return to that place where he belonged.
(This is part 11 of a series. The next “Donald Keene’s Japan” story will be published on August 16.)
(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: https://www.donaldkeene.org/
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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, “A Century Travelers” 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.