Donald Keene’s Japan (Pt. 15): University life marked by tradition in post-war Britain

Donald Keene is seen at Cambridge University in November 1948. Besides researching Japanese literature, he also took the first step towards teaching Japanese there. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO – After a brief tour of continental Europe, Donald Keene began a new life in Britain in the fall of 1948. He lived there for about five years while studying at Cambridge University.

The university, which is one of the oldest in the UK, provided an ideal environment for learning, but traditional customs were embedded in student dormitory life. The country itself has been impoverished by two world wars and has shown no trace of the great empire it once was. The windows inside the dorms didn’t close properly and there was little heat from the gas stoves. Keene recounted his college life in his autobiography, as seen below.


That first day I was given a small jug containing about an inch of milk, the daily ration, to use in my tea. Meals were served in the “hall”, the college refectory. It was a rather dark building, the walls decorated with portraits of men who hundreds of years ago had somehow benefited the college. Seated at long wooden tables, the students ate very quickly, wielding their knife and fork with both hands with a speed that dazzled an American.

This October 2, 1949 edition of the Mainichi reports the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, whose president was Communist leader Mao Zedong.

When they had finished the meal, they abruptly left their seats, stepping on the table as needed to get out. I noticed that they ate everything on their plates. I used to go away a bit, but when I realized that for young men who had grown up in times of war, food was too precious to waste, I started eating it all, a practice I I have kept to this day.

(Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan)


He also described the meals in more detail in another autobiography:

This June 26, 1950 edition of The Mainichi reports the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, after North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded Seoul, South Korea. On the Korean peninsula, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established in August 1948, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was established in September of the same year.


I also liked to eat in the “hall”, as the college dining room is called. The food was awful. The whale meat was, I think, the worst thing served, but there were other dishes almost as unpleasant in taste, all of which were on the menu with fancy French names.

There was extremely little variety. One week, as I noted at the time, out of twenty-one meals eaten in the lobby over the course of a week, fourteen had herring as the main ingredient. (Years later, when I was in Kyoto for the first time, I blanched when I was invited to eat nishin soba, soba noodles with herring.) But the hall itself was a building splendid, adorned with portraits of former masters of the college. I also liked to hear the grace recited each evening before meals in Latin by the members of the high table, the gifts of the quorum.

(In colloquial terms)


British cuisine has long had the reputation of being “bad”, compared to that of European countries such as France. Due to a cold climate and rather poor soil fertility, a diverse food culture may not have been able to develop there, as in France or Italy. It makes sense that Keene, who loved to eat and was a foodie, didn’t find the meals to his liking. Consumption of whale meat is indicative of rationing in Britain, which continued even after World War II. University life among students who wore traditional clothes and abided by the rules was similar to the world of the Harry Potter movies. Although these rigid practices must have seemed very constraining, it seems that they were memorable for a young Keene. While her life in Europe was filled with fond memories, there was also a small incident that happened during her first year there.

This photo from June 2017 shows Donald Keene visiting Cambridge University for the first time in 64 years. The college buildings where he engaged in research for five years remained as he remembered them. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)


The most exciting event of my first year in Europe did not take place in Cambridge. I was informed before Christmas that during the holidays I had to vacate my rooms so that applicants for scholarship competitions could use them. Just then, some Americans I had befriended on the transatlantic ship wrote to me from Rome, offering to spend Christmas with them. It seemed like an ideal arrangement. I had almost finished writing my doctoral thesis and there was no reason why I couldn’t type it up in Rome. I left for Italy with the manuscript and a typewriter.

After spending a day or two in Paris, I took the night train to Milan. The compartment was choking with tobacco smoke. When the train arrived in Milan, I asked a man in the compartment if he could mind my business while I took a breath of fresh air. He agreed and I walked up and down the platform for about ten minutes. When I returned to the compartment, there was no man, no suitcase, no typewriter.

Donald Keene is seen in Milan, Italy in April 2015, where he may have recalled the unpleasant episode that happened over half a century ago. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

I went to the police and reported in my poor Italian what had happened. They didn’t seem keen on looking for the thief, probably thinking that a stupid stranger who trusted a stranger deserved to lose their possessions. I never found my manuscript, the only copy. I spent a week in Rome, then I returned to Cambridge to resume writing the thesis.

I rewrote the thesis. A friend who had read the first draft said it was much improved. Of course, he may have said that to comfort me, but I think he was probably right. All in all, I should have thanked the Milan thief.

(Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan)

This August 18, 1949 edition of Mainichi reports the new world record set by Hironoshin Furuhashi for the 1,500 meter freestyle at the AAU Men’s National Swimming Championships held on August 16. war in Japan.


After this unfortunate event, Keene returned to Cambridge University in a bad mood, but was able to successfully complete his dissertation thanks to the generosity of an acquaintance who helped him get his hands on a typewriter. In the end, the final work was better than his stolen draft. Keene was indeed a person who lived by the belief that all’s well that ends well.

In June 2017, a classic Japanese puppet play titled “Echigo no Kuni Kashiwazaki Kochi Hoin Godenki” (The Life of High Priest Kochi of Kashiwazaki, Echigo Domain) was held in London. After the show, which was made possible through the cooperation of many people, Keene traveled to Cambridge University for the first time in 64 years. The sprawling campus, as well as the Corpus Christi College office where he used to spend long hours, remained as he remembered it.

It was as if he was in a world where time had stopped.

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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 15 in a series. The next “Donald Keene’s Japan” story will be published on October 11.)

(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, “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.

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